Elton John and David Furnish: two men, a baby and a BBC balancing act?
It was a trending topic on Twitter for two days, written about on a number of blogs, and PinkNews.co.uk, the online newspaper for the gay community that I founded, has been all a-buzz.
On 28 December on the BBC News at Six (broadcast at 6:20pm due to the bank holiday), seven million people were shown a report about the birth of the couple’s first child. The report contained one original interview, with Stephen Green, of the group Christian Voice.
BBC entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba introduced Mr Green with the line: “Not everyone is pleased to see such a high profile same-sex couple start to raise a surrogate child.” The report then contained an interview in which Mr Green told the BBC: “This isn’t just a designer baby for Sir Elton John, this is a designer accessory… Now it seems like money can buy him anything, and so he has entered into this peculiar arrangement… The baby is a product of it. A baby needs a mother and it seems an act of pure selfishness to deprive a baby of a mother.”
As PinkNews.co.uk pointed out, Mr Green is no stranger to controversy. Aside from his support of a proposed death penalty for some forms of gay sex in Uganda, Mr Green once claimed that gay Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas was a “wicked” role model for children and compared the gay pop star Ian Watkins (H- from the band Steps) to a serial killer when he came out. He also unsuccessfully attempted a private prosecution of the director-general of the BBC over the character of Jesus saying “I’m a little bit gay” during a broadcast of the satire Jerry Springer: The Opera.
The BBC have defended the decision to interview Mr Green with a statement to PinkNews.co.uk: “The practice of surrogacy is a sensitive subject and remains controversial in some quarters. Our short news bulletin featured Elton John talking about wanting to have a child and an opposing viewpoint. All sides of the debate on surrogacy have been widely reported in the news media and our coverage has reflected this.”
Look here’s a disclaimer, I label myself as a member of the LGBT community and I was surprised by the decision to include an interview with Mr Green on this story. I tweeted as much when I saw the programme on the BBC iPlayer (it has since been removed). It made me wonder what sort of balance the BBC wished to display. I wondered if they would interview a member of the Klu Klux Klan or the English Defence League if a mix-raced couple had a surrogate child. I also wondered why they didn’t interview a prominent republican when Prince William and Kate Middleton announced their engagement.
But I find the BBC’s defence all the more surprising on a professional level, particularly given my perspective as a television journalist.
It’s often necessary to seek out an opposing or balancing view to a news story. It’s one of the distinct obligations that are unique to broadcast news over the printed or online media.
I have to search out someone who doesn’t like, or has an alternative view on, a new feature that Facebook introduce or look around for someone who doesn’t think the latest device from Apple will be a hit. But you have to be sensible about it. Not every story I produce has someone advocating the contrary view.
When Microsoft launched the Kinect for X-Box, there wasn’t anyone serious who thought it would be a flop. But when Apple launched the iPad, someone serious, the media professor Jeff Jarvis told me that it wouldn’t be the saviour of the newspaper industry, no matter how much Rupert Murdoch would like it. So I included Jeff, but I didn’t have anyone criticising Microsoft.
What people including Stephen Fry, Johann Hari and others on Twitter are questioning is why the BBC felt it necessary to seek out an opposing view to a high-profile gay couple having a surrogate child.
Many people have commented on PinkNews that it would have been preferable for the BBC to seek out an expert in child care to say that Sir Elton is too old to have a baby, or maybe even someone like the gay consultant editor of the Daily Mail, Andrew Pierce who has criticised Elton for just that reason. Instead, the BBC approached someone who is opposed to any gay couple having a surrogate child, regardless of their personal circumstances.
I spoke to a senior source at the BBC who told me to be realistic as the report was broadcast over the Christmas break and that “lots of people are on holiday or not answering their phones”, therefore justifying the decision to use Mr Green.
Unfortunately, the broadcast last week is being interpreted by some in the gay community as just another gay gaffe by the BBC. Last year it apologised for hosting a debate entitled “Should homosexuals face the death penalty?” .
It’s clear that the question of balance is a complicated one, what do you think the BBC should have done?