Guest post by Sammy McNally:

A complaint about the BBC Northern Ireland program ‘The Twelfth’ has been rejected by the BBC Trust (which operates independently from the BBC) on the grounds that although the annual Orange Order parade was ‘controversial’ it was not ‘highly controversial’ – and not a ‘major matter’. The complainant had argued that the BBC had broken its own guidelines on dealing with controversial subjects when covering last year’s 12th July parade in Belfast.

(Full judgement here)

Had the Trust determined that the parade was either ‘highly controversial’ or a ‘major matter’ then the long running (50 years) outside broadcast programme would have been in breach of the much more stringent requirements on impartiality – and the tone of the programme, which the complainant described as ‘promotional’ would have required revision.

It is an interesting decision by the Trust – who took the view that the spectacle of the parade in the centre of Belfast should be evaluated separately from incidents involving the controversy surrounding the marchers either on their way to or on their way back from the city centre.

In relation to the‘Ardoyne feeder parade’ the Trust found that – “although there was concern at the time about the return of the North Belfast feeder parade, the editorial focus of the programme was clearly the cultural and festive aspects of the parade itself as it passed through the very centre of Belfast.”

Similarly, in relation to the sectarian tune playing outside St Patricks Church the Trust took the view that the focus of program was the city centre and the controversy surrounding this incident was therefore not a significant factor in their decision.

The Trust also cited audience expectation in explaining its decision.

“given the long-standing nature of the programme, the audience would have had clear expectations about what the programme would cover, and the approach taken was consistent with that taken in previous years. “

What is (arguably) disconcerting about this decision by the Editorial Standard Committee of the BBC Trust is that BBC program makers can apparently sidestep the stringent requirements for impartiality by concentrating on those aspects of an event which are not‘highly controversial’ and sidestep the requirements for ‘signposting’controversial subjects on the basis that the audience are aware of the program content because it had been broadcast previously in a ‘similar format’.

It is difficult not to believe that the Trust might have taken a somewhat different line if a parade in London – which was viewed as sectarian/racist by about half the citizens of the city, required the presence of hundreds of riot police, which led to a serious deterioration in community and political relations over the following months because of a sectarian/racist incident, which went through areas where it was not welcome and where the parade organisers had been ambivalent about upholding the law – had been given similar promotional treatment by BBC London.

In fairness to BBC Northern Ireland, they have made it clear that “detailed discussion was taking place at a senior level about the nature of the coverage in 2013” and it will be interesting to see if the programme, shortly returning to our screens, provides what might fairly be described as a fuller and a more rounded view of the nature of the parade and its implications for public order and community relations.

In the ‘background’ details supplied as part of its judgement the BBC Trust notes that “In recent years, the Orange Order, with support from Belfast City Council, has sought to rebrand the day as “Orangefest”, an event for the whole community” and in fairness also to the Orange Order they have striven to move away from the more offensive trappings and associations of the parade.

…but the Orange Order are still some considerable distance away from convincing many people (and perhaps a majority of the citizens of Belfast) that they could ever stage an inclusive event devoid of triumphalism and sectrainism – given the political and religious objectives of the organisation – but it is to be hoped (if not now expected) that BBC Northern Ireland would reflect that particular reality in its program coverage.