Media Viewpoint: Gay rights: as not seen on TV

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The Independent Online
ANYONE relying on BBC television news to keep informed would be unaware that the biggest civil rights demonstration in American history took place in Washington last month. This event, which attracted up to one million people in support of lesbian and gay equality, was not reported by BBC television.

In terms of news values, a march of that magnitude and historic significance should have received substantial coverage. Indeed, elsewhere in Europe it was treated as one of the top news stories of the day.

The failure of the BBC (and ITN) to carry even 20 seconds about the march is tantamount to censorship. It is symptomatic of a deep-seated homophobia that pervades news and current affairs.

This is not the first time a major lesbian and gay rights rally has been neglected by the BBC. Last year's Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival in London attracted nearly 100,000 people, making it the biggest political event in Britain for many years. It was unreported by BBC television news.

If an event of that size had been about any other issue, it is inconceivable that it would have been excluded. The BBC always reports festivals comparable in size, such as the Chinese New Year and Notting Hill Carnival. These communities are apparently entitled to news coverage, whereas it seems the lesbian and gay community is not. That is a political decision rather than a journalistic one.

Underlying these decisions is the BBC's refusal to recognise lesbian and gay equality as a serious human rights issue. With the exception of a handful of programmes, such as Heart of the Matter, violations of homosexual human rights are ignored.

Neither Panorama nor Newsnight have reported on the system of 'sexual apartheid', which enshrines in law discrimination against lesbians and gay men. We can be refused employment or dismissed from a job. Local authority facilities are withheld from us under Section 28. We are banned from membership of the armed forces. Our children can be taken away from us by the courts. Lesbian and gay couples are forbidden to marry and are often denied inheritance rights on the death of their partner.

If discrimination on this scale were happening to black or Jewish people, there would be dozens of BBC programmes exposing the injustice. However, the BBC deems queers unworthy of serious current affairs coverage.

The BBC justifies its failure to treat the lesbian and gay community the same as the black and Jewish communities by rejecting any analogy between racism and homophobia. Fraser Steel, a senior BBC executive dealing with editorial policy, stated in a letter to the queer rights group OutRage last year: 'I do not think they are comparable . . . Homosexuality is a matter on which society remains divided and our output must reflect this too.'

This suggests that the BBC's treatment of gay issues is not based exclusively on objective news values, as it should be. Rather, there is an element of concession to homophobic opinion, which compromises journalistic ethics and the principle of fair treatment.

The BBC's double standards are also obvious in its insistence that when a lesbian and gay spokesperson is interviewed, their opinions have to be 'balanced' by those of an anti-gay bigot. The BBC never insists that black or Jewish views are 'balanced' by those of racists.

While the BBC has produced some outstanding reports on violence against women, it has broadcast virtually nothing about anti-gay attacks. Research has shown that dozens of homosexuals have been murdered in recent years and that one in three has been beaten up because of their sexuality. How many of us have to be murdered and injured before the BBC will take the 'lynching' of queers seriously?

Likewise with police harassment. More than 2,000 gay and bisexual men are arrested every year for victimless acts. The number convicted of the consensual gay offence of 'indecency' was nearly four times greater in 1989 than in 1966 (the year before the so-called legalisation of male homosexuality). Amazingly, the BBC does not find this shocking or newsworthy.

The idea that factors other than news values are influencing BBC coverage seems implicit in the remarks of Robin Britten, the deputy editor of Radio 4's The World At One. Responding to criticism from a member of the public that the BBC had ignored last year's 'Equality Now]' campaign organised by OutRage, Mr Britten stated in a letter: 'I'm afraid you will wait in vain to hear a sympathetic piece about any campaign being conducted by OutRage.' This has been interpreted as an admission that BBC news items are determined by moral judgements about the issues and organisations involved, and not by objective journalistic criterion.

Needless to say, BBC news bulletins ignored the OutRage 'March On Downing Street' in July 1992, despite the fact that it was organised around the 25th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

Even the respectable gay lobby, the Stonewall Group, is squeezed out of the schedules. In April, when Stonewall launched its historic appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the anti-gay age of consent laws, BBC television news did not mention one word about this major human rights initiative.

Our exclusion from the BBC is also evident on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions. While the panel members often include black and women's rights campaigners, gay spokespersons are never invited to participate.

Perhaps this absence of representation in programming is not unrelated to the fact that the recent BBC News and Current Affairs equality charter mentioned the words 'lesbian and gay' once in 53 pages. It may also be connected to the lack of open homosexuals in senior positions within the BBC. None of the governors, controllers, heads of departments or top programme presenters is publicly 'out'. Those who are homosexual hide the fact.

This invisibility sums up the BBC's coverage of lesbian and gay human rights issues: it is mostly non-existent.

Peter Tatchell is a member of OutRage.