On 10 November 2021, the BBC severed ties with Stonewall’s Diversity Champions (DC) programme. With over 900 members, it is considered ‘the leading employers’ programme for ensuring all LGBTQ+ staff are free to be themselves in the workplace’.

This move was intended to address stated concerns over the broadcaster’s ability to ‘be impartial when reporting on public policy debates where Stonewall is taking an active, campaigning, role’.

Caught in the midst of the trans rights debate

The BBC’s withdrawal can be better understood in the context of the ongoing debate on trans rights, in the midst of which Stonewall has found itself caught in recent years. Stonewall’s support for trans equality has divided its members, with some considering the organisation’s position ‘extremist’ and others claiming it is ‘on the right side of history’.

The main concerns over Stonewall’s position come from proponents of the ‘gender-critical’ feminist movement who view gender self-identification – particularly, in the case of trans women – as posing a threat to cisgender women’s sex-based rights. At the same time, trans advocates counter that any attempt to differentiate between LGB and T in the LGBT acronym is transphobic and regard gender-critical advocacy organisations like LGB Alliance as hate groups.

Responding to the BBC’s decision to withdraw from its diversity programme, Stonewall defended its position on trans rights and stated that ‘[t]here is nothing new about being attacked. Many of the arguments against trans people today are simply recycled homophobia from the 80s and 90s. We all remember being told gay people were predators and lesbians were a threat in single-sex spaces. That wasn’t true of lesbians, bi and gay people then, and it isn’t true of trans people now.’

But, is the BBC’s decision justified and what are the implications of this withdrawal for trans-related media coverage?

The BBC editorial guidelines

The BBC has adequate tools in place to ensure impartiality in its output. Inclusivity, diversity and breadth of opinion are central to its editorial guidelines, which require the broadcaster to achieve ‘due impartiality’ to all of its subject matter. ‘Due’ is an important qualification which is not just about taking a neutral approach. It does not necessarily mean representing every view, or every facet of every argument.

Rather, it’s about apportioning weight to opinion, events and arguments according to what they deserve, depending on the nature of the subject. Due impartiality may also be achieved within individual programmes, or over a series of programmes (or even a set of interlinked webpages) considered as a whole, or by reflecting a broad range of the available perspectives over time. Thus, the BBC has mechanisms to ensure that its content is presented suitably balanced and fairly so that it does not favour one party or another.

What appears to be at the heart of the BBC’s decision to leave the DC scheme to allegedly remain impartial is the need to include in its reporting gender-critical voices such as those of famous author J.K. Rowling, researcher Maya Forstater and former University of Sussex professor Kathleen Stock, which have attracted a lot of media attention.

However, while reporting on gender-critical views is essential to the democratisation of the trans rights debate, the risk of media ‘othering’ of trans people in the current heated climate is higher than ever. Research on the adverse negative effects of transgender reporting and incidents like the suicide of Lucy Meadows (a teacher who found herself at the centre of ‘sensational and salacious’ media attention due to her transgender identity) in 2013 highlight journalists’ ethical responsibilities and dilemmas when covering trans issues.

The controversy caused by a recent online BBC article about lesbians allegedly being pressured to have sex with trans women is indicative of how fragile the balance is between the two sides of the trans rights debate. Despite concerns expressed in an open letter signed by more than 20,000 people about the article being transphobic and poorly researched, the BBC insisted that it reported on a serious issue for which there was very limited data, stressing its commitment to exploring different viewpoints in the name of impartiality.

Double standards?

However, the BBC’s position on impartiality seems to lack consistency across all forms of discrimination. In its reporting of George Floyd’s killing in the USA in 2020, the broadcaster’s  guidance stated that ‘[t]he BBC is not impartial on racism’ and that ‘[o]pposition to racism is a fundamental democratic principle’.

Whilst the BBC rightly takes a firm stand against racism, it is reluctant to do the same for LGBTQ+ issues – which, as the withdrawal from Stonewall suggests, are still viewed as matters up for debate.

This is also evident in last year’s confusion among BBC staff over its new social media guidance which states that employees should not ‘express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or “controversial subjects”’. It was unclear, for example, whether this would prevent staff from joining Pride events.

Instead of adopting a bold position against LGBTQ+ inequality in the same way that it did against racism, the BBC advised its staff they could attend Pride as long as they were not ‘taking a stand on politicised or contested issues’.

The BBC’s decision to withdraw from Stonewall was not necessary to protect its editorial standards and its consequent symbolic meaning cannot be overlooked. By distancing itself from Stonewall’s position against trans inequality, the BBC risks undermining its long tradition as a public service broadcaster that is expected to deliver benefits to UK audiences.

Dr Dimitris Akrivos and Alexandros Antoniou ,, School of Law, University of Essex