Guest post by Sammy McNally

Long before the BBC was ever even dreamt of, Orangemen have been marching – marching both where they are welcome and marching where they are not welcome.  The challenge for the BBC is to reflect the pomp and ceremony of those parades which are welcomed and to report on the controversies surrounding those parades which are not.

Orange March girlsAnyone viewing The Twelfth (BBC NI’s longest running outside broadcast programme ) which includes coverage from a number of locations in Northern Ireland of the marches on the public holiday of the 12th July, might reasonably, but incorrectly conclude, that there was little or no controversy  associated with the parades featured therein.

In 2012, The Twelfth programme, was the subject of a complaint that the BBC had not complied with its own guidelines on impartiality in its coverage of the Belfast parade.

 (Covered here by BangorDub  https://bangordub.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/ )

The BBC Trust rejected the complainant’s contention that the Belfast parade was ‘very controversial’ (which in recent years is often followed by days of rioting) – a category with specific editorial requirements.  (I think it safe to conclude none of the Trustees lived near the route of the Belfast parade).

The Trust also rather conveniently suggested that the Programme was part of a  linked ‘series’ even though  the programmes that is was ‘linked’ to were News programmes and suggested that any controversy was therefore covered by the News.  And the Trust also concluded that the “programme did contain some references which acknowledged the controversial nature of parades in general and these were sufficient in the context of a programme that has such clearly defined ambitions and where the audience would have a pre-existing understanding of the underlying issues.”

In 2013 The Twelfth programme was again the subject of a complaint on the grounds that there was even less balance in the programme than the previous year. One can imagine that during the course of this complaint this might have been a cause for some concern for BBC (NI) as they would potentially have had to publically revise the format of a programme very popular with the Unionist community  – at what continues to be a very sensitive time in the parading debate.

But BBC NI, need not have worried, in an extraordinary piece of logic the BBC Trust ruled that ‘The Committee agreed that the question for it was whether what BBC NI had done in 2013 was sufficient to achieve due impartiality according to the Guidelines. It noted that there are many ways to achieve due impartiality under the Guidelines. The Committee did not think it was necessary for the BBC to have gone about achieving due impartiality on this occasion in the same manner as it had done in the year before“.

So what was ‘sufficient’ in 2012 was not actually ‘necessary’ in 2013. An absolute gem from the Trust.

(Ruling Here, Published December 2014  http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/appeals/esc_bulletins/2014/sep.pdf

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What is perhaps most concerning about this piece of contorted logic, is that it appears to avoid  the need to have any balance at all in a programme which is a TV celebration of a cultural event which is (very) controversial, often leads to serious public disorder and has damaging consequences for community relations. Orange OrderIn practical terms, as far the BBC Trust is concerned, the BBC, can bypass the need for balance by simply advancing the self-serving claim that such a promotional style of programme can be fairly viewed as part of series which includes News programmes.  

Really?

By this logic the more controversial a topic then the greater will be the News coverage and the more the programme will comply with the guidelines.  It is hard to believe that whoever drew up the BBC guidelines could have guessed that ‘linkage’ would be so (mis)used.  

The BBC has helped build a (well-earned) reputation for impartiality by exploring the controversial aspects of Northern Ireland politics even during the height of the troubles but that reputation must surely be at risk – at least among the Nationalist community – by continuing to broadcast a programme  – about an event, which is not only overtly political but has sectarian and paramilitary trappings – in such an unashamedly promotional way.

It is inconceivable to imagine a programme being broadcast in Britain which covers an event with such potential for public disorder and which is so offensive in sectarian (or racial terms) to a large section (44%) of the population? But this is of course, Northern Ireland, where things are different and it may be that the BBC Trust is mindful of the current political situation and wishes to avoid making any ruling which unsettles Unionist political opinion further.  And that is perhaps Orange Bonfire nightunderstandable – but that is not however the role that  the BBC Trust was set up to perform nor is it the role that licence fee payers impacted upon by the parade or those who belong to the broader Nationalist community can reasonably expect the BBC Trust to perform.  

….but whatever spin the BBC Trust wishes to put on it – this is a programme which has evolved in its current format, when Nationalists in Northern Ireland were treated as, and seen as, second class citizens – and is at a minimum, badly in need of a serious (impartial) make-over – and is arguably way, way, past it’s sell by date.  

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