Professionals attack the BBC for putting teachers at risk after its decision to broadcast a clip during Sunday Morning Live that compared sex education teachers to paedophiles"I think parents have the absolute right to protect their children from this sort of education which is so unhelpfully obsessed with destroying childhood innocence, in a way that's reminiscent of paedophilia. To me, anyone who wants to talk dirty to little children is a danger to them."The comments were left unchallenged, and the show continued with a studio discussion in which Burrows was joined by a historian and a neoconservative lobbyist, rather than, say, a sex education professional or similar expert. The lack of a qualified speaker in the studio removed the possibility of any informed discussion, and things veered downhill from there.Other guests were piped in by phone or webcam. The only person with professional experience relevant to the debate, sex education teacher Alice Hoyle, was given seconds to "justify why I am not a paedophile on national TV" before being cut off in favour of a Rabbi (decent, to be fair), and a spokesman from the Campaign for Real Education who ranted unpleasantly about homosexuality in schools. It wasn't a debate so much as a festival of ignorance.Burrows' comments were idiotic, but so was the decision to broadcast them unchallenged, and the BBC have some serious questions to answer about their editorial judgement. One viewer complained to Auntie, and their response to her was as depressing as it was tediously predictable:"We make no editorial comment or judgement on the views expressed by contributors to our programmes, and our aim is simply to provide enough information for viewers to make up their own minds."This may include hearing opinions which some people may personally disagree with but which individuals may be fully entitled to hold in the context of legitimate debate."Firstly, if you give more exposure or weight to one side of the discussion, or you fail to include experts in the debate, then you are making an editorial judgement whether you mean to or not. You can't choose which views to provide a platform for – doubtless there are many the BBC wouldn't air – and then pretend that this somehow doesn't involve making a judgement about their legitimacy. Especially when you go on to describe them as "legitimate".Secondly, not all opinions are equal, or legitimate. The BBC's position here is a kind of anti-journalism, what Jay Rosen termed "the view from nowhere". As Rosen once explained, "it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial'."Of course it isn't impartial, merely cowardly. Repeating every conceivable opinion without challenge is not being objective, neither is setting up a debate with the premise that both points of view are equally valid – that road leads us to creationists on David Attenborough specials.Thirdly, the segment failed to enlighten or inform at even the most basic level. No experts were included in the studio discussion to explain their field, no substantial discussion of the evidence occurred, and the segment didn't even attempt to explain what sex education is, or what it involves.Meanwhile Burrows was free to claim variously that teen pregnancies are rising, that teachers "want to talk dirty to little children", and that "it is now generally accepted that [sex education] hasn't worked." These aren't matters of opinion but claims of fact, and for the presenter to leave them unchallenged is an abdication of professional responsibility.The BBC's viewers may have been seriously misled by their shambolic approach to the topic, and thousands of dedicated professionals have not only had their work grossly misrepresented, but have been subjected to vile and unfounded smears that may even put them at risk. As lecturer and researcher Dr Petra Boynton put it to me today:"Their play at impartial broadcasting actually allows them to let a guest be accused of something that's not only false, but is objectionable and could potentially have a far-reaching impact on their career, family life and personal safety."Dr John Lloyd, policy adviser of the PSHE Association, which represents those teaching personal, social, health and economic education, echoed Boynton's concerns, telling me:"The PSHE Assocation, the subject association for personal, social, health and economic education (of which sex and relationships education is a key component) says that it is very concerned that such extreme language puts those teaching SRE at risk."The Family Planning Association have also condemned the show in a statement released online today which condemns Lynette Burrows's views as "a gross distortion of what relationships and sex education is", asking broadcasters to "stop giving air time to the minority who deliberately seek to distort what sex and relationships education is."The failure of programmes like Sunday Morning Live to deal with these issues responsibly leaves professionals wondering why they should bother to engage with the media on these topics at all. Alice Hoyle, the teacher who was briefly allowed to respond via webcam, has been left shocked by the experience, and discusses it at length in a series of blog posts. "Equating me to a paedophile is actually the most foul, upsetting and disgusting thing that has ever been said to me."Why go back? As Dr Boynton told me:"We're constantly being told as practitioners and academics that we must 'engage' with the public via the media, but there is little or no support for us when we bravely do this (knowing how controversial sex/relationships issues are) and face abuse and ridicule. The constant focus on discussions as 'false debates' as well as the media's lack of understanding of basic sex ed issues means we're having our time wasted at best, but being personally and professionally abused at worst."It's a situation that helps nobody, least of all those the BBC is supposed to serve and inform.
The issue here seems to be free speech versus journalistic responsibility. We're all for personal freedoms - anyone who's read much of this blog should have already figured that out - and we would certainly defend the right of the press to print or broadcast something controversial. At this point, though, isn't it just a "coulda versus shoulda" argument? In other words, just because you can, does that mean you should? I live in the United States, the home of Fox News, so I am not unfamiliar with the concept of one-sided media coverage. In our opinion, narrow-minded people who wear their willful ignorance as a badge of honor are the real problem, but even in present-day, with seemingly everyone beholden to special interests, a responsible media outlet owes it to all parties, especially its audience, to cover all sides of a story rather than furthering a preconceived agenda.