Thursday, 10 March 2016

Open Letter to Iain Lee

Dear Mr Lee,

As somebody who agrees with your belief that homophobia is bigotry, and believes that challenging homophobia is a 'good thing', I am still surprised that you don't know what you did wrong in your interview with the lawyer from the Christian Legal Centre. I listened to the soundcloud of the confrontation, and was unimpressed by your conduct.

My impression of your behaviour is that you had no patience for Libby Powell's beliefs, and you allowed your anger to overcome your professional skills as a host. From your question 'do you support bigotry?' through to your curt dismissal of freedom of speech, you are aggressive, sometimes talking over her replies and apparently assuming that her Christianity is naive and delusional. 

Although I don't share the beliefs of Powell, or that the media can remain neutral, this kind of interviewing technique is a problem. It is familiar enough - it sounds, ironically, like the behaviour of the notorious right-wing (and often Christian) American talk-show hosts. But it is not constructive, reducing debate to a shouting match. It doesn't challenge the unpleasant opinions of the homophobe, only allows them to ignore your arguments.

The BBC's decision to apologise for your behaviour makes sense within their remit - the corporation's desire to present both sides of a story is famous, even if it is flawed. The ambition to be balanced is not just vanity, but one of the ways that it protects its status as a national broadcaster. 

That the BBC often fails in this mission - Scottish Nationalists point this out, as do campaigners against the Israeli state - but the principle is valid. Ripping an opponent to shreds on air probably aspires to a different value system. 

The BBC also needs guests to come on and discuss issues. If those guests get the impression that hosts might attack them, they won't come on air. It's not just about your rhetorical tour de force: it's about representing the BBC's corporate identity. That is what they pay you for: if you don't like it, the internet allows you to make your own shows.

In the short term, you won: Powell was humiliated, if not meaningfully challenged. Homophobia was declared outside of acceptability, and you waved your opinions around like a big flag.

In the longer term, you failed. There are plenty of ways to challenge Christian homophobia - including the famous argument presented in The West Wing. Even Bono, an utter clown, managed to convince conservative extremist Jesse Helms that his homophobia was unchristian

Because the righteousness of your cause is not enough. The language used, the attitude towards those who do not understand, the climate of debate: these all contribute to social changes. While there is no denying that institutional homophobia has been undermined by direct action (Stonewall was quite a big deal), the ongoing battle takes diverse forms. As a national broadcaster, the BBC can help set the tone. 

Claiming to be 'flabbergasted' by the BBC's attitude towards your conduct is naive: I'd go so far as to say that you took one issue (which was the freedom of a pentecostal minister to express homophobia in a chapel) and made it an attack on Christianity. The correct place for the discussion might well be the law courts, not talk radio, but hot-wiring theology into the debate removes it from a matter of civil speech into a wider, less coherent conflict between religion and secular morality. 

I don't believe that you ought to have lost your job, but recognising the difference between your opinions and your attitude might be a positive step. In fact, a humble apology might help, especially if you re-iterate your commitment to challenging homophobia at the same time. You could, indeed, 'love the sinner but not the sin'. 

Many people who have supported you have missed the point: it is assumed that you are being punished for your opinions, not your conduct. That you messed up the discussion is clear: it has become about you, not homophobia, and the 'below the line' comments on The Guardian reveal that the actual broadcast has been lost in a welter of knee-jerk responses. One response suggests it is about 'religion in the workplace', ignoring the location of the remarks. 

It's irritating that I can't come out in support of you: you share many of my values, and you clearly have a lively, passionate engagement with contemporary values. But shouting over women is never a good look.

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