This story is over 5 years old.


Why Was the BBC So Scared of World AIDS Day Ribbons?

World AIDS Day isn't asking people to pick a side. Trying to point out the devastating social stigma afflicting people who are diagnosed with HIV isn't—or shouldn't be—controversial in the slightest.
December 2, 2014, 1:00pm

Prince Harry's speech, via ​YouTube. 

Every year, ​World AIDS Day aims to raise awareness and mourn the losses of those who have lost their lives to the disease. It's one of the eight official global public health campaigns recognized by the World Health Organization, and given that AIDS claims around 2 million lives each year, and the fact that ​Public Health England estimates that a quarter of men in the UK living with HIV don't even know they have it, it's crucial ​we talk about what's going on.


So why does it feel like yesterday came and went in a heartbeat?

Across the pond there was a benefit concert featuring Kanye, Bruce Springsteen, and a Chris Martin–fronted U2 (that's right) and Obama—as he does every year—made an  ​official presidential proclamation.

Here? Well, Prince Harry teased us all day about revealing some huge secret. In the end it was a damp, special  World AIDS Day admission that he sometimes gets nervous speaking in public. Oh, and the London Eye was red, which is sort of cool.

People had been wearing World AIDS Day ribbons in the run up to yesterday (all the X Factor judges wore them this weekend), but there's a big, BBC-shaped elephant in the room. Their blanket ban on publicly supporting charities meant a glaring absence of red ribbons across all their channels.

Last year, Graham Norton  ​was reprimanded by BBC bosses for wearing a red ribbon. The BBC isn't allowed, as an institution, to support or endorse the charities favored by its staff, and—except for the two weeks in November where nearly everyone has a poppy stapled to their chests—prefers to remain on the fence in such matters.

Politics surrounding what people in the media wear on their lapels has never been as controversial as this year, given the recent backlash against what the poppy represents, from what one Guardian critic suggested was pro-nationalist ideals to the needless opulence of the chintzy, diamanté ones worn by talent-show judges. ITV's Charlene White got a ton of abuse online when she was seen without one this year, and she had to write a blog post explaining why she didn't want to wear a poppy.


The BBC's reasoning behind everyone wearing a poppy in the first place was that it was a politically neutral, non-controversial way of support. That no longer seems to be the case. And yet, they  ​won't allow hosts to wear red World AIDS Day ribbons under the following code of conduct, guideline 4.4.20:

"The BBC must remain independent and distanced from government initiatives, campaigners, charities, and their agendas, no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial."

In my mind, to allow staff to wear Remembrance Day poppies on air but not World AIDS Day ribbons, is like saying, "Everyone hates war, amirite?" and therefore, by virtue, "But not everyone hates AIDS."

Daisy Ellis, acting policy director at Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity that campaigns on issues relating to AIDS and HIV, points out that the red ribbon has never been a symbol of charity. Rather, one of solidarity for the 35 million people worldwide who live with HIV.

"We've seen red ribbons everywhere from the front benches of Parliament to the judges desk of the X Factor," she told me. "It is disappointing that, for the second year running, the BBC has chosen red tape instead," by which she means a resounding "no" to the ribbon.

World AIDS Day isn't asking people to pick a side. Trying to point out the devastating social stigma afflicting people who are diagnosed with HIV isn't—or shouldn't be—controversial in the slightest. But with a lack of visibility, we run the risk of people thinking this isn't something they need to support.


Gay health charity GMFA is running a campaign to stop HIV stigma and has profiled men of all ages who are living with the disease. The case studies show men losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes, and even shut off from their friends when they disclose their status. And it all comes from a total lack of understanding about the disease which, without the right attention, keeps the struggle hidden in the shadows.

If BBC staff want to openly support the AIDS cause, they should be allowed to. Except they sort of can, and that's where it gets complicated: Graham Norton was told off because he was supporting World AIDs Day on his own show.But this restriction only applies to hosts, not guests. On the episode of his show where Norton was figuratively slapped on the wrist, professional foghorn Jeremy Clarkson was wearing the same ribbon and didn't get into trouble.

It's a weird loophole—one that's particularly odd when you look at the coverage the BBC gave one of its staff shaving off his mustache for Movember a few years ago. Why not just let people make an informed choice about representing charities on screen?​

Still from Saturday night's  ​X Factor

What kind of hell are they afraid will break loose? Take X Factor, for example. The judges wore ribbons. There was no chaos. Are the BBC worried that the charitable floodgates will open and everyone will wear so many pins on their jackets they'll start jangling like TGI Friday employees?

Sure, if a newsreader supports a charity by wearing a pin that a journalist subsequently discovers is a controversial charity that promotes capital punishment or being able to marry dogs, it'll reflect bad on the Beeb. But wariness over divisive causes is having a pronounced effect on the visibility of other ones. The kind of blanket ban they're running now is completely shortsighted. It's keeping good causes in the dark.

"As a public body and a globally respected organization, the BBC should be taking this opportunity to remind its viewers of the impact that HIV continues to have on the world, and to challenge the unacceptable stigma that persists around the virus," Ellis tells me. "We appreciate that dress codes are not uncommon in large organizations, but a blanket ban on such an important international symbol seems heavy-handed."

The BBC reversing their stance probably wouldn't be the cultural apocalypse they think it is. Sky News and ITV staff are able to quietly and professionally back charities without it capsizing their news agenda or bringing any shame on them. And when there are ways around the rules—and contradictions surrounding them—it begs the question: why have them in the first place?

Follow Chris on  ​Twitter.