BBC double standards on abuse

There are times when the BBC is beyond parody. It is so relentlessly awful, biased and reflexively p.c. that many viewers become inured to its excesses. Yet Orla Guerin’s report from Pakistan is quite extraordinary — even for the BBC.

Take a look at the video and story entitled “Pakistan police free chained students in Karachi” and see if you see what I see.

The print version of the story from the BBC website begins:

About 50 students have been freed from a religious school in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, where some were being kept in chains, officials say.

The male students, some as young as 12, were reportedly beaten, deprived of food and kept in what police say amounted to a torture chamber.

Some parents paid for their children to attend the school known as the “jail madrassa” because their sons were addicted to drugs or involved in crime.

What type of religious school was it? We don’t know yet. Should we assume that being Pakistan, it is a Muslim school? No. The country’s leading private schools — the institutions where the elite educate their children are run by the Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan. One can find Christian schools all across Pakistan, many with no Christian students. However, the next sentence gives us some hints:

At least two people helping run the madrassa have been arrested, but the head escaped, police said.

Ah, its a madrassa — you know what that is don’t you? Is it a Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Unitarian, Quaker madrassa? The story continues:

Students have described the brutal regime inside the seminary – some spoke to the media while still wearing their chains.

O.K., its a seminary. I went to one of those. Perhaps these are particularly strict Episcopalians. I was once punished by the dean for wearing golf spikes to prayers — there was a foursome ahead of me that would not allow me to play through. But while I was admonished for my gaucherie, the students at this seminary were “beaten 200 times” while others were told they would be “sent to join the jihad.” Perhaps that’s another clue.

The article states:

But the discovery of chained students of a religious seminary who claim they were being motivated to join the ranks of Taliban has come as a shock. These claims are still being verified as there seems to be no evidence of any weapons training being given there.

The words madrassa and seminary are used throughout the rest of the story, but it is not until the penultimate line that we are treated to the word “Islamic.”

The video report is even worse — it makes no mention of the world Islam or Muslim at all.  When Guerin covered the Middle East for the BBC she was often pilloried for her biased reporting. Burying the Muslim angle of the story is shoddy reporting. Can you imagine a story about abuse at a Catholic school from the BBC not mentioning the world “Catholic” until the very end of the story? Compare the handling of religion in the Pakistan story to this one broadcast three days later entitled “Institutional Dutch Catholic abuse ‘affected thousands’.

Tens of thousands of children have suffered sexual abuse in Dutch Catholic institutions since 1945, a report says.

The report by an independent commission said Catholic officials had failed to tackle the widespread abuse at schools, seminaries and orphanages.

I find the BBC’s handling of the Pakistan abuse allegations troubling as well. While it reports the abuse, it juggles the facts of the abuse with their explanation, so that the explanation is given prominence of place. It gets the last word.

Many parents had left their children at the madrassa for treatment, believing that the harsh regime would aid rehabilitation – some of these parents told the BBC they were happy with the result. They say they were chained to prevent them for escaping.

“If a child has issues such as bad company, smoking and drugs then we have no choice but to get him admitted in such places,” Mohammed Qasim, the father of one student, told the BBC.

In her broadcast report, Guerin follows this pattern. She begins her story by saying there were “disturbing” reports of children as young as 8 being beaten, and notes that a local education official states the basement where the students were kept resembled a “torture cell.” But she then responds to a question from the newsreader by reporting that locals called the school the “jail madrassa”.  She adds that this was one of its “attractions” for some parents, who “paid for the privilege” of sending their troubled sons to the school and “some of these parents even provided the chains.”

How does she know the mind of the parents? Was this a reform school or a seminary? Were no unhappy parents to be found? The arrangement of the arguments and lack of contrary voices gives the impression the BBC is explaining away the abuse. If the parents aren’t bothered, why should we be? The abuse was one of the attractions of the school after all, the BBC reports.

Nor am I arguing that the BBC should omit mention of the Catholic angle to the Dutch abuse article. It is an important component to the story. I am saying the BBC appears to have two standards when it comes to reporting religion related abuse. Play up the Catholic theme – play down the Muslim theme.

There are different reporters, different editors, different departments of the BBC involved such that it is not possible to have a one to one comparison. However, the way in which religion was handled in this Pakistani abuse case gives every appearance of a double standard.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • Just visiting

    “The country’s leading private schools — the institutions where the elite educate their children are run by the Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan.”

    “Leading” in what sense?

    The international media coverage of non-state elements of the Pakistani education system have focused on madrassas, these madrassas having been linked for the past decade for fundamentalist Islam and terrorism. In comparison, the private Christian-run schools you identify have received much less press.

    “I am saying the BBC appears to have two standards when it comes to reporting religion related abuse. Play up the Catholic theme – play down the Muslim theme.”

    How do you get that?

    The key difference between the two news stories is that the story from the Netherlands involved dozens of different institutions run by one organization while the story from Pakistan dealt with a single organization. There’s a basic difference in scale between the two.

