Fionola Meredith: Why there's no need to fear BBC NI taking part in the Belfast Pride celebrations
It's much more than a march for marriage equality, says Fionola Meredith - it's about freedom and democracy
What a needless kerfuffle there has been over the BBC’s decision to take part, for the first time, in the Belfast Pride parade tomorrow.
The two Jims — Wells and Allister, those dauntless guardians of the inalienable right to be straight — were predictably outraged, immediately calling into question the BBC’s commitment to impartiality.
It is “not appropriate” for the BBC to take part in a “political demonstration”, declared Mr Allister. “What is clear now is that the BBC is emphatically, unequivocally and unapologetically on the side of the political debate that is represented by the LGBT community,” he said.
Then, more surprisingly, up popped a man called Ian Kennedy, a former boss of BBC Radio Ulster, to voice his own criticism of the decision, in the letters page of this newspaper.
Now I’ve been knocking around the BBC for many years, in an independent, freelance capacity, and I’ve never heard tell of Mr Kennedy. Turns out he was last in charge when I was still a teenager, which is a pretty long time ago. But he has returned to the public eye to join the Jims in telling us why he thinks it’s wrong for the BBC to allow its employees to participate in Pride.
Mr Kennedy says he “wholeheartedly supports” the pursuit of equal rights by the LGBT+ community. But he shares Mr Allister’s concerns about the need for objectivity on the part of our state-funded broadcaster.
He writes: “The question of equal marriage is unfortunately unresolved in Northern Ireland. Whilst this remains the case, the BBC must be seen to be impartial on this subject and indeed on any contentious political issue, especially because it is in receipt of licence fee income from all sections of the community including those who (wrongly in my view) oppose the introduction of such legislation.”
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The former BBC boss was backed in his stance by that well-known legal eagle — has he designs on becoming Attorney General one day? — Jamie Bryson.
He applauded Mr Kennedy’s attack on what he called the BBC’s “decision to take sides on a controversial political issue which has clearly compromised the impartiality of BBC NI output on gay marriage”.
Well, no, it hasn’t. BBC Northern Ireland’s commitment to impartiality on gay marriage, or indeed any other political issue, is not in any danger here.
Here’s why. The mistake that the Jims, Jamie and Ian Kennedy make is in viewing Pride as a political march focused exclusively on demanding same-sex marriage.
Pride is so much more than that. It is an annual, long-standing, city-wide celebration of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community in all their marvellous diversity. You don’t have to be gay yourself to take part, or to enjoy it from the sidelines, as many thousands of our citizens do each year.
Yes, Pride is also a protest calling for equality. For most participants, that will include marriage equality — the right to marry the person you love, regardless of sexual orientation.
But as the Pride programme makes clear, it’s also about trans healthcare rights, gender recognition rights, fertility rights and the right to be free from bullying, discrimination and harassment, along with many others. It can’t be conflated with single-issue political protests.
Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney made the same category error when he commented that he was looking forward to “a similar position by the BBC on events promoting equality for Gaeilge”.
It wouldn’t be right for the BBC to take part in a march for Irish language rights because that is a clearly-defined political issue, just as it wouldn’t be appropriate for a BBC-endorsed group to participate in a march organised specifically to demand marriage equality.
Where Mr Kennedy is correct is when he says the BBC should have been more forthcoming about answering questions on the topic. It should have the courage of its own convictions, explaining why the decision to take part in Pride has no effect on the editorial balance of its output.
Licence-payers who oppose same-sex marriage need not fear. The presence of a small number of BBC people at Pride will not lead to Donna Traynor reading the news in a rainbow-patterned onesie, or a rainbow flag fluttering above Broadcasting House.
Pride is a multi-dimensional event which is essentially about affirming our LGBT+ community, who have suffered terrible oppression over the years and continue to endure discrimination. It’s not a single-issue march. It’s a public expression of solidarity and support.
And what reasonable person, who believes in freedom and democracy, could object to that?