Regulation has failed us. It’s time to focus on policy

“I do understand the offence which was caused to some viewers, but I have to consider whether the programme’s portrayal of the relationship between Serena and Bernie, and Serena’s relationship with Leah, went beyond what would be regarded as generally accepted, and I do not believe that it did.”

final response to complaint CAS-5275534-7LYRWD

After several months and many thousands of words written (here, on Twitter, and in correspondence with the BBC), this was the BBC’s last word on the upset caused by the way the Berena storyline ended. It came in a letter from the head of the Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), to which dissatisfied complainers eventually get passed. The letter closed by pointing out that if I remained dissatisfied, I could complain to Ofcom – which I did, despite knowing by now that I was on a hiding to nothing. And, in due course, Ofcom declined to investigate. The broadcasting regulator also decided against looking into the episode of Coronation Street in which Rana Habeeb died on the day she was due to wed Kate Connor, despite receiving more than 200 complaints, some of them from women who had talked about thoughts of suicide and self-harm in the episode’s immediate aftermath.

I don’t know how many viewers complained to the BBC about episodes of Holby City in December 2018/January 2019, because the corporation refuses to disclose such information, but I’ve spoken to more than a dozen people who did. No one naively went into the process imagining it would be swift or that they were assured of a positive outcome, but I think it would be fair to say that none of us expected it to be so exhausting and so demoralising. I want to post about the complaints process itself at some point, but that is still in the works; in the meantime, it’s probably worth thinking about how to react productively to the dismissal of these complaints.

First, we need to be clear about why these complaints (and others like them) founder.

The BBC guidelines warn against causing harm and offence and stereotypical portrayal of minorities, and it is one of Ofcom’s statutory duties “to provide adequate protection for members of the public from harmful and/or offensive material.” Initially, I think many of us felt that the harm done to queer female viewers by Holby City in December, and again by Coronation Street in the new year, was so evident and so poorly responded to by the BBC and ITV respectively, that there was at least a reasonable chance that Ofcom would decide to investigate.

In addition, Ofcom’s own guidance on harm and offence states that: “If there is underrepresentation, the use of stereotypes and caricatures or the discussion of difficult or controversial issues involving that community may be seen as offensive in that it is viewed as creating a false impression of that minority.” Given that Ofcom published research in October 2018 showing that on BBC output, gay and bisexual men are still five times more visible than lesbian and bisexual women, we felt we had reason to hope that our complaints that the Berena infidelity storyline (in which two further, one-dimensional queer women were also implicated) perpetuated negative stereotypes of queer people might attract the regulator’s attention.  

What we now know is that:

‘Harm’ and ‘offence’ are measured by “generally accepted standards”. These standards are not defined for our purposes. While it’s easy to say that using “cunt” on a family programme goes against what we would generally expect and accept, how can we establish what is generally acceptable in terms of the portrayal of minorities? It is evident, based on this experience, that it is not those who have been harmed or offended or stereotyped who arbitrate, but “the vast majority of viewers” as imagined by the BBC and/or Ofcom. The fact that those handling complaints at the BBC routinely wrote as if LGBTQ+ viewers and ‘regular Holby viewers’ were two distinct groups tells us much about that.

The BBC and Ofcom each state that judgements relating to harm and offence rely on context. Before the fact, relevant context includes where and when something is broadcast, the likely audience and their expectations, and so on. In response to our complaints, the BBC also included as relevant context the fact that Holby City is fictional, that it’s a soap, and that the Berena storyline had previously been well received. None of the context that made this so painful for the most invested viewers – from the show itself and the promises the characters made, to long-standing television tropes involving f/f relationships, to wider social stereotypes of queer women as sexually promiscuous – was deemed sufficient to render the harm done to us a breach of standards. The context in which harm and offence is judged is one of convenience to the broadcaster.

In short, the standards and regulations applied to broadcasting in the UK are fundamentally flawed when it comes to LGBTQ+ (and other minority) representation and portrayal. The standards are narrowly defined and entirely normative; they are open to subjective interpretation by programme makers but treated as if they are objective and immovable when it comes to assessing viewer complaints[1].

