My short blog, below, on the BBC ‘debate’ on whether gay people should be executed, along with a speech I made in the House of Commons, were parts of a much wider lobby by many folk who were appalled that the question was felt to be a legitimate one. The first Twitter reference was Claire Spencer (who’s also mentioned in this week’s New Statesman) and it pretty all much rolled on from there. While the Beeb’s initial response was to simply say they were asking a challenging question about Uganda, obviously preposterous, the Radio Four Controller did apologise in due course and I have a meeting with the Head of the Africa Service coming up. I’ll also publish whatever response I get from Mark Thompson, BBC Director General.
One of the striking aspects of the ‘debate’, which naturally topped the BBC’s discussion website, was that virtually all of the contributors were in the UK and few referred to Uganda. In other words, under the (still illegitimate, asking gay Ugandans to argue why they shouldn’t be executed, surely?) guise of encouraging debate about how the Ugandans should deal with homosexuality, the BBC had actually engendered a debate about how folk in the UK should view homosexuality. They’d given homophobes everywhere licence to claim their abhorrent views were a proxy for freedom of speech.
As a secondary issue, though, they’d also raised the matter of whether execution can be the right answer to a perceived societal ill.
So what’s top of the same website today? It’s ‘Was China Right to Execute Drug Smuggling Briton?’ . Now, some folk have said to me that this question is OK, not least because a lot of people in the UK support the death penalty (for the UK). They say it’s quite different from the Uganda question. In part, I agree of course. Yet the BBC’s new question still bothers me.
Whether or not some people in the UK would like to see the return of the death penalty, I thought it was a public policy question we’d left behind. There are legitimate questions to be raised about the Chinese execution (see, for example, Michael White at The Guardian ). But the BBC’s question seems designed to provoke a reactionary-style debate in which many will inevitably call for the return of capital punishment in the UK. This is precisely the style of, for example, Leo McKinstry at the Daily Mail . Is that really the role of the BBC?
I know that the BBC often has a pretty thankless task in trying to please everyone, and clearly every licence-payer needs have have some buy-in. But the ‘red-top style’ debates which are now regularly appearing on the ‘Have Your Say’ website are literally replicating what other news agencies are already doing, as well as giving extra voice to some values I was hoping we’d left behind as a society. There’s something going wrong here, I think.
As ever, all thoughts welcome.