The BBC may have won PR Week’s best internal publication award for
its staff newspaper Ariel but it has secured - and deserves - no PR
prizes for the absurd internal note from its chief political adviser,
Anne Sloman telling editors that ’under no circumstances whatsoever
should the allegations about the private life of Peter Mandelson be
repeated or referred to on any broadcast’.
The order of the day followed the ’outing’ of Mr Mandelson as a
homosexual by Matthew Parris on the BBC’s Newsnight to the amazing
discomfiture of the usually resilient Jeremy Paxman. But why the fuss?
It wasn’t the first time that the Trade Secretary’s sexuality had been
canvassed in the media. As MP for Hartlepool, in the somewhat
traditional north east, Mr Mandelson doesn’t boast about his
orientation, but he doesn’t wave writs. After all, there is nothing
illegal these days about homosexual acts among consenting adults. And
the issue was relevant. Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales until
his ’moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, had caused speculation as to
how many Cabinet Ministers are ’gay’.
Of course, I know from experience how incredibly sensitive the BBC is
about this subject. It must have been terribly twitchy over the past
I also acknowledge that it is entitled to have a policy on such issues,
as news presenter Peter Sissons has pointed out. In my view, it should
seek to avoid gratuitous treatment of it. But what is clearly untenable
in a free society is to ban any reference to an individual’s
orientation, regardless of the circumstances or its relevance.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Ms Sloman tried to do.
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam ’exploded in fury’ over the implied
censorship, according to the Sunday Telegraph, before appearing on Any
Questions? She did herself credit. But I hope she is also infuriated
about the damage Ms Sloman has done to the BBC’s reputation for
impartiality and objectivity. I have never found it secure among
politicians. But now they are asking why the BBC is apparently currying
favour with a well-known manipulator of the media and going soft on a
close friend of BBC director general John Birt. And why, when Mr Blair
has even more explicitly than Mr Major embraced family values, should Mr
Mandelson be treated differently from a whole string of aberrant but
usually heterosexual Tory politicians of relative obscurity a few years
For sheer PR crassness Ms Sloman’s signal takes the biscuit. It’s a
particularly fine example of counter-productive internal communication -
a sort of self-generating panic which will be preserved as an example of
anti-PR in the textbooks. Meanwhile, all that stands between the BBC and
justifiable charges of bias are sensible editors and producers. May God
go with them and give them strength.