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Artillery Row

The BBC should remember what it’s for

A public broadcaster should exist for truthful journalism, not fashionable pieties

I wonder if I might ask you a question — a question which until fairly recently would have proved incredibly easy to answer but which now is so imbued with ideological peril, on both sides that your answer carries the risk of you being locked into a thought silo, shunned by your friends, sanctioned by your employer or removed as a volunteer from a charity you’ve faithfully served for 65 years. The question is — what is a man?

Interestingly during the 2019 general election that question was being asked of prospective Labour parliamentary candidates who knocked on doors seeking voter endorsement — only to be met with a question which had seen the party reps struggling to find an answer in interviews. Although of course the question then was — what is a woman?

Depending on where you look for the answer, sex — the legacy determinant for an answer to both questions above, which relies not unreasonably on observable biological characteristics rather than inherent, invisible feelings — is deemed offensive and reductive, or on the other side of the opinion wall, vital and immutable.

We learned in recent days that Justin Webb has fallen foul of the BBC’s impartiality rules, which exist to protect the old-fashioned notion that the views of all its audiences, (illegality aside) matter equally.

In a discussion in August 2023 about chess and the new guidelines on biological male and female players and whether being biologically male can give players an advantage, Webb  talking about trans women said “Trans women, in other words males”.

A listener complained that this phrase constituted Webb giving his personal opinion and that this was a breach of BBC impartiality.

The BBC executive complaints unit, who are the first point of call for complaints to the broadcaster, about the broadcaster, ruled that it was a breach of impartiality by giving his personal opinion.

Despite detailing that they weren’t in a position to determine Justin Webb’s personal opinion on the issue (a fairly crucial aspect of any ruling deciding a breach on the grounds of personal opinion) it wasn’t necessary to judge whether he had breached impartiality rules.

So, to be clear: despite the BBC not being sure that Webb had done the thing they were ruling on him doing, they were ruling that the thing they weren’t able to decide he had actually done, wasn’t an issue as, in their opinion, Webb had in fact breached the impartiality rule; by not necessarily doing the thing, that they weren’t able to decide that he’d done, anyway.

I’m glad they cleared that up.

I have another question to ask this time for the BBC: Are you ok hon?

Earlier in the year, the BBC had found itself once again mired in one of the most toxic issues of the day when it had to apologise twice in less than a month — to the writer JK Rowling for accusations left unchallenged on both BBC Radio Scotland and the R4 PM programme, for contributor comments that she was transphobic for expressing her feminist views about women’s rights, safety, safeguarding and  single sex spaces.

It was a discussion about a video game Hogwarts Legacy which had sold millions in the first two weeks of release. The writer, who had created the world in which the game was based, was not involved directly in the game but that didn’t prevent a guest on BBC Radio Scotland, transgender gamer Carrie Marshall, to state, without a challenge from the presenter, that the game was being used to “fund the anti-trans movement”.

The BBC apologised that it had failed to challenge the guest, question the claims delivered as fact and that as a broadcaster it had fallen below their “own rigorous editorial standards.”

Another apology followed, after another discussion about Hogwarts Legacy this time on BBC R4 PM. Transgender gamer Stacey Henley described JK Rowling as having “nasty views”, pushing “transphobia” and being active in campaigning “against trans people”. Again, the apology from the BBC detailed that there hadn’t been sufficient challenge to Henley’s views.

Since Brexit and Trump, the UK has witnessed the degradation of political discourse. The media, as Emily Maitlis detailed in her 2022 McTaggart Lecture entitled “The boiling frog — why we have to stop normalising the absurd”, has to catch up to the fact that politics has changed. There is, she said, a sacred duty to report impartially and truthfully in order to preserve a fair and balanced media. I agree with her. The BBC as it stands is facing an existential funding crisis, which has seen, amongst other things the decimation — which I’m sure they’d call a refresh or streamlining — of local radio due to funding issues and is now in a battle with itself over impartiality.

Ultimately the BBC seems to be having a prolonged midlife crisis.

Desperately seeking a young fresh audience by slapping on the “black leather trousers & Just for Men hair tint” of a schedule stuffed to bursting with onscreen “coming of age dramas with young women” “coming of age comedies with young women,” or BBC Sounds perma-loop of “coming of age podcasts with young women” alongside the usual middle aged men talking to other middle aged men about sport, or politics, or, well — whatever else they want.

Ironically, the droolingly pursued “young people demographic” aren’t in the least bit interested.

No matter how much young stuff you offer up like the coverage of the upcoming Brit Awards on BBC R4 at 8.25am on a Saturday morning (I’m listening to it right now) young people aren’t listening and the demographic who are listening are turning down the volume and hoping that this 5 minute segment on a 25 year old female musician who they’ve never heard of but wish only the best for isn’t going to carry on for too much longer.

The problem with desperately chasing a disinterested demographic is that it just thinks “Eww….no thanks grandad, you perv”. Utterly neglecting the core Radio 4 audience, despite the Charter requirement to represent them, is why I think Justin Webb was in trouble.

What the BBC have to understand is that whilst they are devoted to the youth, the whole youth and nothing but the youth, seasoned journalists who are trained in a culture of facts and transparency, accuracy and balance know the job is to explain the news. That’s what journalists do. When you talk about trans women in the context of sport there is a need, in some cases, to also explain how sex specific categories are determined — and how, in the case of contact sports, or sports otherwise dependent on speed, strength and height, how categorising by sex makes all the difference in the world to the result.

Now, I don’t expect this view to necessarily be one which the achingly hip Londoncentric BBC executive complaints unit will understand — mainly because I’ve seen Trans Media Watch photos of their earnest meetings about the need for far greater understanding of trans people’s concerns.

What I also know is that when I began campaigning to highlight and challenge the rising tide of ageism, especially against women, in 2018 — and the need for better representation of middle aged and older people on BBC channels — I was told by the same execs that the BBC Executive Complaints Unit saw no need to meet with me at all.

“None taken” my dude.

The treatment of Justin Webb by his employer is wrong as well as bafflingly obfuscatory. The BBC needs to remember that as soon as they start to believe that one view alone will serve to shape and frame its policies and procedures on nuanced and complex issues like biological sex and gender identity, they’re taking a step down a path which public service broadcasters need to avoid.

… it’s on this news — clear, accurate and transparent — that the public, of whatever age, relies

“Do not normalise this moment,” Emily Maitlis was told by (former) BBC Editor Ian Katz when Trump was elected. Certainly, we shouldn’t normalise anything that tells us facts — however inconvenient to prevailing narratives — are wrong.

Trust in news, especially from a public service broadcaster and explained to audiences by experienced and trusted public service broadcasters, is vital not optional. Because it’s on this news — clear, accurate and transparent — that the public, of whatever age, relies.

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