Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: As a public-funded broadcaster, either it is impartial or it is not...

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 4th August 2018 - Marchers and members of the public pictured at the annual Belfast Pride parade in Belfast City Centre.
Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 4th August 2018 - Marchers and members of the public pictured at the annual Belfast Pride parade in Belfast City Centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There are two ways of looking at BBC Northern Ireland's decision to take part in next weekend's Belfast Pride march.

One is that it's a sign of tolerance and progress in a part of the world which has been short on open-mindedness for too long.

The other is that it is not the BBC's place to tell licence fee payers what to think. Both are correct. It's certainly not necessary to share the views of those who still regard gay people as second class citizens, or who are uncomfortable with the reality that not everyone conforms to the same sexual or gender template.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect the BBC to stay out of the fight, not least whilst same-sex marriage remains such a bone of contention.

The BBC's editorial guidelines do "not require absolute neutrality on every issue", but they make clear that "where our content highlights issues on which others campaign, we must take care not to endorse those campaigns, or allow ourselves to be used to campaign to change public policy". That sounds like an entirely sensible compromise.

Of course, it could be argued that the BBC takes stances on any number of issues, even whilst pretending that it doesn't; but at least the corporation usually makes a show of being impartial. In this case, they'll be taking part in what is billed openly as a "weekend of protest".

Why then should the BBC not be equally free to back demands for a standalone Irish Language Act or second Brexit referendum?

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BBC employees are as entitled as any other person in Northern Ireland to hold whatever views they choose on political and social issues. If they want to take part as private citizens in the Pride march, or any other protest, that's their business.

Gay people who work in the BBC should also be reassured that they are valued and protected.

It is still misguided to use one of the country's most powerful institutions as a propaganda battering ram, despite Section 4.1 of the guidelines requiring staff, presenters and "others who contribute to our output" to take due care that their "external activities", including social media use, don't raise concerns of a conflict of interest.

How can those who hold conservative views on matters of sex and morality be confident they will be treated fairly by the BBC when the organisation has torn up these guidelines to put its official stamp on a campaign so antithetical to their views?

Traditionalists may well be on the wrong side of history, with polls here showing an encouraging two thirds support for same-sex marriage.

The fact remains that many older people in Northern Ireland do still hold old-fashioned Christian views on homosexuality, and using the power and resources of the BBC to drag them reluctantly along the road to a rainbow-flagged Promised Land is just boorish.

There are plenty of opinions held by the younger generation that future ages may judge them harshly for as well. It's not about who is right or wrong. Section 4 of the BBC code states explicitly that "we should take account of the different political cultures and structures in different parts of the UK".

Either those words mean something, or they don't. The BBC has to be for everyone, not just those that bigwigs at the Beeb would be happy to invite to their dinner parties.

Forgetting that mission is why the BBC's Director General Tony Hall was forced to admit back in March that the public's perception of the BBC's impartiality has "weakened in recent years".

It really shouldn't take a genius to figure out why.

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