Belfast Telegraph

Monday 30 May 2016

Andy West on Tyson Fury row: I'm sorry about SPOTY furore... but I certainly do not regret standing up to a bigot who has likened gay men to paedophiles

Andy West, the journalist who left his job after criticising the BBC over Tyson Fury, on storm which overshadowed SPOTY

By Laurence White

Published 06/02/2016

Andy West stands outside the BBC’s Northern Ireland headquarters in Belfast yesterday
Andy West stands outside the BBC’s Northern Ireland headquarters in Belfast yesterday
Andy West working on BBC Newsline
Andy West with his partner Ed
Tyson Fury at the SPOTY awards in the city last year

Andy West, the BBC Northern Ireland journalist who has left the organisation in the wake of the storm caused by his comments on the inclusion of boxer Tyson Fury in the Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) shortlist, says he does not regret his stance.

In his first full interview on the controversy, the 33-year-old says: "Do I regret telling the truth? Do I regret saying what I believe and standing by my principles? Do I regret speaking out against someone who says by implication that I am akin to a paedophile or that my mother's or sister's place is in the kitchen on their backs? How could I regret that?"

The gay journalist, who met his boyfriend Ed shortly after he came to Northern Ireland two-and-a-half years ago, adds: "But I do regret bringing what happened (the media firestorm) into BBC NI and specifically BBC Newsline. I regret feeling that I let my editors and colleagues down. I don't know if that is how they feel or not, but I worry that it is.

"They supported and encouraged me during my time here and gave me great opportunities, and I will always be grateful for that."

However, he feels that the BBC made a mistake - albeit, as he calls it, "an innocent mistake" - in putting Tyson Fury on the SPOTY shortlist after the boxer was accused of making homophobic and sexist remarks.

"I can only assume the BBC felt unable to backtrack from that decision.

"However, I feel the BBC has a responsibility to think of the potential damage it might have done to its reputation as a balanced, fair and caring broadcaster by taking that decision," he says.

Given that he was suspended by the BBC after going public with his opposition to Fury's inclusion and has now left the organisation, he appears to bear little rancour towards his former employers.

"It is for people to decide if it was right to suspend me. I don't say the BBC was wrong. I broke the rules and if the organisation is going to follow its own protocols then it did what I would have expected it to do.

"Whether that is good for the BBC's image is another thing. As a huge employer and also a publicly-funded broadcaster, it constantly has to negotiate treacherous waters in working out how to handle a situation where someone has done something it sees as wrong but which has huge public support.

"Yet I cannot be angry with the BBC for suspending me and I am not angry with it having parted company with it.

"I am very, very sad that my employer, which I had so much respect for, put me in a position where I had to stand up for something and risk my career," he says.

The journalist, who was brought up in Milton Keynes and worked in commercial radio before joining the BBC in London, says he received huge support from the public - and privately from colleagues in the Corporation throughout the UK - for his stance.

"It was a very lonely 'I'm Spartacus' moment when I stood up and said what a huge number of people - both inside and outside the BBC - were saying. People in the BBC told me privately they sympathised with what I was saying, but would not say it publicly."

He points out that Alice Arnold, the wife of SPOTY presenter, Clare Balding, hit out at Fury's inclusion on the shortlist for the award, but the presenter said nothing: "You have to ask yourself is that because Clare Balding is a little bit wiser than me. She is obviously a much more powerful figure in the BBC than I am and probably would have got away with it."

Surprisingly perhaps, Andy can see himself working for the BBC again. He points out that it is a huge organisation and that he had an extensive career in it before relocating to Northern Ireland.

He worked on Radio One interviewing the late singer Amy Winehouse when she first came out of rehab, and Hollywood star Tom Hanks. He also believes he was the first, maybe only, radio journalist to interview serving MI6 agents at their Vauxhall Cross headquarters in London.

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He also worked on Radio 5 - where he first met Stephen Nolan - Radio Four and Radio Two.

He was pointed in the direction of Northern Ireland by presenter Jeremy Vine who had cut his own broadcasting teeth here. "It was a training ground for many journalists who went on to become national stars in their field," Andy recalls.

