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BBC tells news staff to ask permission before attending LGBT+ events or face the sack

BBC tells news staff to ask permission before attending LGBT+ events or face the sack

  • Even ‘uncontroversial’ campaigns are a problem – particularly involving ‘the trans issue’.
Tim Davie.

The BBC has warned some of its staff not to attend LGBT+ Pride or Black Lives Matter events, for fear they are ‘political’.

The new impartiality rules apparently apply to those BBC staff who are supposed to remain ‘politically neutral’. This typically means news and current affairs staff.

Moreover, while the rules are far from clear, the focus appears to be on trans rights in particular. BBC leaders indicated they thought trans equality was controversial, insiders say.

But leading LGBT+ campaigners have attacked the policy after i News broke the story yesterday.

Early rumors on social media indicated the ban may apply to all LGBT+ Prides and other events as well as Black Lives Matter protests.

However, the BBC tried to distinguish between Prides that are celebratory and those which are political or protests. In practice, this distinction may be impossible to make as all Prides contain elements of celebration, protest and political messages, virtually by definition.

The BBC also clarified it was not a blanket ban but that staff should seek permission before attending potentially ‘controversial’ events.

Despite this, the BBC itself recognizes the ban may be wider than this.

The rules, from new director general Tim Davie, say staff should hold back from supporting campaigns ‘no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial’.

In addition, the guidelines state that ‘judgment is required as to what issues are “controversial” with regard to marches or demonstrations, though it should be assumed that most marches are contentious to some degree or other’.

‘Virtue signalling’

Davie, who became director general – the BBC’s CEO – on 1 September, also caused further offense with the new rules.

He told staff they must avoid ‘virtue signalling’ in their actions – a phrase the alt-right often uses to dismiss their opponents’ views.

Reports indicate that Fran Unsworth, director of BBC News, rowed back from that in an internal call to staff yesterday (29 October). She apologized for the use of the phrase ‘virtue signalling’.

But the real focus appears to be on trans rights.

Trans campaigners have already complained the BBC is institutionally transphobic. In particular they claim transphobes hold influence in the newsroom, so anti-trans opinions feature more prominently. The broadcaster denies that and claims it acts with ‘rigorous impartiality’. 

Staff claim they have been told that attending events that address the ‘trans issue’ may breach that impartiality.

As the story has developed, the BBC has been quick to emphasize the rules are umbrella guidance.

However, while it is true the policy doesn’t ban specific events or causes, the broadcaster does admit managers may have given LGBT+ and Black Lives Matter events as examples when they explained the rules.

This is only likely to get more complicated as staff seek guidance on whether they may attend or not, and local managers and others try to interpret the rules.

GSN understands that the BBC will continue to discuss the new rules internally to decide how to interpret them. Given how vague the rules are, this could lead to either a very tight or very permissive policy.

Pride and profit

Nevertheless this has the potential to anger LGBT+ people.

As the Guardian stated, BBC Northern Ireland stopped its employees from taking part in Belfast Pride this year, after politicians complained the event was demanding marriage equality.

By contrast, the BBC used Manchester Pride to promote RuPaul’s Drag Race with a float in the parade.

This could prove problematic for the broadcaster in the future. Many in the LGBT+ community oppose companies and organizations using Prides for commercial promotion without supporting equality – both at Pride and year-round.

Likewise, the BBC may end up in a battle with some of its leading broadcasters. 

Evan Davis, who hosts Radio 4’s PM programme and Dragon’s Den, is a long time supporter of National Student Pride. Meanwhile BBC News anchor Jane Hill frequently attends LGBT+ events – notably the British LGBT Awards.

The fact that much of the guidance will come from local managers may mean some LGBT+ staff disadvantaged while others are allowed to attend similar events. Freedom of speech and expression could, therefore, become a postcode lottery for staff.

Moreover, BBC insiders recognize the announcement will do little to reassure trans people already worried it is transphobic.

And the fact that Davie – himself a former Conservative party local chairman in west London – had advanced this policy at the start of his time as director general may be a sign the BBC is swinging to the right.

No blanket ban

Meanwhile the BBC admits some staff could face disciplinary action if they breach the rules. But it says there is no blanket ban in place.

A spokesperson told GSN: ‘As the guidance sets out, if there is any doubt then staff should seek advice before attending.’

UPDATE: After GSN published its report, we received a copy of a note Davie sent to senior BBC staff this morning.

In it, he says: There is one specific issue where I want to make sure that there is no room for misinterpretation, following inaccurate commentary and some feedback from staff – which is the ability to participate in Pride parades. There is no ban on attending Pride parades.

The guidance that we published yesterday made it very clear that staff outside of news and current affairs and factual journalism may attend marches, demonstrations and protests as private individuals.

There are different considerations for staff who work in news and current affairs and factual journalism (and senior leaders) but I want to be clear that there is no issue for these staff attending community events that are clearly celebratory or commemorative and do not compromise perceptions of their impartiality.

If news and current affairs staff are participating in such events they must be mindful of ensuring that they do not get involved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial.

There is no ban on these staff attending Pride events. Attending Pride parades is possible within the guidelines, but due care needs to be given to the guidance and staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.

Protecting the BBC’s impartiality is core to everything we do. We must ensure that we avoid doing anything that endangers audience perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality and to protect the ability of staff in news and current affairs to report fairly and impartially.’