For BBC czar, race always trumps religion

It’s the question that gets asked whenever an alleged comedian on HBO goes a bit nuts on the subject of religious believers.

It’s the same question people asked when some NFL players mocked Tim Tebow’s love of public prayer.

It’s the same question conservative Catholics, and others, asked when the hierarchy at The New York Times made the decision to run a full-page anti-Catholic advertisement that urged liberal and nominal Catholics to pack up and quit their church.

It’s the question that tends to draw mocking laughter in the GetReligion comments pages whenever a reader dares to ask it.

The question, of course, is this: Would the powers that be in mass media have dared to approve x, y or z if this particular advertisement, comedy routine, cartoon, Broadway show, movie, music video or whatever had focused its attack on Muslims?

It’s a question that is not — for me — directly connected to the journalism work that we do here at GetReligion. Please hear me say that.

However, there was a headline the other day in The Daily Mail linked to this controversial topic that was just a bit too close for comfort, for me. I am referring to the one that, with its stacked sub-headlines, proclaimed:

Christianity gets less sensitive treatment than other religions admits BBC chief

* He suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities’

* But added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race

I don’t know about you, but I had a simple reaction when I read all of that: The head of BBC said that near an open microphone?

Here’s the top of that Mail report:

BBC director-general Mark Thompson has claimed Christianity is treated with far less sensitivity than other religions because it is “pretty broad shouldered.”

He suggested other faiths have a “very close identity with ethnic minorities,” and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters. But he also revealed that producers had to consider the possibilities of “violent threats” instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.

Mr. Thompson said: “Without question, ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms,’ is different from, ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write.’ This definitely raises the stakes.”

But he added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race.

Now the minute I read that — especially all of those short, edited, punchy quotations — I immediately assumed that Thompson had been quoted out of context. What kind of journalist could say things like that, especially one who is committed to accurate journalism, free speech, religious liberty and various other values and rights that tend to be cherished in free societies?

I told my GetReligion colleagues that I really wanted to see the whole interview, or a transcript, or both. As it turns out, that information was a few clicks away on a site linked to a rather authoritative educational brand name — Oxford. Click here for the .pdf of the interview or watch the video that is attached to this post.

By all means, read it all. The give and take is rather complex, at times, but I think that the triple-decker Mail headline is accurate, if rather blunt (in the style of Fleet Street). I immediately asked my fellow GetReligionistas if we could hold off on this story long enough for me to write a Scripps Howard News Service column based on the full interview. My goal was to put some of those blunt snippets into a broader context, if I could.

So, here is a sample of what came out of that. I began with the New York Times decision to run the anti-Catholic advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but not the mirror-image anti-Muslim advertisement that was immediately cranked out by Stop Islamization of America.

Should Catholics have been shocked?

Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the BBC, another of the world’s most influential news organizations.

For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a “very close identity with ethnic minorities” and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.

Meanwhile, he said it’s acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion — even in an increasingly secular age.

“I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape,” said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

Christianity, he argued, is a “broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it’s not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It’s almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means.”

The bottom line, said the BBC leader, is that Muslims tend to be literalists on matter of faith and they are much more likely to be offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus. At least, that is what Thompson thinks, as a self-identified moderate, practicing Catholic. Thus, he said:

“For a Muslim, a depiction — particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the prophet Muhammad — might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief.”

And that stunning AK47 quote?

Here’s the context. You will not be surprised to know that it follows a reference to Salman Rushdie, his “The Satanic Verses” novel and a global fatwa calling for his death.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a “rather nasty ace” that can be played by those who are willing to say, “I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you.”

Thompson responded: “Well, clearly it’s a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms’ is different from ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms and I’m loading my AK47 as I write.’ This definitely raises the stakes.”

So there you go. How does this Thompson proclamation apply to the work of journalists who want to do accurate, balanced reporting on religion-news stories linked to blasphemy, heresy and sacrilege?

It seems to me that, much like that advocacy journalism sermon delivered last October by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, the BBC leader is essentially saying that there is one set of rules for news and then there is a different set of rules for religion news. In the end, race trumps religion.

And one more thing: Did Thompson actually say that it doesn’t matter if Christianity is no longer, on a typical weekend, the majority religion in England in comparison with Islam? It still deserves harsher treatment?