He admits that his image of the province was gleaned simply from old newsreels dating from the 1980s. "These were all about fighting, soldiers on the ground, people looking miserable and bonfires. I expected everyone to look like Gerry Adams. Ridiculously that was the kind of expectation I brought with me."

Instead, he found a place where he was warmly welcomed and which has a lot to offer. "Sadly that is a side of Northern Ireland that people in England, particularly in London and the south, know little or nothing of," he says.

"There is a feeling that Northern Ireland is somehow more distant and less relevant than other parts of the UK. I have noticed since working in Northern Ireland that stories from here which would be high up the national news agenda if they happened in Glasgow or Cardiff rarely get a mention across the water. They have to be three times bigger to feature and probably have to be Troubles-related.

"I see that as a point of frustration and sadness because it is a real shame. People in the rest of the UK have no idea about Northern Ireland. They don't know the beauty of the Mourne Mountains or the North Coast, what Belfast is like, who our politicians are or what is happening here. There is a real ignorance about the province.

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"Northern Ireland does a lot to build up its image in far flung places, yet there is a huge number of people just a £20 flight away who would be fascinated by everything that Belfast and Northern Ireland has to offer but who would never think of coming here because they don't know anything about it.

"I remember six friends of mine who came over to Belfast and four of them brought euros with them. That demonstrates my point.

"The problem is that Northern Ireland does not have an easily identifiable brand apart from the legacy of the Troubles."

One thing that struck him forcibly within weeks of his arrival in the province was the attitude of gay people here.

"I was about 10 or 11 when I started having feelings which I thought I should not be having. It was very frightening at the time. I didn't come to terms with them until much later. I remember I was 16 when I looked in the mirror one day and said for the first time, 'You are gay'.

"It was two years later when I was at university that I admitted I was gay to friends and family. I had had girlfriends in an attempt to convince myself that I was straight. Many people think gay people who have not come out are just pretending, but often it is more of a case of trying to convince themselves of their true sexuality.

"I believe there are a lot of people in Northern Ireland doing that. It even happens in the BBC. Some people's lives seem shrouded in mystery - are they gay or not? No one seems to know.

"That was something I had not encountered before. I have never had a negative reaction to being gay. My boyfriend is a Catholic and his family are quite happy with our relationship. At work people seemed willing to accept that I was open about my sexuality. Indeed, within a month or two of arriving here, I was on the front cover of Gay NI magazine. I suppose some people might have been surprised that I was so open about it.

"The attitude in London is quite different in that no one really comments on it. Here, if you open a gay dating app there will be no photographs visible, yet do the same in London and you can see the people looking to hook up."

He detects a significant anti-gay undercurrent in some sections of society here.

"Sometimes it feels that gay people are the last minority group which you are allowed to bash verbally and publicly. People seem able to go on the radio and say things about gay people that they would not be allowed to say about ethnic minorities for example. That, to an extent, built up a sense of frustration in me."

Andy, who plans to move to London within a couple of weeks along with Ed who has a job there, admits that as the media storm over his comments built up, he frequently felt in a very lonely place.

"It has been frightening at times wondering what is coming next and what am I going to do now.

"Emotionally it was quite exhausting. Being on the front page of newspapers looking like I was having a nervous breakdown was strange. It was unsettling because I did not have control over where everything was going and I felt that I was cast adrift.

"But I did have the support of my family, friends and boyfriend and I am a strong guy. I was doing something for the right reasons.

"However, there were points where I sat on the sofa with my head in my hands thinking what will I do and thinking over and over again was I an idiot to do what I had done.

"But I look at my award from the BBC for Best Newcomer 2015/2016 and think that I did good work on reporting on the homeless in Belfast (he spent a week on the streets) which showed my tenacity and talent as a journalist. I have never doubted that fundamentally I did what I had to do."

As he weighs up job offers he says he has received from television, radio and online broadcasters, he continues to write and illustrate bespoke children's books - each one is written to order for individual children at around £100 a time.

He is also writing an adult novel.

What he is not prepared to discuss is the exact circumstances under which he has left BBC NI, merely saying that he decided to leave on January 20. In future he hopes to be reading the news, rather than making it.

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