Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Common sense at last, but broadcaster has only itself to blame for furore

BBC Northern Ireland staff will not now be involved corporately in today’s Belfast Pride march
BBC Northern Ireland staff will not now be involved corporately in today’s Belfast Pride march
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The announcement that BBC Northern Ireland will not now be involved corporately in today's Belfast Pride march is a welcome, some might say rare, outbreak of common sense from the broadcaster. It should have taken this decision from the start, rather than needing to be reminded of the obligation to impartiality under its own editorial guidelines.

A former head of Radio Ulster recognised this instinctively when the story broke, writing to the Belfast Telegraph to insist that whilst he "wholeheartedly supports" equal rights, the BBC, as a publicly-funded institution, must be sensitive to all members of the community.

It took the current head of BBC Northern Ireland Peter Johnston too long to catch up and realise that allowing staff to march in the parade wearing branded BBC T-shirts and other paraphernalia would have put a question mark over its objectivity. Offering staff the chance to discuss having individual programmes partnered to Pride went even further towards undermining the corporation's duty to "take account of the different political cultures and structures" across the UK.

Johnston has apologised to gay and lesbian staff in Northern Ireland "for the confusion we created previously", admitting that communication "probably could have been clearer". You don't say? It is incredible how often those whose job it is to communicate clearly fail to get the basics right.

It's not the BBC's fault that the issue of same-sex marriage has been politicised in Northern Ireland. Equal marriage is legal in every other corner of the UK and Ireland. Since the collapse of Stormont, unfortunately, it's become just another stick with which rival parties are beating one another in an effort to deflect the blame for the woeful failure to restore devolution.

Once Sinn Fein made it a condition of bringing back devolved government that same-sex marriage must be on the statute book - a stance which won its deputy leader Michelle O'Neill the title of Pride's 2019 "Politician of the Year" - the BBC's position became even more untenable.

There are many themes of this year's Pride that everyone can get behind - an end to bullying, harassment and discrimination, and greater access to mental health services not least.

The latter scandal is a running sore, for gay and straight people alike. Same-sex marriage was simply too fraught a matter at this time for the BBC to risk its hard-won even-handedness for a few likes on social media. Its reputation as a dependable source of news has already been weakened enough in recent years. The BBC remains the most trusted information source in the country, but that's not saying much in an age of fake news.

There will undoubtedly be those who criticise management for backing down on this issue, arguing that it threatens their commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

In fact it does the opposite, reaffirming an admirable dedication to supporting the rights and identity of staff, whilst still showing editorial fairness to all regardless of belief.

Now everyone at the BBC who wants to march in Pride, or just go along to enjoy the day with friends and family, can do so without this cloud hanging over them. The only difference is they'll be doing so as part of the BBC Pride staff network, rather than as official spokespersons for their employer.

The BBC, meanwhile, can get right back to its traditional role of covering contentious news stories without fear or favour.

Doing otherwise would have led the door open in future to the dangerous argument that they should be free to use their privileged positions as broadcasters to support any number of controversial political campaigns. That way lies madness in a divided society.

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