Belfast Telegraph

BBC NI director apologises to staff over Belfast Pride confusion

BBC NI director Peter Johnston has apologised to staff over how their participation in the parade has been handled.

BBC Northern Ireland director Peter Johnston
BBC Northern Ireland director Peter Johnston
Participants during last year’s Pride parade in Belfast city centre
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

The director of BBC Northern Ireland has apologised to staff for the confusion around their participation in Belfast's Pride parade.

Peter Johnston said he was concerned by internal communication sent while he was on annual leave that he said was "imprecise and inaccurate and gave the wrong impression".

On July 24 it was announced that for the first time members of staff were set to join this weekend's event, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with its name.

A £250 fee was paid by BBC Northern Ireland to allow BBC Pride members and colleagues to take part in the Pride parade in Belfast, it has been confirmed.

The corporation said it came from "a small discretionary budget for a range of staff-based initiatives", according to BBC News NI.

"What that (internal memo) should really have done was explain that the BBC Pride network of staff in Northern Ireland were participating in the parade," Mr Jonhston said on the BBC's Talkback programme.

"I was worried that that, combined with some other material about programme brands, was causing confusion about the terms of how we were participating.

"The only reason this is an issue is in Northern Ireland where we have the political context around some of the issues with same sex marriage and of course, the Pride march here is billed as both a celebration and a protest. Obviously what's really important for me and for our BBC audience is protecting our impartiality.

He added: "We have to be clear and careful that there aren't any possibilities of perceived impartiality issues. I also want at the same time (...) to support the staff and that network and to help and support them."

He denied a suggestion that the BBC have done a U-turn on the issue.

"Nothing has actually changed, all I was trying to do today is clarify things and I obviously wasn't around when some of this material went out and it's caused some confusion. I want to set the record straight for all staff to understand these matters and what their responsibilities and opportunities are," he said.

Peter Johnson said he's happy to apologise to staff about how the issue has been handled.

"I'm apologising for the confusion we created previously. We could have been clearer in some of our communication."

Critics said that the corporation's involvement in the parade compromised BBC NI's impartiality on contentious issues, such as same-sex marriage. The BBC denied that staff members attended the parade affected its decision-making about its output.

Mr Johnston intervened on Friday morning, the day before the parade, to clarify the situation after returning to work from leave.

In an earlier statement he confirmed that BBC Pride staff network will be taking part in the parade with colleagues, friends and family.

He said: "It is clear there has been some confusion about the terms and basis for BBC staff involvement in the Belfast Pride Parade2019. We know that there are legislative issues specific to Northern Ireland in relation to same-sex marriage. These raise important considerations for the BBC and the context of its editorial guidelines, including the requirement to maintain due impartiality within our output.

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Participants during last year’s Pride parade in Belfast city centre

"None of this means that members of the BBC Pride Network cannot be involved in pride festivities in Belfast but it does require BBC NI to avoid creating the impression that it has a position on matters of political contention or controversry.

"The BBC's editorial guidelines provide clear advice in this regard. It is on this basis that BBC NI will not be involved corporately in the Belfast Pride Parade and that individual programme brands will not be represented.

"As and if wider circumstances change we will keep all of this under review and we will continue to report and provide a forum for debate about issues relating to same-sex marriage in ways that are fair accurate and impartial."

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "I welcome the fact that the BBC came to its senses on this and recognised that they were totally surrendering their impartiality on the issues so intwined in this parade and therefore have taken the corporate decision they have taken, and backed off and climbed down from something they should never have put themselves in that position."

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