In his biography of his father Richard, Jonathan Dimbleby writes of his father’s shame at the timidity of the BBC during the Spanish Civil War. The BBC, thought Dimbleby senior, was, in effect, through editorial selection, siding with the Franco regime. It is a reminder that, even when they do nothing, institutions are taking sides. At the moment, the controversy arises not in a war but in a culture war.
The latest instance of institutions making judgments about individual conduct is the case of Róisín Murphy, the Irish singer. Ms Murphy expressed concern on Facebook about the use of puberty blockers, a comment which attracted the attention and scorn of pro-trans activists. The issue trended on social media for a few days, attention which seemed out of all proportion to the scale of the original comment.
If that were all, then we might be content to let it be. Ms Murphy is entitled to say what she said and protesters are allowed to object. The discussion, although it may not always be conducted in a generous way, is how this question will be settled in the end. There is a serious question at stake here, which is the extent to which people should be permitted to identify their gender as they wish and the conditions under which they should be allowed to act on that expression by changing the nature and functioning of their bodies.
Though it is easy to leap to a view on other side it is, in fact, a complex and difficult trade-off, the more so when we are talking about those who have not yet attained the age of majority.
This is an issue which a society needs to work through. And that is not at all helped if we respond hysterically, which is what happened next. A review of Murphy’s latest album in The Guardian judged the singer as well as the songs. Murphy’s record company declined to promote the album for fear of the backlash and she had concerts cancelled. The planned BBC celebration of Murphy’s music was dropped.
The fact that Murphy’s album then went to the top of the charts suggests that there is a constituency that agrees with Murphy should not be silenced. It is hugely doubtful that all those people bought the album in solidarity with Murphy’s view on puberty blockers. Most people have no considered view on this question at all. They were, in all probability, expressing their support for someone who seemed to be on the wrong end of a reaction that was out of proportion.
It can sound like weasel-words to ask for proportion when people feel they are engaged in a profound matter of social justice. Trans activists feel that is exactly what is at stake and that there can be no compromise on the issue. Yet even if the argument between the gender-critical feminists and the trans-activists needs to be seen in terms of victory and defeat — and I don’t think it necessarily does — then the only way to arrive at a durable settlement is for a change to happen with which the public is comfortable.
We can only get to that point if the discussion is free and open. It would help if it were conducted in civil tones but maybe the argument is too far gone for that. In which case, it is important that the institutions which provide the space for debate are strong and refuse to bow to the desire of critics to shut the discussion down.
This is where we come back to Richard Dimbleby because the public service broadcasters have a greater responsibility than anyone else. The BBC’s director-general Tim Davie has a requirement that the newspapers do not. The Mail, The Telegraph and The Guardian have a distinctive view of the world. They are more like participants in a debate than the space in which it happens.
A definition of public service broadcasting is an elusive thing. The words of the 1986 Peacock Review might be as good as we can do: we had some difficulty obtaining an operational definition… but its meaning is reasonably clear from its usage. Institutions sometimes have to be strong to remain impartial. They cannot be impartial on the need for impartiality and the need to stage the debate. Closing down the argument and letting it be conducted by record sales will not be enough. The public realm today can be vicious. The anonymity of social media allows people to adopt a tone they would find unreasonable in person. But there is a lot of passion in these questions of identity and free speech. If institutions like the BBC take fright they are not serving their purpose which is to be a place where this argument can happen.
Philip Collins is a columnist