I am a longstanding defender of the BBC and indeed the concept of a BBC. You only need to look at the crazed nonsense that passes for television news in the United States to see why – indeed, a recent poll showed that the most trusted news broadcaster in the United States was… the BBC!
However, I remain concerned about the BBC’s quest for commercial ratings, which are not fundamentally why it exists. Its role is in fact to provide an impartial public service. It is beginning on occasions to mistake having one informed view and one uninformed view for impartiality – in fact, impartiality requires two informed views; they have to be informed because the public service role demands it.
The usually excellent (and recently much improved) Talkback programme on Radio Ulster hosted a discussion last week on Transgender issues. My wife and I happen to be working with some people experiencing them and are on our own learning curve about them, so we looked forward to an informative show on a sensitive subject – bearing in mind the high rate of mental ill-health and even suicide experienced by people affected (not least because of the lack of awareness and even sympathy), which we feel could be reduced by awareness-raising in an informed and sensitive manner. It was to be the BBC at its best, in other words.
What you absolutely do not want to do in such circumstances is invite an extremist on to the programme recently paid out of our licence fee to say on BBC TV that people with mental health issues were work-shy welfare fraudsters. Such extremists are, of course, commonly used by shock jocks to attract ratings and, arguably, have their place in such a role. They are not, however, remotely appropriate for a debate which must be informed and sensitive about a much maligned and misunderstood minority.
As such, the programme failed utterly to add awareness and understanding on a topic which badly needs it. Informed contributors of differing views were available. Next time, let us hear those informed contributors given their “right to free speech”.