Ofcom’s code was written in response to the Communications Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Act 1996 before that: these are regulations written for episodic material, consumed (most likely just once) at episodic (week-by-week) pace; they protect the viewer from immediate offence at the single moment of broadcast. We get apologies for accidental swearing on daytime shows but abject silence when LGBTQ+ viewers have to watch the characters they love reduced to nothing but offensive stereotype and flimsy storylining.

The effects of repeat viewings, social media promotion, actor interviews – none of it matters. The crux of any investigation is simply: was it okay to broadcast this particular moment/episode? Thus, when I sent another letter to the BBC, complaining that Holby City had given its only m/m couple an infidelity storyline almost identical in set-up to the one given to Berena six months earlier, they were able to dismiss the complaint because I had previously “raised the same issue” and this had “already been through [the] full complaints process”.

This loophole leaves LGBTQ+ viewers vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. Broadcasters and producers may make whatever claims they wish to about the importance of representation and their part in it, but none of these good intentions is enforceable. Our own desperation to see ourselves on screen, to see our lives and loves legitimated, unfortunately means we are liable time and again to having our hearts broken in this way.

The need for change

I think/hope I’ve already pretty much established a good case for change here, but I also wanted to share a few moments from a conversation I had with Colin Tregear, the head of the ECU, in April 2019. After I’d received his final response (quoted at the top of this post), he invited me to reply with my thoughts, and when I did so, I asked if we could meet to talk about all of this. He said he could only speak on his own behalf and not that of the BBC, but that he was happy to do so. It was an instructive conversation, and one that has helped to crystallise a couple of things:

For all the talk of the importance of representation and portrayal, there’s an awful lot of permissible ignorance on the subject

Mr Tregear said that the complaints had been effective at raising awareness of issues around tropes and stereotypes in representation of which programme makers (and indeed complaints executives – the ECU is a six-person team, and none of them is a queer woman) had previously been ignorant[2]. On the one hand this is positive (yay! We did something!) but on the other hand, people at the BBC are making TV shows and talking about LGBTQ+ representation without being sufficiently aware of the history of this sort of (mis-/under-)representation to avoid harmful stereotypes and tropes. And when they fail to avoid them, the people holding them to account don’t know about them either. Mr Tregear was not aware of the findings on underrepresentation published by Ofcom in October 2018.

We’re not imagining the flaws in broadcasting regulation as they affect minority viewers

Mr Tregear acknowledged that the complaints had failed (at least in part) on account of the regulatory definition of context: “Did what the program actually produce, in my view, amount to a breach of the BBC standards or indeed the Ofcom code, over which Ofcom presides? No, I don’t think it did it. But that’s because your context is different from what we would call ‘generally accepted standards’.” He later fleshed this out by saying that, “regardless of whether the way the storyline was handled was dramatically good or bad, the impact of the way it ended affects you differently than it possibly affected other viewers. I have a better understanding of that as a result of talking to you and being engaged in correspondence.”

How do we change things?

In the end, this was a question that Mr Tregear and I each asked the other. For him, it was a question of gradual cultural and institutional change over time:

[It’s] a cultural thing. And change in the culture always has to come from the top, unless you have a revolution. So it’s a slow process. My personal view is what you’re doing helps, because you are starting to get people to think – you know, I feel differently about it. Because one, I wouldn’t actually have been aware of the whole issue of the Holby City storyline, if you and your colleagues hadn’t raised concerns, but has it made me, my colleagues, and some of the people I’ve spoken to, think a little differently, at least been more aware? Yeah, of course it has.

Does that mean that I’ve got the influence to set the next storyline in EastEnders or whatever? No. But does the sense, the mood, the language, the feeling, start to filter? Yes, it does. You know, what I do is oversee stuff that’s already gone out. So, we are absolutely after the horse has bolted, so to speak. But by talking to writers and programme makers, and senior managers, and going, ‘this is the issue, let’s talk about it’… actually, that’s one of the things we do that has value. [That] sense of you and your colleagues shaping and changing thinking… it’s a slow process, but it has to be part of a trickle-down effect which comes from raising concerns.

