The BBC has been forced to clarify that its staff can attend Pride events – but only if they “do not get involved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial”.
It comes after the broadcaster launched new so-called impartiality guidelines for its workforce, saying they should not attend “public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues” even in a personal capacity. BBC employees told The Guardian they had been instructed that Pride marches would be included in this ban.
But in a note from director-general Tim Davie sent to senior staff at the corporation on Friday morning, colleagues were told that there is no ban on attending Pride parades if it does not bring the BBC into disrepute.
Staff who work in news and current affairs, factual journalism and senior leaders are free to attend events that are “clearly celebratory or commemorative” and “do not compromise perceptions of their impartiality”, Davie explained.
The internal note read: “If news and current affairs staff are participating in such events they must be mindful of ensuring that they do not get involved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial.
“There is no ban on these staff attending Pride events. Attending Pride parades is possible within the guidelines, but due care needs to be given to the guidance and staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.”
The latest information has been widely condemned as both confusing and disappointing.
One BBC staff member told HuffPost UK: “I don’t have a problem with BBC staff being contractually obliged to be publicly party politically impartial, as civil servants are. What makes me uncomfortable about this stance on ‘impartiality’ that the updated guidelines take, however, is that it assumes a default, uncontroversial position which is the ideal – and which, by implication, is that of a cisgender heterosexual white person.
“By instructing staff to ‘not express a view on any policy which is a matter of current political debate or on a matter of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or any other ‘controversial subject’ and then using the specific examples of ‘trans issues’ both online and at Pride marches, and of Black Lives Matter protests, as has been raised in meetings with managers, it is making what are markers of identity for so many BBC colleagues into political issues as well.
“It feels like censorship to try and control how someone publicly expresses and discusses their markers of identity, especially when these characteristics have historically been – and still are – factors of oppression for so many people.”
Staff were banned from attending Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, HuffPost UK revealed in August.
Hugh Smithson-Wright, a restaurant PR consultant and LGBTQ+ rights activist, described the corporation’s Pride position as “awful”.
“This is a heavily qualified clarification. What counts as a ‘politicised or contested issue’? The death penalty for homosexuality in Brunei? Surging state-sanctioned homophobia in Poland? Homicide rates for trans people of colour? All of these and many more are what Pride is about,” he told HuffPost UK.
“Tim Davie seems to be saying: ‘You can attend a ‘Pride’ march if it’s one of those happy-clappy sanitised desexualised ones where being queer is only mentioned obliquely and doesn’t actually, y’know, protest anything.’ Awful.
“It would be better if, rather than positioning events like Pride and BLM as being ‘politicised’, the BBC were to champion and actively encourage the attendance of its staff at them. It feels dangerously retrograde for the BBC, by implication, to position supporting equality as something that can be ‘contested’ – that just validates bigotry.”
Peter Woodhouse, head of business sector at law firm Stone King, said there could also be potential legal claims for employers who try to restrict employees’ actions outside work.
“This is a classic example of where society recognises competing rights. Here society would recognise a right to freedom of expression and association, but this could be pitched against the perceived benefit of the political impartiality of the BBC,” he told HuffPost UK.
“The law and employers can struggle with this and much will depend on how firm the BBC will be in its enforcement. Ultimately, they might decide to dismiss someone and at the very least they will have to ensure that their policies are clear, up-to-date and applied consistently.
“Their policies should specifically cover conduct outside work. Failures [to do this] in such areas could make a dismissal unfair.”
Woodhouse added: “Further, I would anticipate claims for discrimination, for example, if the policy disproportionately impacts on someone from a particular race or ethnic origin. Such a measure must be justified and the reasoning behind it must be shown to be non-discriminatory. Here, the BBC’s reasoning is to prevent political bias and to ensure impartiality – however, consistency and proportionality in the application of the measure will be key to reduce the risk of potential discrimination claims.”
As a result of the recent social media guidance from the BBC, the National Union of Journalists is calling for an urgent meeting with the director-general.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Following the publication of the guidelines yesterday, the NUJ sought an urgent meeting with the BBC to address our members’ concerns about the changes which could constrain individuals’ ability to meaningfully participate and engage in issues that matter to them – whether that’s in their trade union, their communities or in events such as Pride.
“The director general’s confirmation this morning that attendance at Pride would not be a breach is obviously welcome – that the clarification proved necessary shows that further clarity is needed.
“It’s disappointing that there was no consultation with staff unions on these changes ahead of them being announced, and we’ll be raising all the concerns NUJ members and reps have shared with us when we meet the BBC.”