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.

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