The BBC has quit a diversity programme run by the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, saying it believes coverage of transgender issues should be considered an impartiality topic that requires the inclusion of critical voices.
The national broadcaster said it would no longer be a member of the Diversity Champions programme, under which the corporation paid Stonewall for ongoing advice and assessments on creating inclusive workplaces.
The BBC has been criticised by its investigative reporter over its links to Stonewall amid claims that staff are too “frightened” to speak out on gender issues.
Stonewall, founded in 1989 to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights, has been the subject of controversy in recent months after a number of high-profile organisations and government departments withdrew from its diversity scheme offering guidance on pronouns and gender-neutral facilities.
The BBC director general, Tim Davie, told staff it was “unquestionable” that its ongoing participation in the scheme “has led some organisations and individuals to consider that the BBC cannot be impartial when reporting on public policy debates where Stonewall is taking an active, campaigning, role”.
He made clear that the BBC’s journalism had not been compromised by the involvement. He said: “While I do not think that our journalism has been influenced by our involvement in the Diversity Champions programme, not renewing our involvement is the correct move at this time to minimise the risk of perceived bias and avoid any perception that engagement with the programme is influencing our own decision-making.”
Stonewall said it was a shame the BBC had chosen to withdraw and added that “many of the arguments against trans people today are simply recycled homophobia from the 80s and 90s”.
Stonewall provides paying members with training material and access to advice on LGBTQ+ policies, along with a promise to provide assessments and “tell you where you’re doing great things and where you can improve”.
The trade union Bectu, which represents a large number of BBC staff, said it was “hugely disappointed” with the decision and that it would be “incredibly damaging to the morale of the LGBT workforce and will negatively impact the BBC’s ability to attract talent in the future”.
The decision comes shortly after the BBC was forced to edit a piece describing how some lesbians felt pressured into sex with trans women after one of the main sources posted transphobic messages. Last year, BBC journalists were also told they could attend Pride marches only if they did not take a stance on “politicised or contested issues” – widely interpreted by LGBTQ+ staff as meaning no public position on trans rights.
BBC management have come under substantial external pressure to withdraw from the Stonewall scheme, which has already been abandoned by several government departments and the media regulator Ofcom. This included a 10-part BBC podcast presented by Stephen Nolan, which suggested some BBC staff were unable to air gender-critical views because of the charity’s influence.
Davie acknowledged many LGBT and trans staff would be disappointed by the decision to withdraw from the scheme.
He said: “Some have asked me whether the BBC needs to be ‘impartial on trans people’s lives’. I want to be clear, our impartiality is infused with democratic values and we are not impartial on human rights. In simple terms, what that means is that we don’t condone or support discrimination in any form.”
However, he also said the treatment of trans people in society was an impartiality topic in the eyes of the BBC, unlike others such as gay rights or the climate crisis.
“Our editorial guidelines are also clear: when reporting on policy debates, our journalism must be impartial and reflect a range of views. I want our reporting to cover a range of topics and different perspectives, to help our audiences understand and engage with the world around them.”
Coverage of trans rights has increasingly split the BBC newsroom, with a broad divide along age lines. Many younger staff feel it is a topic that is not up for debate, while many older staff believe gender-critical views must be aired to meet impartiality requirements.
One problem for Davie is that the issue is increasingly spilling out of the BBC’s newsroom and into other parts of the organisation, which are bound by a lower standard of news impartiality guidelines.
He said the BBC remained committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion and “providing a workplace in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary colleagues are respected, welcomed and able to fully participate”.