Why is a poppy ok on the BBC but not an AIDS ribbon?

Graham Norton’s AIDS ribbon reprimand proves the BBC should end its discriminatory favouring of the British Legion’s poppy.

Toby Hill is a London-based journalist and writer

There are occasions when the biases swimming in the bloodstream of the BBC become obvious for all to see. During a recent episode of Graham Norton’s chat show, Norton and his guests inadvertently gave rise to one when they decided to show their support for World AIDS Day, by the simple act of wearing a red ribbon.

The BBC responded by reprimanding Norton and his show’s production company. Their rationale for doing so is contained in the BBC’s editorial code:

“The BBC must remain independent and distanced from government initiatives, campaigners, charities and their agendas, no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.”

Such an even-handed rule might seem reasonable. But the BBC makes one exception to this code, instantly recognisable to anyone who tuned in through the first half of November. During this time, all presenters appear on screen embossed with a poppy.

While the BBC claims there is no official policy dictating this, doing so is virtually mandatory, as evidenced by the sight of one pinned to every lapel in shot. Jon Snow, when refusing to wear a poppy on Channel 4 News, characterised his decision as a refusal to bend to “poppy fascism”.

Proceeds from sales of both the poppy and the red ribbon go to charity. In the poppy’s case, they go to the Royal British Legion, which supports members and ex-members of the British Army and their families. The case of the red ribbon is less direct – it was created by a group of artists in Greenwich Village in 1991, and many people simply wear a homemade version – but charities such as the National AIDS Trust (NAT) also fundraise by distributing them to businesses and individuals.

On World AIDS Day itself, Norton hosted a fundraiser called The Love Is In My Blood, in support of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. In his speech he said:

“What stops most people being tested for HIV is fear: fear of death, but also fear of other people’s reactions because HIV has always been stigmatised.”

Wearing a ribbon is a significant act not only of remembrance, but also of solidarity. As the NAT has pointed out, any decision to wear it should surely be encouraged rather than penalised. This is particularly the case when public awareness is low and homophobic prejudice, as in eighties Britain, continues to fuel rises in HIV rates among people of all sexual orientations.

On the BBC, however, broadcasters are allowed to demonstrate their solidarity with only one of the many groups supported by public campaigns. That group is the British Army. It is virtually mandatory to wear a poppy on the BBC in November, promoting The Royal British Legion to millions of viewers.

But to wear anything else – for example, a red ribbon to remember the thousands of predominantly gay men killed by the last plague to sweep through Britain, a plague exacerbated by government policies such as Thatcher’s anti-education Section 28 – earns you a reprimand.

This is pure discrimination: the promotion of a charity to help ex-soldiers is virtually enforced; the promotion of a charity to help people with AIDS is banned.

In this sense, the red ribbon becomes symbolic of every other charitable cause or campaign, all of which are equally discriminated against by the BBC’s policy.

The poppy, having sprung up on the fields of France directly after World War One as if soaked in the blood of the young men who fell there, is a moving symbol of that dismal period of European history. It should be a resonant warning against all forms of nationalism and empire building.

And that’s what makes its subjugation to a chauvinist narrative that privileges the suffering of British soldiers above all others all the sadder, and more enraging.

More from Toby Hill: The Great Gatsby holds up a mirror to the illusions of austerity Britain

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14 Responses to “Why is a poppy ok on the BBC but not an AIDS ribbon?”

  1. swatnan

    Too much of this ‘poppy facism’ and ‘ribbon facism’ about. Too much of this wearing your heart on your sleeve about.

  2. Timmy2much

    There are sooo many awareness ribbons out there that presenters would soon look like they are constantly dressed up ready for a junta convention!.

  3. Timmy2much

    Tonight on Gaddaffi chat we will mainly be giving our support to the cause….ALL of them.

  4. Timmy2much

    Our first guest will be my best pal idi …who we see is also supporting the cause….s

  5. Toby Hill

    I’m not necessarily arguing that the BBC should allow broadcasters to wear whichever campaign insignia they want, Timmy. But allowing the poppy and nothing else is discrimination, and jingoistic discrimination at that – yes, a little like the medals on the military uniforms you’ve helpfully posted. Including the poppy in its ban would get rid of this chauvinism, as would allowing symbols such as the red ribbon.

  6. Timmy2much

    I understand where your coming from but if the BBC decided to ban the poppy as well then everyone would be a loser – which I dont believe is what you want, correct?
    The alternative is to allow any all which would give us the ridiculous situation I pointed out above (every cause would petition every celebrity and it would eventually end in people getting slighted for not supporting one cause or another).

    You claim the use of the poppy is discrimination but that is to imply that the roots of each of the causes symbols are equal – they are not. The poppy has a historical significance in this country that predate the BBC, as well as relevance in todays world. On top of this it was the first such ‘symbol’ to have gained popular use across this nation in modern times. Its use therefore is not born out of any desire to discriminate which should, if we are not to discriminate against the poppy for being an older symbol with historical resonance and place, precludes its use from being classed as discriminatory.

    Also given that jingoistic is defined as “Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism” would you like to elaborate on how the poppy could be classed as jingoistic? Especially when you realise that the British legion helps any British forces member (serving or retired) across the UK as well as those from the Gurkhas and other commonwealth countries and as far as I am aware does not even have a foreign policy!!

