BBC research into lesbian, gay and bisexual portrayal offers hope


London, UK – 1 February – The Guardian – Media section

The BBC decision to commission research into its portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people is a welcome, if somewhat belated, initiative. It comes in response to two decades of sustained – and often ignored – criticism of the BBC by LGB licence payers, journalists, campaigners and media analysts.

The research will examine both the quantity and quality of LGB coverage in comedy, news, documentaries, entertainment and dramas on BBC TV, radio and websites. The decision to seek out the views of people with homophobic views has, however, raised a few eyebrows. If this research was looking at depictions of the Jewish community, I wonder whether the BBC would feel obliged to take into account the opinions of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis?

Never mind. Hats off to the BBC for agreeing this research. Congratulations also to the Beeb for its ground-breaking gay Muslim storyline in Eastenders, which has helped highlight some of the dilemmas faced by an often hidden section of the gay and Muslim communities.

Despite these positive moves, many LGB people still feel the BBC is guilty of an alarming degree of low-level homophobia and an often perplexing unwillingness to remedy it.

Only last year, GT magazine journalist Simon Edge was given the run-around and fobbed off by BBC top brass when he tried to question them about the corporation’s coverage of LGB issues. This experience led him to conclude that the BBC remains “one of Britain’s last great bastions of homophobia.”

This accusation is not without some foundation. In the 1990s, Radio 1 was allowed to broadcast music advocating the murder of gay people, which prompted queer human rights group OutRage! to condemn the Beeb as the “British Bigotry Corporation.” Even now, although the BBC won’t give air-time to ‘kill gays’ hit tunes, it still occasionally interviews and promotes ‘murder music’ singers like Buju Banton.

In 2006, the BBC was stung when gay lobby group Stonewall published a damning report, Tuned Out, by Leeds University researchers. They examined 168 hours of prime-time BBC 1 and BBC 2 television programmes; finding that positive gay references totalled a mere six minutes, compared to 32 minutes of negative, disparaging coverage. In other words, gay people were five times more likely to be portrayed in negative terms than in positive ones. Over half of all gay references were jokes, which mostly played on stereotypes of sexually predatory or effeminate gay men. Lesbian and gay issues were rarely mentioned in BBC factual output.

At the time the report was published, Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill noted that gay people contribute an estimated £190 million a year to the BBC in TV licence fees.

“Gay licence-payers receive astonishingly poor value from the BBC,” he said. “It’s difficult to argue that 1.5 million gay households should be expected to continue making such a substantial contribution to channels on which their real lives are hardly reflected, and which are often punctuated with derisive and demeaning depictions of them.”

Sadly, there is little evidence that BBC coverage of LGB issues has improved significantly since Tuned Out was published. Last December, the BBC reported on legislation before the Ugandan parliament that seeks to impose the death penalty for repeated same-sex acts. In response, the corporation’s Have Your Say Africa website hosted an online debate: “Should homosexuals face execution?” The BBC would not, I suspect, hold online debates such as: Should black people be lynched? Moreover, the BBC’s commentary announcing the debate put a very weak case against the execution of LGB Ugandans. It read like an open invitation for respondents to endorse the state-sponsored killing of LGBs.

This faux pas followed the furore over Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles using the word “gay” as an insult and getting away with it. Indeed, the BBC governors ruled that the word “gay” was an acceptable on-air synonym for “rubbish.”

The BBC 3 television programme, The Most Annoying People of 2008, included an interview with BBC Radio 5 presenter, DJ Spooney, where he was given free rein, without challenge or rebuke, to disparage lesbians: “Let the munters and mingers get each other. That’s cool. No one really wants them ones.”

At a time when the BBC national news was almost daily reporting the murder of young men and racists attacks, in 2008 it failed to report the homophobic murder of 18-year-old Michael Causer in Liverpool, other than on the Merseyside section of the BBC website. In contrast, the racist murder of black Liverpudlian, Anthony Walker, received national BBC news coverage for weeks. Why the double standards? Perhaps the BBC’s LGB research project will shed light and offer solutions.