The BBC is expected to withdraw from a major diversity programme run by LGBTQ charity Stonewall, VICE World News can reveal.
LGBTQ staff at the UK’s public service broadcaster have told VICE World News they are “horrified” and “super scared” by the planned withdrawal, which could come as soon as next week.
The “Diversity Champions” programme is described by Stonewall as “the leading employers’ programme for ensuring all LGBT+ staff are accepted without exception in the workplace”.
Corporate members pay Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBTQ charity, a fee in order to sign up, and in return, Stonewall helps the organisations create more inclusive working environments for LGBTQ employees, such as giving advice on inclusive toilets and changing room facilities.
Over 800 private and public businesses are members of Stonewall's programme. Earlier this year, the UK media regulator Ofcom, the Equality and Human Rights Commissions and the UK government’s Cabinet Office all announced they were quitting the scheme.
Insiders at the BBC told VICE World News that the Diversity Champions membership was due to be renewed “in early October 2021”, but executives at the corporation have now decided to end all involvement. (Ben Hunte, the reporter on this story, previously worked for the BBC before joining VICE World News.)
According to insiders, the BBC currently has no plans in place to announce the news publicly.
A person involved in the discussions who cannot be named because they’re not authorised to speak publicly about the issue said: “BBC bosses feel that they can’t allow the organisation to be connected to Stonewall in any way, because the BBC needs to be ‘impartial on LGBTQ lives’.”
“So the current plan is to quietly withdraw from the scheme, by just not renewing their membership. I’m super scared about this sliding back on supporting LGBT employees.”
Last year, the BBC introduced new “impartiality guidelines” which seemed to imply that BBC staff could not attend Pride marches.
After receiving complaints from staff, LGBTQ campaigners and politicians, the BBC clarified the rules, saying that attendance was fine as long as employees were not seen to be getting involved in "politicised or contested issues".
VICE World News understands that a final decision has not yet been communicated to Stonewall by the BBC.
In response, a BBC spokesperson told VICE World News: “The BBC acts independently in all aspects of our operations, from HR policy to editorial guidelines and content. We aim to be industry leading on workforce inclusion and take advice from a range of external organisations, however we make the final decision on any BBC policies or practices ourselves. We do not take legal advice from Stonewall and we do not subscribe to Stonewall’s campaigning. The charity simply provides advice that we are able to consider. As a broadcaster, we have our own values and editorial standards – these are clearly set out and published in our Editorial Guidelines. We are also governed by the Royal Charter and the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.”
The BBC declined to respond to follow-up questions.
Robbie de Santos, director of communications and campaigns at Stonewall, told VICE World News: “Our work with the BBC focuses on helping to build an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace for its employees, and in no way affects their impartiality. Supporting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace should not be seen as a political or controversial act.”
BBC employees who spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions if they spoke publicly, expressed serious concern at what message the move would send to LGBTQ staff members.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re working for the enemy. I’m starting to wonder what I’m promoting by being here,” one current employee said. “They’re saying that they don’t care about our welfare in the workplace, they don’t care about treating LGBT employees with respect and dignity. BBC managers need to think long and hard about this, before they commit to such drastic action. The message that this sends out to LGBTQ staff is dreadful. It says we don’t care about your rights, we don’t care about your values. It’s just ludicrous.”
Another employee with more than 20 years experience at the BBC said that the current environment was a “hostile place for any trans person or trans supportive person.”
“I've worked for the BBC for over 20 years, and I've never known a worse time to be LGBT+ at the BBC,” they said. “There is deeply engrained institutional transphobia at the heart of the BBC, exacerbated by promotion of anti-LGBT+ views in the name of "balance". I no longer feel safe as an LGBT+ person within the organisation.”
Another BBC employee who was involved in the BBC’s Pride network, said: “The BBC needs to focus on the bigger picture, rather than fiddling around the edges on things that the audience won’t care about.
“LGBT rights are already enshrined in law, so aligning with an LGBT charity shouldn’t really affect impartiality.”
Stonewall has received a huge backlash in some sections of the UK media because of its vocal support for trans rights, and other organisations have withdrawn from the diversity scheme this year. In August, UK media regulator Ofcom announced it would be withdrawing, because the relationship created a “conflict or risk of perceived bias.”
At the time, the BBC defended its support for the Stonewall scheme. “We are not a member of Stonewall, we do not take legal advice from Stonewall and we do not subscribe to Stonewall’s campaigning. The charity simply provides advice that we are able to consider,” a spokesperson said, in a near-identical statement to the response issued to VICE World News for this story.