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Stonewall’s agenda is still embedded in the Corporation’s culture

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Last November, the BBC decided to “do better”. It dumped Stonewall, bringing to an end a close relationship that had helped to shape the national broadcaster’s output. That relationship had led to the BBC joining Stonewall’s contentious Workplace Equality Index, with the charity advising the corporation how to gain points to rise up the index, for example, by using gender-neutral language in the workplace, and asking staff to adopt personal pronouns in their communications with each other. 

The charity was even mentioned in the BBC’s LGBT Culture and Progression Report in 2018, which — predictably — recommended that the BBC work harder to ensure it made it into the top 100 of the Workplace Equality Index.

The parting of ways between the BBC and Stonewall came after both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Equality and Human Rights Commission had cut ties with the activist charity. In taking the decision, the BBC’s Director-General, Tim Davie, withstood the appeals of the BBC Pride network — the staff association which says it represents hundreds of LGBT staff at the Corporation.

Publicly criticising colleagues would get you sacked in most organisations — but not the BBC

One member of staff who tried to suggest at a senior editorial meeting that the BBC would regret the decision was publicly slapped down. And although Davie went out of his way to assure gay, lesbian and trans staff that they would still be “safe” at work without Stonewall’s institutional guidance, and acknowledged that “it is a serious issue if the BBC is perceived as transphobic”, it was left to the outgoing Director of News and Current Affairs, Fran Unsworth, to remind journalists that in their line of work, they should expect to deal with stories and themes that they might personally disagree with or find distasteful.

I took part in the staff call where Unsworth felt she had to state this obvious job requirement, and I’ve also witnessed the contortions and disagreements over the use of language, choice of stories and treatment of opposing sides in the “trans debate” that finally led to Davie losing patience with Stonewall’s advocates in the Corporation.

Perhaps the most contentious of these was former LGBT correspondent, Ben Hunte. His report on the initial puberty blockers court case involving Keira Bell, where the High Court ruled that those under 16 years of age could not give consent to receive puberty blockers — later overturned on appeal — had to be extensively rewritten because he’d broken guidelines on the reporting of suicide; it resulted in an apology by the Editorial Complaints Unit. 

Elsewhere, one senior manager confidently told a meeting that biological sex was “contested” (by whom?), though he failed to elaborate on whether he thought it simply didn’t exist, or that its meaning was up for debate — either explanation would have been jaw-dropping. 

Staff who have attempted to introduce some balance to the reporting of sex and gender issues have been subjected to direct attacks from some colleagues, often on social media. Several members of the youth-orientated Newsbeat service took to Twitter to sarcastically ridicule both the exceptional Stephen Nolan podcast on Stonewall, and a hard-hitting report on the alleged sexual abuse of lesbians by some transwomen. 

Publicly criticising colleagues would get you sacked in most organisations — but not the BBC. The tone and nature of the arguments became so bad on the BBC Pride Facebook page, that the staff network was eventually forced to ban comments outright. Although theoretically only staff could see and post messages there, some non-staff members, including the actor David Paisley, were able to post messages criticising BBC output if they considered that it did not toe the Stonewall line. 

Paisley, who appeared in Holby City, supports efforts to brand Stonewall’s rival, the LGB Alliance, as a hate group and have it stripped of charitable status because its promotion of lesbians, bisexuals and gay men rather than the trans community. 

With the Corporation having ended its relationship with Stonewall and BBC Pride now under new management, it might be imagined that the broadcaster is charting a new course. Yet, all the signs are that Stonewall’s outlook is embedded at the BBC, even though the formal link is severed. Those at the top are too complacent to see the next danger approaching. 

Some of this can be seen in the output. Overall, there is more balance in the coverage of gender issues. However, despite refusing to promote the Nolan investigation into Stonewall, the BBC Sounds social media team are still advertising My Non-Binary Life podcast (recorded in 2019) in which Stonewall-inspired thinking is promoted with no counterbalance. Worryingly, as this is clearly aimed at gender-questioning young people, the crass treatment of a double-mastectomy as a “Carry On” style joke (Ep.1) should have set alarm bells ringing. 

