The Nolan team based in Belfast are a group of BBC journalists well used to asking awkward questions. Nolan looks at the influence Stonewall has in public institutions across the UK. This 18 month investigation has already had significant impact behind the scenes in major public institutions. The podcast is the story of how it all unfolded.
A team of volunteers at Fair Play For Women have transcribed the main content from each of the ten episodes spanning over 6 hours of audio content. You can listen to the full audio here or read the condensed transcript below.
Episode 1: The brief
How the investigation began.
“I can sum up why this story is important to the audience in a nutshell. If you have any organisation that becomes so powerful that it has penetrated the thinking of many of our public institutions, then there needs to be a lot of transparency around that. The public need to be able to look at that power and scrutinise it and ask these big public, that’s the key word, public, organisations. Sorry, how much are you influenced by this group? What about other groups that oppose Stonewall? Are they allowed to influence your policy? This is critically important to the public. That’s why we’re spending months investigating this”.
“It’s not about the rights and wrongs of what Stonewall are doing. They’re entitled to lobby. It’s about the process. And is it right that in a democracy, a lobby group can have so much influence within government on government policy. And if Stonewall can have it, who else can have it?”
[00:02:12.170] – David Thompson
This story came to me in 2018 when I was looking at how the BBC had described a comment on the BBC staff page, I wondered how the BBC stood on it because it seemed to me it didn’t really stack up. And I asked them and he said, well, it came from Stonewall, and Stonewall said it’s correct, so they’re the experts, and I kind of thought well, that’s odd for the BBC to be taking an outside lobby group’s position, as a matter of fact, on anything. That’s kind of how it started. And I’ve been asking questions about it for a couple of years. I’m kind of working on it more intensely in the past, sort of six months or so.
[00:02:58.890] – Stephen Nolan
But a recurring theme that you will hear throughout this podcast is that some people from all different sides of this debate either don’t want to or because of that backlash are too afraid to ask or even answer questions about sex, gender, self ID and trans issues.
[00:03:18.930] – David Thompson
I think most people probably associate Stonewall with the gay rights movement in sort of 80s and 90s, the campaign for same sex marriage as advocates of gay rights.
[00:03:41.790] – David Thompson
Where Stonewall’s views are quite controversial at the moment, is around gender. Historically, sex and gender were essentially the same thing, but it meant, are you male or female? What Stonewall would argue for is that there are a multiplicity of genders, and it’s about how you feel as a person so you could be in a male body, but you could be a woman. And it’s about how you self identify. And there are other genders, people who identify as nonbinary, neither male nor female. There’s genderqueer, gender fluid. Lots of different ways that people can identify. What Stonewall essentially are arguing for is a change to legislation to protect having a different gender identity, to give a legislative basis for that, which there isn’t currently. Some feminist groups feel that by doing this, it does start to impinge on sex based rights, and that’s where the conflict comes. So, for example, if you’re looking at women’s changing rooms, a lot of feminists argue that they should be based solely on sex. But if you change the law to allow people to self identify their gender, and there’s a concern that undermines safe spaces for women and girls in sports, another area where it’s become really contentious. Obviously, there are physical differences between males and females and should trans women be allowed to compete in women’s sport.
[00:05:41.230] – David Thompson
This is all new territory. The gender debate is a debate that’s been happening for just a few years. And some of the changes that Stonewall want to bring in are pretty radical in terms of how we perceive gender and how fluid your gender can be and how easily that can change.
[00:05:55.870] – Stephen Nolan
But just to be clear, we are not, nor are we allowed to, within the BBC, attack Stonewall. In fact, if anything, what this journalism might do is show how effective Stonewall are at what they’re supposed to be, which is a lobbying group; they lobby incredibly well. What this journalism is about is all of the public institutions that should have their own thought of mind should be standing back and should be saying to themselves, is this in line with our ethos, our policies and we’ve big questions around some of that.
[00:06:37.990] – David Thompson
It’s institutions like the Scottish government, the Welsh government, Whitehall, Police, NHS, all of these organisations have brought Stonewall in, presumably aware that Stonewall hold some controversial views. So why did they bring them in and allow them to influence their own policies? And can they then say that they are truly independent?
