April 22, 2019

Diversity in Public life – by John Nicolson MP

Today we are particularly pleased to have John Nicolson MP join us as part of our Diversity week at GSM London.  John Nicolson was born in Glasgow. He studied at Glasgow University where he was the Scottish and World Student debating champion.  John presented ‘Open to Question’ for BBC Scotland, before joining ‘On the Record’ in London as a political correspondent. He went on to report for some of the BBC’s most high profile programmes including ‘Newsnight’, ‘Panorama’, and ‘Public Eye’. He was the main presenter of BBC Breakfast for a number of years.  John continues to enjoy a highly successful career both in politics and in the media, and tells his own story of  being gay whilst also being in the public eye.   

John Nicolson MP
John Nicolson MP

I still remember the library book at school. It was a sex and puberty guidebook for boys. I’d flicked, furtively, through to the ‘h’ for homosexual listing in the index and read that homosexuals shouldn’t be persecuted, but pitied. Theirs would be a lonely life, the author said, hiding in the shadows, and friendless.

I must have been 9 or 10, and it didn’t sound like a happy future. I decided not to be gay. Lots of praying would, I thought, do the trick. I’d have to concentrate harder on finding girls attractive. It didn’t seem to work.

In the 1970s and 80s we didn’t have many role models. The national closet was full. And those who burst out could expect to be rewarded with howling tabloid rage. AIDS ads on TV linked homosexuality with death. And Clause 28 enshrined prejudice in law.

As a young adult, I realised early on that I didn’t want to live a loveless life. And the thought that homosexuality was morally wrong never crossed my mind. I engaged with Baroness Young – one of the Conservative Party’s arch bigots – in a correspondence which revealed her unworldly, unquestioning ignorance.

I knew I’d have to come out the moment I was inned. I’d worked as a presenter for Janet Street Porter’s youth network before joining BBC news as a reporter and presenter first at ‘On the Record’, then at ‘Public Eye’ – where I made a film about anti-gay discrimination and took Edwina Currie for her life changing trip to Amsterdam (!) – before moving on to ‘Newsnight’. All interesting jobs, but none resulting in much personal scrutiny.  Fronting BBC ‘Breakfast’ was different. The tabloids began to take an interest in my love life, hinting that I was having an affair with my female co presenter. ‘John says no Beeb affair and pledges love to East London girlfriend’ was (more or less) how one paper splashed my carefully worded, gender non-specific denial.

Enough timid, dishonest ambiguity I thought, before coming out over several pages in the ‘Mail’. I was the first ever BBC 1 network news presenter to do so, and my bosses weren’t pleased. Middle aged, white, and heterosexual they liked their presenting teams to be safe and stereotypical. Our viewing figures went up. Having an out presenter didn’t seem to be a problem. In fact for swathes of the viewing public it was a breath of fresh air.

The BBC is still far too unambitious in the way it reflects back our nations in its hiring policies. The lack of senior BME figures is striking. The almost total absence of older women on screen is a disgrace. And, as far as I know, I’m the last BBC 1 network news presenter to come out as gay. Does it matter? Well I’d argue that it does. I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve told me subsequently that when I came out in the papers they told their parents. Gay kids should have role models. They should know that being gay doesn’t stop you doing anything as an adult.

In our national life there is one glaring exception to the march of progress and it’s sport. Specifically football. It’s the reason that, as an MP, I proposed that Parliament hold an inquiry into “homophobia in sport.” The catalyst for the inquiry was the decision by the BBC to allow Tyson Fury to remain on the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist despite tweeting that gay people should be shot dead. I cannot imagine him surviving as a finalist had he tweeted the same about blacks, Jews, or Muslims. So clearly there’s a hierarchy of acceptable prejudice, and homophobia is far from the top.

Over the last few months my colleagues and I have been interviewing sports stars and administrators. And while some sports are making huge strides – diving, and women’s soccer to name but two – men’s football is still stuck in the dark ages. Not one premier league football player has ever come out in either Scotland or England. Ever. And if wealthy football stars don’t feel safe to come out what signal does that send to gay kids being bullied in schools up and down the country?  What signal does it send to the bullies? The SFA and the English FA must tackle the issue with the vigour now invested in anti-racism campaigns.

We have, of course, a long way to go. Late last year I tried to introduce Stonewall’s Turing Bill to pardon gay men found guilty of crimes no longer on the statute book. The UK Government reneged on its promise to support me, and the Justice Minister, talked the bill out, booed as he did, by colleagues on both sides of the House.  He went on to introduce a measure which pardons the dead but not the living.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government picked up my bill and will introduce its own Act pardoning both the living and the dead. Nicola Sturgeon has long been a champion of gay rights.  Indeed one arena where life for gay people has changed out of all recognition is politics.  And Scotland leads the world.  Recognised now as the most gay-friendly country in Europe, the majority of our party leaders are gay, the only country which can make that proud boast.

At Westminster the SNP has the highest percentage of gay MPs of any party in the world. Our extreme gayness has made Westminster, as a result, the gayest Parliament in the world.

Now, that prediction wasn’t in any book at my school.

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