Colin Tregear, conversation in April 2019

Naturally, it’s encouraging to think that our complaints and concerns have been heard and been the subject of conversations at a level high enough to make a difference. I would suggest, though, that this sort of process of change is trickle up, not down, and, well, that’s difficult, isn’t it? That is slow.

So I think we have two options:

One, we continue to wait for this upward trickle, and in the meantime, soaps and dramas hold their tongues – don’t assure LGBTQ+ audiences that you recognise the world as they experience it if (a) you don’t and/or (b) will eventually have to prioritise things other than the outcomes for these audiences.

Or two, we take action in order to address the loopholes and blindspots that produce shipwrecks such as Berena.

My vote goes to the latter, and I think there are a couple of ways we can approach this.

Push for changes to policy.

While it’s disappointing that Ofcom decided not to investigate complaints about Holby City or Coronation Street, we know this is down to the nature of the regulations: our complaints are square pegs being pushed into round holes. But enforcing standards isn’t all that Ofcom does; it also produces Content and Media Policy. Much of this work is evidence-based and can be prompted by input from ordinary stakeholders such as you and me.

“At its core, policy making at Ofcom involves understanding problems and developing options to solve them.” Let’s put the regulatory flaws discussed here onto Ofcom’s agenda for the coming year. Let’s ask their policy team to consider whether or not it’s fair for minority viewers to have to do so much work as we had to do to get any level of humanity from our major public service broadcaster, the BBC.

Ofcom’s 2019-20 annual plan was published in March 2019, and one of its priorities was increasing diversity and inclusion (both internally and on screen). Ofcom wants to see broadcasters building and delivering on their commitments to representation. I suggest they would pay attention to evidence that the BBC is being selective about when it chooses to acknowledge its responsibility for minority representation. It is through Ofcom policy-making that broadcasters can be pushed towards caring about LGBTQ+ audiences’ experiences, rather than tickbox diversity.

Break down barriers

The past six months has felt very much like an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation: ‘we’ can’t fathom how all those promises ended up being empty, how swiftly “representation matters” became “it’s just a drama”; ‘they’ seem shocked by how poorly received was the denouement to Berena, how deeply the audience was hurt. ‘We’ and ‘they’, perhaps, imagined we were all on the same side, and suddenly there is a gulf between us.

We need to find ways that allow viewers, script writers, producers, commissioners, benefactors, actors – all stakeholders, essentially – to communicate throughout the creative process. It shouldn’t be the case that audiences are not allowed to breathe the same rarefied air as the people who create and shape and perform for mass consumption, especially when public funds are involved.

We need to ensure that creators have every opportunity to access and engage with the history of minority representation and its endless disappointments, so that what they create and the things they say about it are properly and sufficiently contextualised.

We need to find ways for ‘creators’ and ‘LGBTQ+ audiences’ and ‘regular viewers’ not to be (treated as) discrete categories. We are them and they are us.

An addendum

I would like to work towards building a resource and a meeting place around wlw/LGBTQ+ representation; a hub, if you like, where writers and producers and audiences (and people with the money to back this sort of stuff) can come together to talk and share ideas. A place where queer viewers can share their experiences of popular culture (good and bad) and offer ongoing critique of what’s out there. A place to find reviews and academic literature about older examples of representation. A place where anyone can pitch an idea, without needing to be well-connected. In short, a place where everyone can be a writer as well as a reader.

Something like this? Can we do it? Get in touch.

[1] See this post from May 2019, which was published on the Berena Deserved Better campaign blog. For clarity, I should say that I am no longer working with the Berena Deserved Better collective, and have not been since mid-May

[2] For an example of this, consider references made to the Berena storyline up to December 2018: viewers complained that those involved with the programme had previously said that they recognised the underrepresentation of older f/f couples, that they were invested in maintaining the storyline for the sake of its fans and the impact on them (accepting an award for the storyline from DIVA, the well-known LBT magazine), and that Serena and Bernie had promised “eternity” to one another in June 2018. The ECU would not concede that any of this context might contribute to the harm done by December’s episodes. The ECU did itself, however, take all of this into account as good representation, much as one might defend someone in court by reference to their previous good character.


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