Berena, Holby City, and the role of the BBC Charter

The BBC occupies a unique position in the British cultural and entertainment landscape. More than three-quarters of the BBC’s funding is provided by the licence fee, currently costing £150.50 per premises for the vast majority of viewers with a colour television set. Anyone watching live (or recording) broadcast television on any channel, not just those provided by the BBC, must have a licence, as must anyone who accesses content via the BBC’s catch-up service, iPlayer. Failure to pay the licence fee is a criminal rather than a civil offence, under section 363 of the Communications Act 2003. The BBC outsources day-to-day administration of the licence, including enforcement, to a number of external agents, including the services company Capita.

In exchange for what amounts to guaranteed public funding capable of being enforced by criminal sanctions against individuals (and it should be noted that this is no theoretical possibility, or unused provision resting idle on the statute books: a 2013 study found that more than one in 10 criminal prosecutions in the preceding year in the UK were for non-payment of TV licence fees, with over 180,000 people taken to court in 2012 alone. It is perhaps notable that apparently due to a range of factors, women are a significant majority of those prosecuted), the BBC is required to abide by the principles laid down in a royal charter, which is now renewed every 11 years. Together with a framework agreement made between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Charter effectively operates as the BBC’s constitution.

At the time of the most recent renewal of the BBC Charter, in December 2016, the BBC Director-General Tony Hall declared that: “[t]his will ensure that the BBC is able to make fantastic programmes and services to inform, educate and entertain the British public.” The Charter is publicly available from the BBC website, and sets out the BBC’s mission, which, as echoed by Mr Hill, is to “inform, educate and entertain” (paragraph 5).

Diversity and representation

As set out in paragraph 6 of the Charter (and clearly set out on the BBC’s website), the BBC has a number of defined “Public Purposes” that must be borne in mind when it works towards its mission. Specifically, in relation to diversity matters, the BBC should:

“reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom both in its output and services. In doing so, the BBC should accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the United Kingdom today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society. It should ensure that it provides output and services that meet the needs of the United Kingdom’s nations, regions and communities.”

Article 14 of the Charter builds on this, as follows:

“The BBC must ensure that its output and services overall provide a duly accurate and authentic portrayal and representation of diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom. The BBC must ensure that it assesses and meets the needs of the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom. In complying with this article, the BBC must have particular regard to the need to reflect underrepresented communities.”

Reading these clearly-expressed principles in the context of the language used in the two responses to complaints made regarding the handling of the end of the Berena storyline published on this site, and noting that both such responses make a point of referring to Holby City being fiction, it is worthy of note that perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no distinction made in the Charter for any different standard for representation of diversity (and diversity of representation) to apply to fictional programmes produced by the BBC.

As noted by Georgina Turner in her blog on the complaint responses, the wording in the responses suggests that there is an active move away from the idea that representation is in fact in play at all, despite the BBC and Holby City’s previous enthusiasm for the representation angle (as documented at length here), and despite the clear and positive duty on the BBC as imposed by the Charter to bear this element in mind. Indeed, one of the responses declares that: “any character in a drama is an individual rather than a ‘type’ to represent whole groups of people”, the wording of which perhaps even goes so far as to suggest that representation is not a factor at all in the making of dramatic television – running quite contrary to the need for the BBC as an organisation to strive to represent, portray and reflect (all three words are used above) its diverse audience insofar as is possible, across its output as a whole, and particularly in this regard to consider the need (note, not ‘nice idea in theory’) to reflect underrepresented communities.

This leads on to the point that Holby City must be considered in the context of the range of drama programming that the BBC produces. It is of course unreasonable to expect that a single programme represent every diverse community of the United Kingdom, but it is of interest, perhaps, that at the time of writing (January 2019), across the three main BBC continuing dramas (being Holby City, Casualty and EastEnders) and with combined cast lists for these shows in the dozens, there are, following the demise of Berena, no female same-sex couples at all.

To be clear, the point here is not that Berena should have been kept together at any cost, but that when bringing to a close the only f/f relationship across the entirety of BBC Continuing Drama, the very fact that it is indeed the only one of its kind, would, leaving aside any other factors, suggest some particularly careful thought may be required as to how this is handled, both on- and off-screen. There is more than one layer here. Berena was particularly unusual in that it had paired two senior professional women in their 50s in a genuine romance; many viewers had not seen something along these lines on mainstream television before. As Georgina Turner notes on her blog, Ofcom has previously flagged these sorts of sensitivities to the BBC:

“Viewers who spoke to Ofcom in 2018 said that they felt ‘LGBT representation was skewed towards men, with less representation of women’ and that older LGBT people were often absent; in their content analysis, Ofcom found that gay or bisexual men appeared five times more frequently than lesbian or bisexual women.”

Distinctiveness and creative risks

The ‘Public Purposes’ effectively task the BBC with doing things differently to other media companies, on the basis that it is not a purely commercial entity, and this is exemplified by the express requirement on the BBC to provide ‘distinctive’ services, and take ‘creative risks’:

“Its services should be distinctive from those provided elsewhere and should take creative risks even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.”

Applying this to television, essentially, the BBC is under an active duty to consider whether it can distinguish its programmes from those produced by commercial networks, including in its attitude to creative risk.Again, the fact that the responses to complaints highlight the non-factual nature of Holby City,but fail to show evidence that the writer(s) of such responses appreciate that the BBC is, by its Charter, in a different bracket to other producers of fictional output, potentially demonstrates that Charter principles have not been considered and given due weight. On the basis that all of Coronation Street (ITV), Emmerdale (also ITV) and Hollyoaks (Channel 4) have managed to represent lesbian and bisexual women not only as characters to whom drama happens, but to include portrayals of women in long-term romantic relationships with other women repeatedly in recent years, it seems the only way in which the BBC is making itself ‘distinctive’ in this regard is in its failure to include and maintain female same-sex relationships in its output in a manner the commercial television networks seem to be achieving with relative ease, even with the continual push across continuing dramas for episodes and ‘drama’.