Tim Davie has been clear with staff that the Corporation’s impartiality takes precedence over its relationship with external organisations. Why then, has he now invited a similar organisation to Stonewall, INvolve, into Broadcasting House to provide diversity advice? 

INvolve’s CEO, Suki Sandhu, says he is “proud to be a Stonewall Ambassador”, a role described by Stonewall as “a group of our closest supporters, giving £1,800 a year or more”. 

Sandhu set up INvolve in 2013 to help firms “drive cultural change and create inclusive workplaces where any individual can succeed”. Like Stonewall, INvolve runs a workplace accreditation scheme, called OUTstanding. 

Clues as to what is in that scheme can be found on the organisation’s website, and particularly, a blog post which recounts a panel session held in Dublin for members in early 2019. During the event, the panel suggested that staff in organisations who are signed up to OUTstanding should wear rainbow lanyards, ask for “gender inclusive” signage in toilets (so both sexes can use either facility), and even get involved in politics — at that point in time, by signing a letter to the Irish government calling for legal changes to allow same-sex marriage. 

All of these suggestions would win points in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, though they would all be highly unsuitable for the BBC. In particular, any move similar to the Irish example, encouraging journalists in a work environment to sign open political letters, would be disastrous for the Corporation.

Who will hold INvolve accountable for the advice it gives to staff? One of the main reasons that Stonewall managed to successfully ingratiate itself into the BBC’s organisational culture was that many believed its claims to be expert. None are more guilty of this than the Corporation’s Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) team, who fought to keep the BBC in Stonewall’s pocket, and who are notorious for sidelining opposing views and criticism.

It’s the BBC’s D&I team who were responsible for the “Language Review” conducted for BBC News two years ago. It ensured that homosexuality was incorrectly defined as “same-gender” (as distinct from “same-sex”) attraction — the same definition that Stonewall uses to make being gay trans inclusive.

Tim Davie should keep an eye on INvolve’s influence

One BBC old hand has seen submissions to the “gender identity” survey (which formed part of the Review) dominated by gender critical viewpoints — but the Review’s results have never been publicly disclosed. The Language Review informs the BBC’s style guide, but many journalists have been left aghast at the implications of the guide’s insistence that they use the pronouns and descriptors that a trans person wants or demands. What might appear to be a kind way of avoiding hurt feelings has resulted in male-bodied paedophiles being described in BBC output as “she”. Much of Fleet Street now follows the same logic.

Indeed, the BBC is far from alone in having dismantled much of its professional standards in order to accommodate gender ideology. Some other pillars of the establishment have followed suit. 

As Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv in late February, the head of MI6, Richard Moore, decided that the spectre of Europe at war was the perfect excuse to plug his spooks’ involvement in LGBT History Month. At a time when a new Cold War threatens, I fear Putin’s security service have taken careful note of what their western counterparts consider important.

There is hope, though. Stonewall’s fall from grace was partly brought about when its CEO, Nancy Kelley, gave an infamous BBC interview in which she put people who hold “gender-critical beliefs” (in other words, those who accept the science of biological sex) on a par with anti-Semites. It’s to the BBC’s credit that it ran and defended that interview, as well as the revelatory podcasts on Stonewall’s influence by the BBC Radio 5 Live reporter, Stephen Nolan, despite pressure from senior managers. 

Will the Corporation go further, and enable an open and free discussion amongst staff about how to fairly reflect these contentious issues? That can only happen if the BBC’s diversity doyens are made to listen to a range of views and experiences, particularly those of women.

If Tim Davie really wants to avoid repeating the BBC’s mistaken embrace of Stonewall, and prove to licence payers that impartiality will be observed on contentious issues, he should keep an eye on INvolve’s influence. Requiring even more courage, he needs to carry out a root and branch reform of the Corporation’s Diversity & Inclusion team.

The author is a journalist with decade’s experience at the BBC

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