Bi MediaWatch – February 2013

BCN 117 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 117, Feb 2013

One eye on the telly, the other checking the schedules for what we should be watching instead.  This time we peeled ourselves away to read the BBC’s second diversity report.

Back in 2010, the BBC published a diversity report looking at the portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters on the BBC. In November 2012, they issued the planned research update. As bisexuality in the media is one of my interests, I eagerly read through the report, and the associated snappily titled ‘Key findings from interviews with LGB organisations and representatives’.

The first thing that I noticed was that the report was only focused on L, G and B, the only time that trans representation appeared was in the organisation report, where Schools Out/The Classroom (a campaign group for LGBT issues as the affect education and those in education) mention that the BBC is ‘limping behind’ other channels in this respect.

The other thing that became clear when looking at the organisation report was that no bi organisations were included. As well as Schools Out/ The Classroom, the groups consulted were The Lesbian and Gay Foundation, Stonewall, Equity, Galop, Families Together London, two journalists (one who specialises in gay issues) and a theatre director.

It is quite telling that in this report (as opposed to the main one), the majority of the sound bites are regarding gay people, gay characters etc. Bisexuals are mentioned towards the bottom of page 19 (it’s a 22 page report), and there are three soundbites:

“Of the small amount of bisexual characters on television the overwhelming majority are women because there’s something titillating about a bisexual woman to a male audience in a way that there is not about a bisexual man” (Journalist)
“When they cover bisexuality they have to be careful not to just show a man being turned by a woman but that sexuality is on a continuum. There is a fluidity in both our gender presentation and our sexual orientation which is not effectively talked about or explored in drama in a way that is not polarising people into unpleasantness.” (Schools Out/The Classroom)

“As a gay man I was uneasy when I heard about the Corrie storyline because it reinforces the notion that ‘you just have to find the right woman’” (Journalist)

The experts did feel that there is an insufficient coverage of bisexuals across any kind of platform or programming genre. Whilst they say that programme makers need to understand bisexuals, a good step would be including a bi organisation (the likes of Bisexual Index or BCN) in this group of experts.

When it came to the review of the audience reaction panel information, there were 436 people who identified as LGB, out of a total of 2709 people and they do recognise that this makes the findings is more broad brush than exact. Around 40% of the total respondents felt that it was important to have TV that featured LGB content, however it was seen as less important than other personal characteristics, and the respondents felt that portrayal of disabled people was the largest gap.

Whilst most people had no strong views over the amount of LGB portrayal across the different broadcasters, over half of those that are LGB felt that there was too little. Over a quarter felt that most broadcasters were very poor, however the BBC and Channel 4 rated slightly higher than the others.

The most repeated phrase in the report is the finding that lesbians and bisexuals felt that they received next to no representation. Considering that both the experts and the audience felt that the media has a responsibility to educate wider society and validate LGB people, this is something that the BBC should be looking at, especially as it was something that was highlighted in the 2010 report.

There was still a call for a mix of incidental, overt and landmark types of LGB portrayal, and there should be more LGB-specific programming, especially for young people. The experts felt that there should be incidental portrayal of LGB people within children’s programming to familiarize audiences from an early age, as well as validating children who may be LGB.

It was noted the majority of portrayal was that of gay men, again lesbians and bisexuals are hardly featured. It was also felt that current programming focused on younger, white and non-disabled LGB people.

When looking at the various media genres, News and Current Affairs was the one that had the most criticism. The BBC was asked to reconsider the way in which it is perceived to set up news debates (having two extreme views), and instead to be more creative in the presentation. Other genres that were highlighted were Comedy, where the concern was that the portrayal of LGB people should not be the focus of the joke. There was a feeling that if the humour came from LGB sources then it was more appropriate and accepted.

There was a sense of missed opportunities in certain genres, namely that of Sport. With the amount of sport that had been on the BBC during 2012, it was felt that not enough had been done particularly given the availability of expert and relevant LGB talent.

The LGB experts felt that the BBC should be more creative and bolder in how it represents LGB people. Concerns were raised that the findings and the intentions of the 2010 research have not been effectively communicated or shared with the creative community. I would go further and say that the findings weren’t really shared with anyone. In some ways they were in the internet equivalent of being in a locked filing cabinet, in a basement toilet with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

The same criticism can be levelled at this follow-up survey. It was only through a chance tweet that I found out about it, it’s not like the BBC is promoting it heavily. The experts felt that there was a sense that the BBC did not explicitly commit to changes as much as it could have following the research findings. An example of how this is continuing could be seen in the fact that the BBC cancelled Lip Service in January.

The BBC does have plans for a follow-up to this study. They are planning to repeat the survey in a year’s time using the 2012 analysis as a baseline. They are planning to use the findings from all other available research to demonstrate any action required to help address the quality of portrayal of LGB people on the BBC. And they plan to target commissioners and editors in particular with the findings of both this report and the research and consultation in 2010.

I hope that in future analysis, the BBC does include a bi organisation on their panel of experts. Also, I’d like to see the BBC put some money where its mouth is. The occasional one-off documentary on BBC 3 and the odd mention on Doctor Who aren’t really good enough from a publicly funded broadcaster. Hopefully something exciting is on the horizon, now that Lip Service has opened the door somewhat.