Listening to viewers and taking into account their views

Article 10(1) of the BBC Charter provides that “the BBC must carefully and appropriately assess the views and interests of the public and audiences, including licence fee payers, across the whole of the United Kingdom.”

So far, the BBC and Holby City’s responses to fan feedback on the manner in which Berena ended calls into question whether this Charter principle has been fully taken on board. Readers may ask, for example, whether the following demonstrate the above principle has been understood and is reflected in the handling of the demise of Berena:

  • as discussed in detail above, the dismissal of concerns about the portrayal of a minority community (lesbian and bisexual women) from viewers apparently and at least partly on the basis that the continuing drama complained about is fiction, and which responses also fail to show any awareness of how the requirements for diversity and reflection of the UK’s diverse communities, as set out in the Charter, operate – let alone offering any evidence of any attempt to fulfil these;
  • a contracted cast member of a continuing drama ‘blocking’ fans of that drama on social media who express in measured terms disappointment with the direction of storylines and seemingly inconsistent and out-of-character writing and plotting (note, not complaining with respect to the relevant actor or performances given), with the result that none of the relevant fans’ posts can be seen by that cast member going forwards, nor, in turn, can the fans (unless accessing otherwise than via the blocked account) read any posts from that cast member either (and fans may become aware of the blocking action having been taken against them, as this is displayed when attempting to access the cast member’s Twitter page);
  • the official Holby City Twitter account sending out a number of misleading messages in the run-up to the split, suggesting that the well-loved lesbian couple might in fact wed. Whilst fake spoilers or ‘foilers’ are commonly employed in publicising television, in this case, the BBC were aware both that many viewers had contacted them to express the meaningful impact of the representation in question for them, and of its bearing in terms of viewers’ mental health and wellbeing. Concerns expressed by those on Twitter that messages seeking to play on fans’ hopes for the couple were unhelpful, were ignored. A review of messages sent from the same Twitter account suggests that it does not seek to address any complaints at any time, but consistently only engages with those who offer positive feedback on the show.

Article 10(2) of the Charter states that “the BBC must make arrangements to ensure that the diverse perspectives and interests of the public and audiences, including licence fee payers, across the whole of the United Kingdom are taken into account in its decision-making.” It is of course acknowledged that television producers cannot engage with focus groups every time a storyline or character changes direction; that with an episode broadcast every week, Holby City must create content at a swifter pace than many other dramas; that Holby City must manage the fact that not all actors will wish to commit to a year-round show, even on a recurring or guest basis, for extended periods, so that romantic storylines may be affected when one half of the couple is unavailable to film; and that this programme is in a genre (i.e. continuing drama) more noted for ‘dramatic’ plot lines occasionally veering into the melodramatic end of the television spectrum rather than, say, consistent characterisation. As stated elsewhere on this site, the complaint is not that the relationship ended, but that the manner in which the storyline was brought to a close, the narrative choices made in the depiction of the ending, and the publicity around this storyline (summarised on the homepage) call into question whether certain views have been ‘assessed’ at all. The dismissive nature of the response to complaints, which do not show any indication of truly engaging with the matters raised, bring this point into sharper relief.

The BBC’s duty

Given the obvious concerns raised by the matters highlighted above, the BBC should confirm to viewers whether it properly and fully considers, in full context, the requirements of the BBC Charter in its overarching policies for narrative choices in Holby City and more generally, BBC Continuing Drama. In particular, clarity would be welcomed on the extent to which the need to reflect diversity, and in particular to provide portrayals of underrepresented communities, is considered on an ongoing basis by BBC Continuing Drama [1]. For the reasons indicated here, the BBC should also confirm whether it considers and applies the requirements of the Charter in considering and responding to complaints.

Finally, it’s worth noting that fair treatment does not always mean the same treatment. If the suggestion from the BBC in responding to concerns raised is in fact that Berena was treated the exact same way as any other storyline, therein may lie the problem. This may imply that no particular consideration was given to the specific nature of the (yes, it’s true, fictional) relationship Holby City had created, and its impact on viewers, especially given the rareness of this type of portrayal (including in particular on BBC Continuing Drama) – there’s the point about those “underrepresented communities” again. With dozens of straight relationships being portrayed on television, and no historical lack of such depictions, breaking up one straight couple in a casual conversation six months after one promised to wait for the other “for eternity” (to highlight just one issue viewers had with the manner in which Berena ended) for reasons of efficacy may well be justifiable and understandable. If, however, you’re ending the only f/f relationship that’s managed to be produced by an entire department of BBC programming, the right answer may be a different one. If Holby City thinks a wedding of the male same-sex couple in their 30s, during an episode that with apparently little care shown in the writing, split up the female same-sex couple in their 50s, ‘balances the diversity books’, then it is spectacularly missing the point. Seemingly not factoring in the particular nature of the portrayal concerned leads directly to questions as to whether diversity and underrepresentation have been properly addressed in context; whether the BBC has distinguished itself from other media companies in its creative choices; and whether it is, as the nation’s broadcaster, truly canvassing and taking on the board the views of its own viewers, all of which the Charter expressly requires the BBC to do.

This post was submitted by a contributor.

[1] It is beyond the scope of this blog, but the strikingly small number of recent LGBTQ storylines on EastEnders, for example, after the writing out of a number of LGBTQ characters, including legacy characters with strong family connections such as Steven Beale, Ben Mitchell and Johnny Carter, has not gone unnoticed.

Leave a Reply

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.