There’s nothing as coarse as an official blacklist at the BBC. Our national broadcaster doesn’t ban people, it doesn’t forbid words or phrases, and it doesn’t proscribe certain stories.
It’s just that some words and phrases are never used, some stories never see the light of day — and some people never, ever get the call. This is true for domestic coverage at least, which is what I know about.
This struck me when the BBC on a single day interviewed not one, but three men whose behaviour has ranged from dubious to deplorable — Philip Schofield, TikTok star Mizzy and the misogynist Andrew Tate. The activities and views of these men didn’t prevent them from getting the opportunity to explain and defend themselves. I’m soured only by the contrast with which the BBC treats feminists.
One of them is Helen Joyce, former staff journalist at the Economist, including as International, Finance and Britain Editor, author of the book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality and the Director of Advocacy at the campaigning organisation Sex Matters. She used to appear on the BBC fairly routinely, as a guest on the papers review, and commentator on economic issues and UK politics.
Then she became interested in the feminist approach to sex and gender, took a sabbatical from the Economist, wrote Trans and has never been on BBC radio or TV since. When her book was published and widely reviewed, the BBC was forced to deny it had snubbed her by not featuring it on Woman’s Hour, with the possibly childish response that lots of people want to be on the BBC but not everyone makes it.
Helen has an impeccable domestic and international journalistic pedigree, along with onscreen experience with the BBC and other outlets. Despite being a woman of intelligence, expertise and campaigning experience on one of the most convulsive issues today, she has never been featured, quoted, interviewed or asked to comment by the BBC in any of its news or live programme coverage of sex and gender.
Journalists making the pitches get worn down
Helen is on paper a “perfect” BBC guest commentator. She’s articulate, she knows her stuff, she’s readily available, she’s engaging to hear and she’s involved with an organisation that produces in-depth resources for institutions (including the media). She’s a very long way from far right, and she knows how not to be over-combative, how to back up her comments and when to stop talking. On Question Time, she’d be a dream — but she never gets the call.
How does this happen? No, there’s no blacklist. There are unspoken mores, born in a miasma of fear, confusion and occasional activism, that seem to function as a brake on allowing a certain kind of convincing gender critical feminist to have much of a platform at the BBC.
Very occasionally, this is voiced outright. Once an editor openly said that Transgender Trend’s Stephanie Davies-Arai wouldn’t be welcome on air because “some people think she’s anti-trans”. That kind of admission is exceptionally rare, though. The unofficial “no, not ever” for subjects and guests is usually established through a range of delaying tactics, failures to act and after-the-fact excuses.
They will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to work with an unpopular story. “We’ll discuss it in the two o’clock” — “we’ll find time this afternoon” — “we ran out of time” — “we’re just calling someone else first” — “can you pick this up with me in an hour” — “I’ll check we don’t have someone lined up” — “we’re rethinking the item” — “it’s become a bit busy” — all the way to agreeing to make the call, then simply not doing it.
These are the journalistic equivalent of “We must do lunch some time!” You know that lunch is never happening.
The reasons are all very plausible. Of course things get held up or overtaken by other news. On sex and gender at the BBC, however, these responses occur with a frequency and consistency that isn’t accidental. It’s attritional. In the end, those journalists making the suggestions and the pitches get worn down. They know that if they make them too many times, in the face of repeated rejection — even though they’re perfectly reasonable pitches — they risk being made to look like activists.
One producer told me that on one occasion, insisting on booking Helen Joyce would have “nixed a whole item” on gender, which was hard enough to get commissioned in the first place.
Also on the “unofficial” list, I’m told — those whose names prompt a sucking in of teeth and a referral elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere away from a nervous programme editor — are Sue Evans, Tavistock whistleblower; Suzanne Moore, formerly of the Guardian now the Telegraph and Maya Forstater, who only occasionally scrapes in.
Helen Joyce says the interest in her dried up instantly after an interview on Woman’s Hour in 2020, before her book was published, when she said what she describes as “all the sorts of things you aren’t allowed to say on the BBC” about biological sex. She understands that higher representations have been made internally, in an attempt to end the blackout, but to no avail. The Woman’s Hour Twitter account has at times been inundated with requests to bid Helen on the issue of women’s sex-based rights. People want to hear about it, and they want to hear from Helen. The call never comes.
Whole stories around sex and gender have been squashed and avoided
It’s not a question of resources. The resources were there, for example, when the trans activist academic Grace Lavery was interviewed on Woman’s Hour after he pulled out of a public debate with Helen. It’s a question of picking up the phone.
This is a brief glimpse into how, in my experience, undesirable commentators and whole stories around sex and gender have been squashed and avoided. An official blacklisting would gain attention and outrage; it would fly in the face of all the BBC’s higher aims. Instead this vague but perpetual resistance goes under the radar. As a now outsider, I found uncomfortably stark the fact that Helen Joyce is subject to this quiet, unexplained rejection as I watched the BBC interview Tate, Schofield and Mizzy.
Tate in particular is a noxious individual of undisguised misogyny. Nothing in his disgusting catalogue of comments about rape, violence, prostitution and the exploitation of women are enough to make the BBC turn away from talking to him. Indeed, there’s a sound argument to be made in favour of challenging him publicly. The same goes for interviewing Schofield — Amol Rajan explains here the BBC position that it wanted to get to the truth through scrutiny.
If you’re going to base your arguments in favour of platforming them on the principle of hearing and challenging all sides, however controversial, then you must apply that with rigour across the board. You ought not excuse yourself on grounds of offence when it comes to sex and gender.
That would require a consistency and coordination of approach much higher up the BBC’s editorial hierarchy. It doesn’t rest with the correspondents who secure the interviews, or the people who sub and output them. The BBC now has a central commissioning system, which should make it much easier for editors with the most senior oversight to police balance and impartiality, not only with stories, but with guest voices, too.
Lifting an unofficial embargo should be straightforward enough, but it’s complicated by a decade of gender affirmation embedded in the BBC’s editorial stance. Apprehensive journalists looking for certainty know that the BBC’s News Style Guide has been planted firmly in self identification since 2013. Yes, it contradicts the principles of its Editorial Policy, but staff always have the Style Guide to back them up when there are queries or complaints. It positions self-ID as the “neutral” stance and puts any guest who challenges it in the “difficult” box.
The unsurprising outcome is that the distinct absence of this high-profile voice now garners more attention than if Helen were actually asked to contribute every now and then, in the normal course of production, when the BBC covers sex and gender. The fact that Tate, Schofield and Mizzy are now more acceptable to the BBC than mild-mannered feminists tells its own story.
The BBC was asked to comment for this article and replied: “There is no “blacklist”, a range of views are regularly heard across BBC outlets.”
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