    Does the Pakistani group that run the madrassa of the story run others, and in like fashion? If we’re comparing the two stories, that’s the key. Are the Dutch and Pakistani stories fundamentally different in scale, or is the Pakistani story relatively underresearched, and why?

  • Mark Baddeley

    @Just visiting:

    “Leading” in the sense that that’s where the elite educate their children. The sentence you quote answers your question.

    “I am saying the BBC appears to have two standards when it comes to reporting religion related abuse. Play up the Catholic theme – play down the Muslim theme.”

    How do you get that?

    The key difference between the two news stories is that the story from the Netherlands involved dozens of different institutions run by one organization while the story from Pakistan dealt with a single organization. There’s a basic difference in scale between the two.

    Yes, but the key similarity in the two stories is that the schools are run by religious groups. And the religious identification is key to the opening sentence of that story and is in the second sentence as well. It frames that story – it’s a story about abuse in Catholic schools.

    But the other story is about abuse in a seminary, where, you are alert you can work out that the seminary is also a school and is Islamic, but where that identification is kept to the penultimate line. Doing that ensures it doesn’t frame the story – this is not a story about abuse in an Islamic school. It’s a story about abuse in a school where many parents approve of the tactics, oh, and it happens to be Islamic. The Catholic Church would have loved to have gotten that kind of a free ride over the last bunch of years.

    Now, sure, one involves a pattern over decades in a country, and the other is one school. But that is anything but even handed.

  • Michel

    In response to the claim that the BBC plays up the Catholic theme and played down the Muslim theme, Just Visiting says:

    “How do you get that?”

    Well, how about this Just Visiting?

    “The video report is even worse — it makes no mention of the world Islam or Muslim at all. When Guerin covered the Middle East for the BBC she was often pilloried for her biased reporting. Burying the Muslim angle of the story is shoddy reporting. Can you imagine a story about abuse at a Catholic school from the BBC not mentioning the world “Catholic” until the very end of the story?”

  • Dave

    There are different reporters, different editors, different departments of the BBC involved

    But they are all BBC.

    A story: Decades ago I was a neighborhood activist involved with checking on realtors to see if they would show black and white couples with the same financial profiles in the same community the same houses. The “couples” were bogus. They usually got different agents, but working for the same realtor. When they got differential treatment that was enough to secure a conviction for racial discrimination.

    I would use the same “under one roof” standard here. BBC should treat Catholic and Muslim offences the same way.

  • Just visiting

    “But the other story is about abuse in a seminary, where, you are alert”

    Are you suggesting that anyone reading an article about abuse at a religious school in Pakistan, a country that’s well-known to be overwhelmingly Muslim by population and–for people who paid more attention–to have a problematic network of privately run religious schools, would think that this school was a Christian school?

  • Mark Baddeley

    No, Just visiting, I’m not suggesting that an average reader would think it was a Christian school. But they possibly wouldn’t think it was Muslim either – it depends on their knowledge of Pakistan, and Americans don’t score that well for their knowledge of foreign countries. It is also possible that they mightn’t get that the ‘seminary’ is also a school.

    Certainly by where you put the religious identification you flag to the reader what the story is about – putting it twice in the first two sentences versus putting it once in the second last (or not at all).

    One story is about abuse in Catholic schools.

    The other story is about abuse in a school that happens to be Muslim.

  • Julia

    There’s a story in the Washington Post by Dan Zak about protesters on a hunger strike who are sleeping in a DC Church only identified as St Stephen’s.

    It never says if it’s Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic or whatever. I’d be interested to know why the church is allowing people to stay there who are refusing to eat and getting rather sick from it. An info link in the article itself only gives an address.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/occupy-dc-hunger-strikers-frail-but-undaunted/2011/12/15/gIQAkWX8yO_story.html

    After some looking around I found that it isn’t the Catholic St Stephen’s on Pennsylvania Ave, but the Episcopalian one on Newton. And they have some interesting info on their website about allowing groups of people in town for protests, meetings or service work to sleep on the floor.

    Groups travelling to Washington, DC, for protests, conferences, service work, or other events are welcome to sleep at St. Stephen’s Church. We offer sleeping space on our floors and a Hostel program.

    For further information about eligibility and rules:
    http://www.saintstephensdc.org/Sleeping_Info.html

  • Will

    Doesn’t “madrassa” imply “Moslem”, as much as “synagogue” means “Jewish”? Are people going to think it is a “Christian madrassa”?

  • Mark Baddeley

    Yes, but if you took a survey, how many Americans would know that “madrassa” implied ‘Muslim’? I think that knowledge is far less widespread than the link between “synagogue” and “Jewish”.

  • Passing By

    I knew ”madrassa” was a term for Muslim scools. What I didn’t know was whether it’s a general term for school in the Muslim world.

    TheLA Times seems more upfront, first calling the school an ”Islamic seminary”, then introducing ”madrassa”, defined as a ”religious school. I have to wonder about the source for this :

  • Passing By

    The quote I intended to insert :

    Most parents who send their children to madrasas, some of which have a reputation for fomenting extremism, do so because they generally cost less than other schools, provide meals and have teachers who show up.


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