The Only Virtue is Vivienne
Virtue signalling policies go westward at the BBC
The concept of virtue signalling came to my attention one evening whilst browsing the complete mess that is Twitter. Femi Oluwole (@Femi_sorry), a law grad and vocal activist, was trending in the UK which usually means he was either a) calling out one of the many news outlets, politicians or political parties, or b) being racially abused by fellow Twitter users. This time it was both.
Dear @bbc,— Femi😷 (@Femi_Sorry) November 2, 2020
Why are your presenters wearing poppies?
Your rules ban "virtue signalling no matter how worthy the cause".
If presenters can support war-related campaigns on the news, surely they can show they believe in equality for black & gay people? Or is that against BBC values? pic.twitter.com/OTjcGHgc7C
In his tweet, Femi questioned changes to virtue signalling rules that were introduced by the BBC in October 2020. These amendments prevented all BBC staff from sharing support or opinions online, that could hint at personal political or social views and ideals, in an attempt to extinguish claims of political bias within the BBC by a number of different groups. His tweet was met with a true Twitter response, of racism, bigotry and hatred.
Under the same guidance, staff were told not to attend Pride and LGBT+ rights protests, to avoid Black Lives Matter demonstrations and other events that could be seen as politicised. The BBC later stated that attending Pride celebrations would be acceptable and apologised for using the term virtue signalling, but many saw this as a means for the BBC to extend its impartiality rules so that they wouldn’t be seen as taking sides over causes such as transgender rights.
November approaches and correspondents, journalists and presenters across all networks begin to don the remembrance poppy. The red poppy, pinned to lapels, coats, blouses and sweaters is a staple of British television during the month of November. A silent visual reminder of those who fought in wars, those who sacrificed their lives and paved the way for us today. The remembrance brand’s logo, if you will.
Femi’s tweet made me stop and think. “Your rules ban virtue signalling no matter how worthy the cause.” For some, there is no cause more worthy than honouring veterans and war heroes, for others, ensuring the safety and equal rights for trans men and women comes before everything. For me, it’s the constant and continuous fight for racial equality and the slow dismantling of systematic racial oppression.
The BBC however, only cares about the war. And designer brands.
Fast forward a few weeks and I’m catching up on How-We’ve-Been-Failed-Today, also known as Newsnight. Newsnight if you’re unaware, is a late night news round-up of the day’s political and social events with, at times, a side of heated debate.
During the programme, I mentioned to my housemate that I liked the correspondent’s jumper. It was black with a simple crew neck. Perfect for work. My housemate replied in a curious and slightly impressed tone, “Vivienne Westwood” and he was right. Somehow I’d completely missed the embroidered Vivienne Westwood logo. I’d also missed the gold Chanel necklace, with the instantly recognisable double ‘C’ pendant.
Coincidentally, these observations were made the same night that I’d read Femi’s tweet, and the subsequent reactions, so perhaps I was already sensitive to the concept of virtue signalling and symbolic use at the BBC. Either way it irked me to my core. What’s really the difference between a poppy pin and a pride pin? A Black Lives Matter badge and a Buccellati Brooch? A few weeks later, a Tiffany heart pendant graced the evening news.
The poppy is a recognisable brand logo for the Royal British Legion. As is the Vivienne Westwood orb, the rainbow Pride flag and the Black Lives Matter fist. These images have become symbols in their own right, and by the BBC’s logic, signal some sort of virtue. Advertising, in the simplest of terms, and it’s not necessarily free.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the BBC News Channel was viewed by 11.7 million viewers. The BBC News at Six reached an average of 5.2 million viewers, and the 10pm segment achieved an audience of 4.1 million. In one week. In July, the BBC announced that it had reached its largest global audience to date, 438 million people per week, via its online platforms. If the BBC was a social media platform, their journalists, reporters, presenters and correspondents would be their influencers.
In the same way that the Newsnight presenter’s jumper caught my attention and prompted me to visit the Vivienne Westwood website to find out more, a Black Lives Matter badge could prompt a viewer to learn and engage with the history of Black Civil Rights Movements across the globe. Now imagine the cause being brought to the forefront, inciting curiosity at the very least, to an audience of 11.7 million. Every week.
The BBC prides itself on education and information. At present, it’s flawed virtue signalling policy contradicts the core ideals of the broadcaster. By denying presenters the ability to support causes dear to them, they are preventing their millions of weekly viewers from being educated and informed on important social issues.
If a reporter wanted to wear a poppy all year round or a black poppy for the month of November, they should be able to. If a journalist wants to don a rainbow flag pin during Pride, they should be permitted. The potential benefits of exposing their viewers to these causes and initiating conversation, far outweighs any OFCOM complaints or nasty Daily Mail headlines.
You can't have your cake and eat it too.
Please do not get this twisted. I’m not criticising BBC presenters for wearing designer clothes and accessories. If I received BBC presenter pay checks, I’d wear designer too. Bring out the Chanel, the Gucci, the Prada. But also bring out the Jaqueline Rabun, the Aurelia & Pierre and the Veiled Rebel. Let me be free to coordinate my black poppy with my Transgender Rights pin and Bulgari earrings. Alternatively, the BBC could adhere to the very policies it imposes on its staff and ban brands, logos and symbols altogether.
The BBC has a duty to provide impartial information to its viewers and readers. By banning symbols representing worthy causes, the BBC has unconsciously become more partisan. Its not that the BBC is against virtue signalling, its just that the virtue of money, wealth and war seems to be valued more than the virtues of social equality and racial justice.