[00:07:24.870] – David Thompson
When you consider how controversial some of these issues are, Stonewall’s position of often not debating them has just meant that the potential policies that Stonewall are advocating for can’t be scrutinised and can’t be debated.
[00:08:42.570] – David Thompson
Where the conflict comes is how you legislate for this and how as a society, we lay down the law in a way that allows people to be themselves but doesn’t infringe other people’s rights.
[00:09:09.450] – David Thompson
So far we’ve gone to the Scottish government, the Welsh government, the Northern Irish government, to the Whitehall departments of the UK government. We’ve gone to NHS Trusts, the police, universities and the BBC. So these are all big public sector organisations who already have a relationship with Stonewall. So unless we want to see how governments across the UK and public bodies across the UK have interacted with Stonewall because we know there’s a relationship there. We know monies paid, but we want to see exactly what these governments and institutions have got for their money. What were Stonewall asking for and what policies changed because of this relationship, if any? So that’s what we’re trying to find out how much influence of Stonewall has over public policy.
[00:10:28.170] – David Thompson
I think there’s just a principle here about how government works. We do this day and day out in the radio about how government works and making sure that government is transparent and open. And as a journalist, everything is about public debate and some of these issues that Stonewall lobby on in terms of self ID, gender; these issues are not settled issues they’re contested. The government has rejected proposals for self-identification. But yet Stonewall has this influential position within these organisations, which is filtering that down through them. So to me, there’s a really important principle there as to whether that influence within government means the democratic process could be undermined. And that might sound quite dry. But it’s important because if we don’t scrutinise these types of issues. It’s not about the rights and wrongs of what Stonewall are doing. They’re entitled to lobby. It’s about the process. And is it right that in a democracy, a lobby group can have so much influence within government on government policy. And if Stonewall can have it, who else can have it?
[00:13:21.010] – Stephen Nolan
I can sum up why this story is important to the audience in a nutshell. If you have any organisation that becomes so powerful that it has penetrated the thinking of many of our public institutions, then there needs to be a lot of transparency around that. The public need to be able to look at that power and scrutinise it and ask these big public, that’s the key word, public, organisations. Sorry, how much are you influenced by this group? What about other groups that oppose Stonewall? Are they allowed to influence your policy? This is critically important to the public. That’s why we’re spending months investigating this.
[00:14:10.430] – Stephen Nolan
And yes, we are asking questions too of the BBC. We will be looking at many organisations. But the first couple of episodes of this podcast is looking at the BBC. Tim Davie is Director General of the BBC.
[00:14:34.550] – David Thompson
I think where it becomes a problem for the BBC is that Stonewall obviously have a set of views and we, as an organisation, pride ourselves in independence and impartiality and being separate from groups and it’s very difficult to have any relationship with any charity or any group, if you work for the BBC. Particularly charities who are lobbying on sensitive areas.
[00:15:10.370] – David Thompson
There’s a lot of criticism about how the BBC provides educational material for young children, about there being 100 and more genders, which most people probably won’t have heard of. So lots of people were very angry about that. And it’s that type of thing that we want to find out. Is that the BBC’s position or is that Stonewall’s position and did Stonewall influence the BBC and say, look, this is where you’ve got to go to. You have to teach kids about this. We know that Stonewall wants to influence the education system on matters around sex and gender. Like, why wouldn’t they? But if you’re a member of the public who doesn’t agree with Stonewall and you see Stonewall and the BBC have a relationship and that Stonewall provide advice to the BBC, you’d be questioning: is the BBC really impartial on these issues? The BBC will say there’s like a Chinese wall between their diversity and inclusion people and the journalism and the independence of the BBC as a broadcaster. But if there’s a perception out there that the BBC has taken a position on all of these issues around gender and people will argue that by saying there are 100 genders, they have taken a position, is that because Stonewall have asked them to? And is there a political pressure for a public service broadcaster to push the agenda of a lobby group? And that’s what we’re trying to get an answer to.
Want to read more? The transcripts for all 10 episodes are available