BBC faces fierce backlash after ‘co-opting’ HIV/AIDS ribbon for ‘insensitive’ COVID campaign

The BBC has been accused of co-opting the symbol of the HIV/AIDS ribbon

The BBC has been accused of co-opting the symbol of the HIV/AIDS ribbon, after an “insensitive” segment aired on World AIDS Day encouraged people to remember victims of COVID-19 by tying a red ribbon around a tree.

The regional news show BBC North West added insult to injury with its broadcast on Tuesday (1 December), which made no reference whatsoever to World AIDS Day while using the red ribbon, the most visible symbol of the AIDS crisis, for the ill-conceived campaign. The campaign was titled the “Tree of Lives”.

The news segment boasted that 10,000 red ribbons had been tied around a tree to raise “awareness” about the impact of COVID-19 – though it is unclear how many people would be unaware of a global pandemic in its ninth month, barring perhaps some remote civilisations who are unlikely to live in the BBC North West broadcast region.

BBC under fire for ‘hang a red ribbon for COVID’ campaign

In messages on Twitter, BBC North West said: “Thousands of people across our region have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Join us at BBC North West to remember those who have died, by tying a red ribbon to your Christmas tree or a tree in your garden.”

The BBC has been accused of co-opting the symbol of the HIV/AIDS ribbon

The BBC has been accused of co-opting the symbol of the HIV/AIDS ribbon

The move was called out by LGBT+ activists and leading HIV campaigners, who highlighted the hypocrisy of the moment given the broadcaster has long maintained a policy of not allowing presenters or guests to wear ribbons marking World AIDS Day itself.

Ian Green, CEO of Terrence Higgins Trust, responded: “The red ribbon is the international symbol of HIV awareness and that is why it’s inappropriate to use in relation to those lost to a different virus.

“However, what is most inappropriate and upsetting for people living with HIV and our allies, is the timing with the release of this film on World AIDS Day. The very day where we join together – this year virtually – to remember the people we’ve lost to the HIV epidemic and show solidarity with those globally living with the virus.

“After a really productive, emotional day, I was left shocked and saddened by it. I hope the BBC in the North West reconsiders this move and at the very least apologises for its timing.”

Deborah Gold of National AIDS Trust said: “This is incredibly insensitive and disappointing. Bad enough to appropriate the international symbol of solidarity for people living with HIV but to do so on World AIDS Day beggars belief. At the same time the BBC won’t allow presenters to wear a red ribbon? A huge misstep.”

Responding to initial criticism, BBC North West defended its decision to launch a red ribbon campaign for an unrelated cause to World AIDS Day, because the ribbons are “differently” tied.

A tweet said: “We did consider what colour ribbon to use very carefully – most colours are associated with a cause which is why this is tied differently.”

‘We understand why some people found it offensive’

The broadcaster has since erased all mention of the TV segment from its Twitter account, but has only apologised for the tweet.

It said: “We have deleted a tweet about our project to pay tribute to COVID victims. Given we have used red ribbons as part of it, we understand why some people found it insensitive on World AIDS Day. We’re sorry.

“We have been working closely with those who have lost loved ones to COVID and this initiative is to remember those who have died during the pandemic.”

A BBC spokesperson added: “We apologise for the upset caused by the launch of this project. The timing on World Aids Day was wrong.

“We are working closely with families in the north west who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and it was never our intention to cause offence.”

Ironically, new BBC director-general Tim Davie recently issued guidelines banning “virtue signalling” for staff.

The guidance warned staff against expressing a view on any policy that is a matter of current political debate, or publicly supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial”.

The attempt to co-opt the red ribbon comes after months of discomfort for some in the LGBT+ community at seeing the rainbow adopted as a symbol of healthcare workers during the crisis.