If gay marriage is seen by some to be akin to racism, what are the rules?

How should broadcasters cope with genuine changes in social mores? asks Today's Justin Webb


When was the first time you ate something in the street? For me it was 1974. My mother and I were on a summer coach trip to Devon. We had stopped at a service station on the way home as dusk was falling and hunger pangs beginning and she had relented: “Oh go on then, and I am going to join you.” We cut a Mars bar in two and sat on a wall and munched.


I say she relented because not eating in the street was one of the basic rules of civilised behaviour in my mum’s world. She was as relaxed and easy-going a person as you could ever meet – yes, a card-carrying member of the National Council for Civil Liberties – but there were areas of life where she kept to a code passed from her own parents and, to all intents and purposes, immutable. One did not eat in the street. Why not? Well, one just didn’t.

Until that day. And the world did not stop spinning. In fact, Mum got used to it and in later life thought nothing of it. Eating in the street – a mortal sin until 1974 – became perfectly normal. Something one did not do became, overnight, something one did.

thought of Mum and the eating in the street when, last summer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he stood by his decision to vote against same-sex marriage but, “We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 not only think that what we’re saying is incomprehensible, but also think that we’re plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross injustice.”

Justin Welby is a thoughtful man and a modern man – “The first serious Justin for centuries” some cheeky person noted when he got the job. He knows that we live in an age where changes in socially acceptable behaviour have come thick and fast and have brought with them changes in what it is acceptable to say. And think?

When the Archbishop wonders about a rejection of gay marriage being treated by some as akin to racism he is saying, is he not, that even holding that view could be regarded as outrageous and unacceptable?

What are the rules, then? Must we force people to be modern? We are sometimes accused in the media of being too trendy, too cosmopolitan, too in love with the thrill of metrosexual modernity. It’s a more sophisticated argument than the yawn-inducing left wing/right wing stuff – it suggests, perhaps sometimes with justification, that we jump too high, too fast, when loud people on Twitter demand that we reflect that “nobody thinks that any more”. 

But here is the problem. The Twitter crowd might be right. How should broadcasters cope with genuine changes in social mores that come not gradually over decades (as they used to), but all in a rush and with loud 24-hour “hallelujahs” from social media?

Is Justin Welby merely leading us to an obvious conclusion? Should we treat any reservation about homosexuality as akin to prejudice against people of a different skin colour – in other words, fundamentally idiotic and probably downright nasty? Should our interviewing reflect this? Should these people even be given the oxygen of publicity?

That last question is particularly pressing, given the tendency for people to write to the BBC and others demanding that those they don’t agree with are wiped off the airwaves. I wonder if the internet has something to do with it: the news feeds I select online reflect my prejudices – how dare other people’s views suddenly impinge on my enjoyment of a car journey to work with Radio 4 on in the background. Shut them up! And here is a magic way of doing it: suggest that their views, like so many views our mothers and fathers held, are no longer socially acceptable.

The Daily Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges tweeted the other day, “Genuinely starting to think that in 20 years’ time we’ll be locking people up if they say they don’t believe in global warming.” Are you sure he’s wrong? Are you sure he should be wrong? And does he eat in the street? 

Justin Webb present Today on BBC Radio 4.