Graham Norton’s Aids ribbon

On the 29th November edition of his chat show – the edition that aired closest to World Aids Day, December 1st – Graham Norton wore an Aids ribbon, as did all his guests. Another BBC employee noticed this, and found it to be at odds with a training course he had recently undergone, in which he had been told that BBC presenters were forbidden from wearing charity emblems. He decided to write a letter to the BBC staff magazine, Ariel, raising the issue (in what seem to me, frankly, pretty snide terms)

During the Safeguarding Values training earlier this year – an example of practice, ruled as wrong, on the Graham Norton Show was highlighted.

We were told his guests could wear a red ribbon for World Aids Day but HE couldn’t.

Despite the cynics in our group saying this would be flouted, we were told that, like the rest of us, Graham Norton has to obey the rules – however much he disagrees with them.

Well, guess what happened last week? Graham Norton wore the red ribbon on his show – a couple of days before World Aids Day.

Can you ask the powers-that-be

1 – what action has, or is, being taken as a result of this?

2 – is it only ‘talent’ on big contracts who can flout rules if they disagree with them?

Hamish Marshall, BBC South West (December 6, 2013)

His snideness notwithstanding, let’s not make this about Mr Marshall himself; it’s perfectly possible that he thinks the rule is absurd and unjust, and would if asked express the view that he, Graham Norton and all other BBC presenters should be free to wear Aids ribbons on screen. Nonetheless, BBC management were in this manner goaded into a response:

Mark Linsey, controller, Entertainment Commissioning, replies: World Aids Day is an issue which Graham cares passionately about and he did wear a World Aids Day insignia on his programme.

However, this is in breach of BBC Guidelines. The production company has been contacted and reminded that he cannot do this and Graham has accepted he was wrong to do so. The BBC has been assured it will not occur again.

The ‘guidelines’ to which Mr Linsey refers are contained in Section 4.4.20 of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines:

Campaigns

4.4.20

Similarly, 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.

There is, apparently, a single exception: the wearing of the poppy insignia at Remembrance Day in support of the Royal British Legion. (The RBL is a registered charity which, according to its website, has been ‘campaigning’ on behalf of ‘the Armed Forces community’ ‘since 1921’ – this text appears superimposed over a picture of a leading politician speaking in front of the red poppy logo.)

This is a mess.

First, the RBL exception drives a coach and horses Challenger tank through the Guidelines, to the point that it’s impossible to pretend that they remain even slightly intact. Keep in mind that this isn’t just a charity, it’s a campaigning charity which actively and deliberately involves itself in the political sphere. It’s a charity that, as it goes, is not entirely uncontroversial (Graham Norton, as a citizen of the Irish Republic, would be in a good position to understand why uncritical memorialising of the British military can be upsetting for some people), but that’s actually irrelevant. The guidelines specifically indicate that not even the most ‘uncontroversial’ or ‘worthy’ of organisations or campaigns can be endorsed by the BBC. So, if the policy is to mean anything, it has to mean that BBC presenters cannot wear the poppy – even if that emblem is understood, as it pretty much universally is these days, as a memorial to the fallen, not necessarily an endorsement of the causes in which they fell.

Second, the Aids ribbon, unlike the poppy, is not the property of any one charity, organisation or campaign group, and the insignia does not relate to any single institution or event. On the contrary, it was deliberately not copyrighted or trademarked by the people who developed it, the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus, intentionally to ensure that ‘no […] organization would profit from the use of the red ribbon’. Many charities and organisations (up to and including the UN) make use of the red ribbon in the course of their fundraising and campaigning activities, but the ribbon does not belong to any of them, and the wearing of it is not an endorsement of them, nor of their campaigns.

People wear the Aids ribbon for all sorts of reasons, but a principle one amongst them – especially for gay men of Graham Norton’s generation – is as a mark of respect and remembrance for the dead. Gay men who, like Norton, are in their early 50s now were in their early 20s three decades ago, as the Western Aids crisis was gathering pace. They are the too-few survivors of that lost generation who bore its brunt, and they spent much of the 80s and the first half of the 90s burying lovers, friends, friends of friends – people they could have expected to live beside and love for decades, but who were scythed down before they had even grown out of their youth.

Telling Graham Norton, or any gay man of his generation, not to wear the Aids ribbon around the start of December is like telling him to desecrate the memory of his friends: like asking him to become one of those who is allowing the lost generation to become the forgotten generation. As the opening voice-over to the excellent, harrowing, Swedish Aids drama currently airing on BBC4 puts it, it was like a war being fought on the streets of our own cities, and people carried on like nothing was happening. It’s wholly unreasonable – in fact, it’s cruel – to require Graham Norton to become one of those who carries on like nothing happened. Asking him to sacrifice his charitable conscience on the altar of BBC impartiality is one thing (and that’s how the BBC are spinning this story; that Aids is a charitable concern in which he interests himself, not something that is deeply personal). Asking him to betray the memory of his friends is something else entirely.

So far as I can tell, this is any case a guideline more honoured in the breach than the observance. There’s the aforementioned exception for the poppies – an emblem far more intensely politicised than that of the red ribbon. But, equally, the requirement for BBC presenters to avoid associating themselves with causes no matter how worthy or uncontroversial doesn’t seem to prevent James Landale – who, as the BBC’s deputy political editor, is in a much more sensitive position – from growing his moustache every year for Movember.

That’s personal too, of course (he’s a cancer survivor), but it’s still a visible symbol of a personal allegiance, and that’s apparently beyond the pale. If there’s a logic that says it’s OK to mark attachment to an anti-cancer-and-mental-illness campaign but not an anti-Aids campaign, I can’t think of it. Unless it’s that old, mostly forgotten, utterly disreputable argument that people with Aids and HIV are being punished by God for their immorality – but if that is the reason, then in nodding through Landale’s moustache while bridling at Norton’s ribbon, the BBC are tacitly endorsing a deeply homophobic argument, itself a major breach of impartiality.

The BBC’s guidelines seem to be based on the assumption that, because it is theoretically possible that someone might object to memorialising and acknowledging those who have died from and are living with HIV/ Aids, the BBC should not do so themselves, nor allow their presenters to do so, even indirectly. That seems to me to be perilously close to endorsing one side of the argument – if some people want the topic ignored (because “they got/ get what they deserve(d)”), and some want it acknowledged, then ordering its non-acknowledgement means taking sides. But let that slide for now. This still doesn’t explain why on earth the BBC thinks anyone would take Graham Norton’s left lapel as a definitive statement of the policy of the whole corporation. After all, Graham Norton’s mouth is allowed to repeatedly tell jokes critical of the royal family, without anyone assuming that this represents official BBC policy. It’s quite literally absurd that his clothing should be held to a higher standard of accountability.

It’s also weird that a BBC journalist would object to a light entertainment presenter having greater freedom in what he wears, but accept without demur that he has greater freedom in what he says. If Graham Norton can say things on air that Hamish Marshall never could – and he can – why is it surprising that Norton can wear badges Marshall never could as well? If there’s an acknowledged distinction between what’s appropriate for people working in light entertainment and what’s appropriate for people working in news/ current affairs when it comes to what they can say, why isn’t there a similar distinction when it comes to what they can wear?

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