    Well done for raising the issue of AIDS awareness though, give yourself a pat on the back for that one, but you should be careful of opening pandoras box – you might just end up making everyone a loser, non more so than the cause used to ‘dethrone’ the poppy.

  7. Toby Hill

    Hi Timmy, I don’t see that just because the Poppy relates to war and the army means it is an older or more significant symbol than any other.

    Linked to that, there seems to be an assumption that the poppy represents everyone in Britain when of course it doesn’t – there are the relatives of conscientious objectors, treated terribly during WW1, or other modern pacifists, or people who only arrived on this archipelago in the years after WW1, or anyone else who doesn’t feel especially attached to that period. Many people don’t see WW1 in terms of a great victory for Britain but rather as collective European tragedy born out of centuries of, yes, jingoistic imperialism. The point is not whether you agree with them or not but that the BBC shouldn’t privilege one set of people’s views over another.

    Finally the poppy as worn by the BBC in November is any case not some symbol of the nation but rather the marketing tool of a specific campaign, that of the Royal British Legion. I’m not saying that the poppy itself is jingoistic (as is obvious in the article) but that the BBC’s favouring of it comes from a jingoistic narrative that privileges the British army and such interpretations of war as I’ve highlighted above.

  8. blarg1987

    Hi Toby

    I think you have missed the point of the poppy. It is used to remind us that war is a bad thing. And we remeber their sacrafices not because of the glory of the british Empire or anything like that but to remind us that it is something we should never do again.

    Now something like that does have a very high popularity and is probabaly universially accepted.

    The trouble with supporting other organisations and groups is that if a BBC reporter wore a ribbon for breast cancer the media would be like a pack of wolves with headlines like BBC PC gone mad etc, instead of respecting the persons wearing it to raise awareness.

  9. Toby Hill

    Hi blarg, I absolutely agree that that’s what the poppy should represent, and as I say in the article when it is used in that way it is
    an exceptionally powerful symbol. But increasingly a slightly
    self-congratulatory tone has started to seep into its display, especially with all the military pomp. More importantly sales of the Poppy go to – oh! look, the British Army, including current soldiers, so to frame it as some kind of anti-war symbol is a bit absurd.

  10. Timmy2much

    ” I don’t see that just because the Poppy relates to war and the army means it is an older or more significant symbol than any other.” Time sees to it that it is an older symbol, the significance of any symbol is always personal.

    The BBC will always favour someones views over another. Otherwise the BBC would not be able to function. For an example some people believe that women should wear headscarves in public – therefore, by your logic, all female TV presenters should wear a headscarf. But they dont, because the vast majority dont believe this.

    You mention recent arrivals, who still form a minority in this country, the question here is should the views of new arrivals take precedents over the views of the, more numerous, British national?

    Add to this that the BBC televises the armistice parade. For the BBC to televise this without wearing poppies would be inappropriate – just like when you see reports from Cairo the woman will be wearing a headscarf (even though she actually doesnt have to!) – your obvious response would be to say its ok to wear it on that occasion.

    But after all of this we get back to the history of the BBC and the history of this country – many of the BBC people were involved in WW1 or WW2, the use of the poppy is one of cultural remembrance both for the country and internally for the BBC and its actions during the war. Regardless of how the symbol is developing its core will always be based on that remembrance. To remove it would be a form of cultural sabotage. So the question to you is, are your actions one designed to attack the national and cultural identity of this country? because that is exactly the territory you are working on.

  11. TM

    That’s Yaphet Kotto. Queen Victoria’s grandson apparently. Apart from that, jolly stonking photo!!!

  12. TM

    ‘…increasingly a slightly
    self-congratulatory tone has started to seep into its display, especially with all the military pomp.’ When has that never been the case in fact? Dave and mates are going to milk the centenary for all its worth next year, but I suppose it’s the last bugle for them too.

  13. GoJo

    I wasn’t aware until reading this that the BBC would not allow other awareness ribbons to be worn. I am in two minds with what has been mentioned so far. I personally believe an individual should be allowed to wear any ribbon of their choice if it is what they believe and a cause they wish to support. The comment made earlier that people would end up looking like they’re ready for a junta convention I would like to hope is unlikely, on the basis that most people would only choose to wear one. The problem in my eyes comes from Joe public. The BBC especially have been under scrutiny the last few years, for a number of reasons. There is no doubt in my mind that people sitting at home would complain certain presenters are supporting certain causes and the BBC can do without the headache. As has already been mentioned, the poppy has been a symbol for many years, prior to the birth of BBC. For this reason, as everyone has already agreed the BBC would come under more scrutiny if they were stop wearing the red poppy. To conclude what I’m trying to say. I imagine the BBC have discussed this and they feel it would cause more disruption/issues allowing presenters to wear ribbons for other causes than not, or maybe I am showing my ignorance. However I believe there is usually more to a story!

    One thing I would like to mention. I was of the understanding that the red poppy was actually to remember those who died and actually the white poppy was a campaign for peace (which by the way wasn’t supported by the British Legion as they thought it compromised the meaning of the red poppy).

  14. Timmy2much

    Made me laugh 🙂

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