• Andrew Tettenborn

Thou shalt not debate the morality of homosexuality on BBC Question Time

It’s not only our politicians who are out of touch in their own comfortable little world, cut off from the rest of us and our concerns. A collective outburst by a number of BBC bigwigs and hangers-on sheds a fascinating light on the mindset of those in and around the national broadcaster that we all have to pay for whether we like it or not.

Readers will know of the ongoing argument at Parkfield Community School and a number of other schools in Birmingham over the No Outsiders programme. Part of the sex and relationships education project, this involves raising with primary school children as young as four issues concerning LGBT sexual relations and gender identity.

A number of parents, mainly Muslim but including Christian and Jewish parties as well, object to this as inappropriate sexualisation of the very young. By contrast, the education establishment, Ofsted, a caucus of Labour MPs, and the deputy head who set up the programme are all adamant that this is highly necessary and desirable.

On last Thursday’s Question Time the point was debated when – perhaps unsurprisingly – this question was chosen for discussion: “Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?” (The unanimous answer, for those interested, was Yes). But this isn’t the point. Large numbers said the matter shouldn’t have been discussed at all.

BBC Breakfast presenter Ben Thompson and BBC News senior foreign producer Tony Brown promptly objected that the discussion had even taken place. Sue Perkins, former Bake Off host who still presents other BBC programmes, said, “The framing of this question is deeply worrying. Are we really here again, nearly two decades after Section 28 was repealed?” And an “on-screen BBC journalist” who did not care to be named loftily said, “I look at the care we take over our other reporting and this leaves me totally confused. We are meant to educate as well as inform.”

That those with close connections to the BBC, should seek to put off-limits the discussion of issues of concern to large numbers of people is unacceptable.

The BBC, it is true, defended the programme, but in a fairly formulaic and non-committal way.

This reaction is worrying, whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of the Parkfield affair. It is one thing for pressure-groups to agitate for debate to be suppressed (Luke Tryl, from the rather unpleasant Stonewall, sneered in the Guardian at the very idea that it might be appropriate at all to debate the “morality” of discussing LGBT issues in schools, and there have been a discreet attempt to prevent at least one national figure speaking on the matter on the basis that such controversy would be “dangerous”).

But that those with close connections to the BBC, whether themselves LGBT or not, should seek to put off-limits the discussion of issues of concern to large numbers of people is unacceptable. It is an attack on freedom of speech, on diversity of opinion, and on public life and discussion in this country.

As for the unnamed BBC journalist, it is time someone took him aside and told him some home truths about what is meant by educating people. Notable should be the point that education, at least for adults, involves allowing them to be presented with opposing moral points of view and encouraged to weigh them and decide between them.

What it does not involve is suppressing discussion on the basis that the educated elite already knows better, and it is their job to tell us to run along and leave the real arguments to the grown-ups.

(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath)