The BBC’s relationship with Stonewall is finally being scrutinised

16 October 2021

6:00 PM

16 October 2021

6:00 PM

I have often criticised BBC journalism on the issues of sex and gender because that journalism has often been quite bad. So it’s all the more important to for me to highlight instances when the Corporation does good journalism here. Stephen Nolan of the BBC has done that this week, and more.

You might not be aware of the series of outstanding podcasts that Nolan releasedthis week, examining the influence that Stonewall, a charity that lobbies on sex and gender issues, has over public bodies including the BBC itself.

One reason you might have missed those podcasts is that the BBC itself has hardly bothered to promote them, even though they represent the very best of its journalism, the sort of inquiry that a public service broadcaster exists to carry out.

Just in case you don’t have a spare six hours to listen to ten podcasts, you can read a decent summary of the Nolan team’s findings here on the BBC website.

Probably the most remarkable finding in that investigation is that Ofcom, the media regulator, used its rulings on broadcasters’ content to try to impress Stonewall and score points on its Workplace Equality Index, which supposedly measures how employers are doing in supporting LGBT staff.

That sounds like a technical, bureaucratic point, but it’s hugely important. It strongly suggests that Ofcom has exercised its statutory powers to regulate media output not in accordance with the instructions it has been given by government and parliament but to align with the agenda of an outside organisation, Stonewall.

That’s not how public policy or government should work. Ofcom, like other public bodies, gets to do things that affect people and their lives (in this case, helping to decide what we can and cannot watch on TV) because those people (the electorate) have put in a place a parliament and government that gives Ofcom the authority to do so. Ofcom answers to ministers and parliament and they answer to the public. If the public don’t like Ofcom or its work, they can elect politicians who can change things.

So Nolan’s discovery, through dogged use of Freedom of Information laws, is important, and demands further investigation.

So too do his findings about the influence that Stonewall was apparently able to exert over the BBC itself, influence that several times appears to extend far beyond advising the Corporation over HR matters and into editorial decisions.

Again, that’s not how things should work. The public is obliged to fund the BBC, and that puts the Corporation under an obligation to attempt to be editorially objective – or at least, not to take sides on contested or controversial questions.

Questions of sex and gender are, to state the obvious, contested. There is no settled view on whether sex (an observable fact) is more important than gender identity (a subjective idea). Even collections of letters are controversial. The BBC routinely talks about the ‘LGBT community’ and, until recently used to employ an LGBT Correspondent. But some people don’t think LBG (Lesbian, Bi, Gay) and T (Transgender) should be grouped in that way; they say sexuality is about physical sex and gender is about subjective ideas.

Simply by using LGBT in its output and job titles, then, the BBC is taking sides in a contest of ideas. And taking the same side as Stonewall, which it has paid to advise it on such issues.

All of these things have been well known to people who have followed this issue for some time. I know countless people inside the BBC who have grave doubts about the Corporation’s approach here. But there has been no easy way for them to make those doubts known, or to ask the many questions that arise from this situation.

Until now. Stephen Nolan and his colleague David Thompson have asked the questions, good and hard.

For a sometimes journalist who has looked at similar issues, I found listening to Nolan and Thompson an untrammelled delight. Thompson in particular is glorious in his indignation, his searing insistence that this is just not how things are supposed to work. At every turn, he returns to first principles. When an issue is contested, public bodies should balance competing interests, not side with one interest group over others. The people have a right to know why those who exercise authority and spend money on their behalf have done so.

Those principles have been repeatedly violated in the way public bodies have dealt with Stonewall. It makes no secret of the fact that it is a lobbying organisation promoting a particular – and contested – set of ideas around sex and gender. Yet instead of being treated like a player on the pitch, public bodies have delegated their own role as referee to Stonewall.

None of this is to say that Stonewall has done anything wrong. It has promoted its agenda with skill and – until now – remarkable effectiveness, no doubt in good faith: I am sure that Stonewall and its staff sincerely believe that the things they advocate are in the public interest. But I am equally sure that the people who question Stonewall’s agenda and advocate alternative policies also do so because they think that is the right thing to do.

The questions here are for the public bodies that failed to hold the ring in such contests of ideas.

Stephen Nolan and David Thompson aren’t the first BBC journalists to apply good old-fashioned journalistic rigour to this topic. There are many others who deserve praise, especially Hannah Barnes of Newsnight. But they are the first to apply proper journalistic scrutiny to their own employer.

There is no mistaking how uncomfortable this must be for the BBC and people there: as Nolan reports, internal staff groups interested in LGBT issues are well-established and vocal. My own conversations with senior executives at the Corporation also strongly suggest that sometimes BBC output on this contested issue is shaped by the opinions of BBC staff.

It is notable that Nolan and Thompson produced their podcast not in London but from Belfast, where they enjoy considerable autonomy. Equally notable is how little the BBC media machine in London, usually so quick to herald BBC successes, has done to promote what should be trumpeted as first-class public-service journalism.

And most striking of all is how the BBC as a corporate entity refused so often to answer the legitimate and necessary questions asked of it by BBC journalists. Time and again, Nolan and Thompson ask the BBC how and whether its output – funded by the public – was driven not by the public interest but the interests of one interest group. Time and again, the BBC refuses to answer.

The questions Stephen Nolan asked, about Stonewall, the BBC and Ofcom, must and shall be answered in the end. Journalists have done their job here, but there are limits to how far they – we – can go in compelling public bodies to tell the truth. Responsibility now passes to parliament.

If the BBC and Ofcom won’t answer questions about Stonewall from reporters, they should be made to answer to MPs and peers. The only question should be: which select committee will be the first to do its job and launch an inquiry into Stonewall, the BBC, Ofcom and other public bodies.

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