Page last updated at 22:58 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 23:58 UK

Businesses 'retain gay prejudice'

Sir Michael Bishop on the difficult matter of sexuality in business

Gay people still face discrimination in the corporate world, Sir Michael Bishop, the former head of the UK's second biggest airline, BMI, has said.

Sir Michael, who had a 45-year career in aviation, was one of the country's first openly gay senior executives.

He said he believed careers could still be ruined for those who were openly gay, but added that the situation had improved in the last 10 years.

He put his ability to get on down to the fact he had been an owner-manager.

He said he had faced prejudice during his career but running British Midland and its successor BMI had allowed him to be openly gay as he had not been beholden to anyone.

"That was the only reason why I could do it," Sir Michael told the BBC.

Sir Michael, speaking to BBC business editor Robert Peston, said despite the prejudice he had faced, he had no qualms about having been publicly honest about his homosexuality.

"It's obviously an issue for some people, but I think it's better to square up to these things than not to," he said.

"I just think that it has been a difficult issue for people in public life, or in business and industry, and thankfully, due to a lot of things that have happened in the last 10 years, it's considerably easier for younger people who want to get on."

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that while many firms had "paper policies" to prevent discrimination, the actual treatment of gay people was very different.

"It is a gung-ho culture and that often makes it uncomfortable and unwelcoming for gay employees," Mr Tatchell said.

Sir Michael ran BMI from 1972 until it was taken over by German carrier Lufthansa earlier this year, turning a minor regional player based in the East Midlands into the UK's second-biggest airline.

Swine flu

He said he thought the airline industry was currently facing its worst crisis in history.

"I would be concerned in the immediate term if we had quite a wide epidemic of this swine flu," he said. "That's actually going to be quite difficult for the airline industry."

But he added: "Airlines have always been collapsing. It's a feature of the landscape."

Robert Peston and Sir Michael Bishop
Sir Michael discussed his life and career

Sir Michael said he retained "tremendous optimism" about the prospects for the industry in the long term.

"In the last 20 years, airlines have become the essential conduit for business and leisure travel. It has given freedom and mobility beyond any previous generation."

Earlier this year, he sold his 50% holding of BMI to Lufthansa for £223m in a deal he had agreed with them more than 10 years earlier.

Sir Michael told our business editor he had not yet decided how to spend the money.

The full interview with Sir Michael can be seen on Leading Questions with Robert Peston at 2230 BST on the BBC News Channel.



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