Since on the denouement of the Berena storyline on Holby City and where the BBC had failed LGBTQ audiences, I’ve been more active on Twitter than I have on here. First and foremost my attention has been on the community of women most hurt by what happened, but I too am grieving the loss of characters that I cherished, so some time away during the holiday period was welcome. I have also been talking to a number of women about action(s) that can be taken now in order to ensure that the BBC recognises what has happened, and that the corporation and other programme makers can avoid doing such harm to an LGBTQ audience again. The campaign website, #BerenaDeservedBetter, launched on Monday 7 January 2019.
Having this week seen the BBC’s response to a Berena fan’s complaint about the handling of the storyline in the latter part of 2018, the importance of getting the BBC to engage with us is clear. This is, verbatim, what was sent back:
“Holby City is a fictional drama, and therefore has to be viewed in this context. We feel that our viewers understand this, and are also aware that any character in a drama is an individual rather than a ‘type’ to represent whole groups of people. No single character is intended to represent a profession, culture or any other group of people – they are individuals first and foremost. We don’t wish to portray a stereotype or an offensive attitude in a way that might appear to condone or encourage it. These individuals are accountable for their own unique actions and attitudes. Whilst we appreciate your concerns about this storyline, we have no evidence to suggest that it has caused ‘widespread distress’ among audience members.”
It will be immediately obvious to those who have been following this storyline for the past two years and more, that this response contradicts entirely the way that Holby City has discussed Berena up until now. Those involved in making the show have repeatedly talked precisely in terms of representation and of the community that such representation serves, across and interviews, in , and in for Best LGBT Storyline in June 2018. The idea that there is no evidence of distress is also laughable to anyone who participates in online fan spaces; it may be the case that this distress is not ‘widespread’ when Berena fans are considered as part of the larger Holby City audience, but again, this kind of quantitative thinking has until now been absent. When the show was receiving praise for its portrayal of women-loving women, it did not once rebuff the suggestion that this fictional story was representative, or that it might have an emotional impact on viewers. The BBC cannot be permitted to change the terms in which it discusses its content according to expedience or comfort. (And, taking this response to its logical conclusion, how does any fictional portrayal come to be considered in terms of representation? What is the threshold? If it exists, shouldn’t audiences be aware of it?)
It is also worth taking a look at , which is part of its role as regulator, and which was published in late October 2018. Ofcom’s report points out that one of the BBC’s ‘public purposes’ is ‘to serve, reflect and represent diverse communities of the UK […] the BBC should accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of people across the UK’. The report refers throughout to fictional and non-fictional content without differentiating between the two in the way that the BBC’s response, above, seeks to. Neither does the BBC’s own diversity commissioning code of practice, set out in March 2018, exclude fictional content from its requirement that programmes authentically represent a diverse range of people.
Viewers who spoke to Ofcom in 2018 said that they felt ‘LGBT representation was skewed towards men, with less representation of women’ and that older LGBT people were often absent; in their content analysis, Ofcom found that gay or bisexual men appeared five times more frequently than lesbian or bisexual women. (There is some irony to the fact that the Berena storyline ended in the background of the wedding of a gay and a bisexual man.)
The Ofcom research was intended to inform the BBC in its efforts to improve representation, and those efforts are critical to the BBC’s Operating Licence. The BBC has also made its own commitments to diversity and inclusion (see here). Rather than dismissing viewers in the way it appears to have done so far, the BBC ought to be taking our complaints far more seriously and engaging in good faith.
If anyone else has received a response from the BBC, I would be interested to see it. You can .