Read it all. Please.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff

    “What kind of journalist could say things like that, especially one who is committed to accurate journalism, free speech, religious liberty and various other values and rights that tend to be cherished in free societies?”

    No kind of journalist who merits the name would say things like that, because journalists value accuracy, free speech, and liberty, et al.

    But propagandists for the cultural left, like those who run the BBC and The New York Times would say things like that, because they don’t value accuracy, free speech, and liberty — at least where religion is concerned.

  • Dave

    I see two issues here. One is about Islam in particular, that snideness or perceived blasphemy can evoke violent retaliation. That’s a fact, and these folks seem to be dealing honestly with it.

    The other issue is about Christianity in particular. This is tricker ground because, for example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation ad urging liberal Catholics to leave their faith is really no different in kind from any preaching that urges people of one faith to leave and join another. It just comes from an unusual source for that sort of discourse and enjoys the same protection (and should have the same respect) as those other kinds of utterance.

    IOW it is not the same as an anti-Catholic slur to the effect that Catholics don’t deserve equal freedom of religion or the same citizenship rights as others (the kind Kennedy had to rebut in 1960).

    The remark about Christianity being “broad-shouldered” seems to mean that it would be bullying to make fun of a minority religion but in making fun of Christianity a journalist is picking on someone their own size. But that’s not what this is about: one is not afraid of being perceived as a bully in demeaning Islam, but of violent reprisal.

  • Sadie

    “But that’s not what this is about: one is not afraid of being perceived as a bully in demeaning Islam, but of violent reprisal.”

    Yes, I agree. They are simply too cowardly to bash Islam.

  • Parker

    the Freedom From Religion Foundation ad urging liberal Catholics to leave their faith is really no different in kind from any preaching that urges people of one faith to leave and join another. It just comes from an unusual source for that sort of discourse and enjoys the same protection (and should have the same respect) as those other kinds of utterance.

    That brings up an interesting point I never thought of. I wonder what the NYT would do if I ran an ad from, say, a Methodist perspective, calling on Catholics to convert to the Methodist church. Would that be treated the same?

  • carl jacobs

    Christianity is the worldview that the western secular world seeks to displace. That’s why Christianity gets special treatment. The secular world in the West doesn’t see Islam in those terms, so it treats Islam according to different rules. This is nothing but the culture war reflected in the pages of the media.

    carl

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    I suppose I can sympathize with the idea of personal threats. That does give disrespect to journalists who have worked in war zones and the like, who understood that doing their job well requires them putting themselves in *more* danger. But at least I can follow the logic.

    But race? How on earth should this have anything to do with journalistic practice? This isn’t to say stories which involve race do not automatically have a complex context. But this issue does not involve personal safety or anything remotely nasty like that.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What many of these journalists who have a weak or no religion cannot seem to comprehend is that many Christians of all types from Catholic to Orthodox to Protestant to Evangelical love their faith as deeply and strongly and as powerfully as any Moslem who, in the name of Allah issues deadly fatwas against media personnel.
    Thus, Christians, because they only very rarely respond to the media with violence, are treated in the media as if they have little or no feelings of hurt or dismay, or profound sadness when attacked unfairly or ridiculed or reported on inaccurately. They are just nice safe targets who don’t go in for violent retribution. So they don’t need any “sensitivity” from the BBC.

  • GhaleonQ

    Interesting followup: BBC World News exists, obviously. I wonder to what extent they play to the biases/histories of the various nations that receive it. I mean, some programming is even produced outside of the United Kingdom. Does he sign off on it, and, if so, does he still have the willingness to critique the locals?

  • Jeff

    Ironically, there may be a certain racism at work in the double standard here.

    Religions like Islam that don’t predominate in Europe or in the U.S. are exempt from the contempt that the cultural left and its propaganda organs in the MSM display toward Christianity.

    These religions are regarded as beneath contempt, because the people who profess them — people of color — are regarded as beneath contempt, lacking, so the logic seems to go, the “enlightenment” and rational capacity that only Europeans and ethnic Europeans possess.

  • Julia

    Gheez, Louise. Irish and Polish Catholics are ethnic minorities in England who closely associate their culture with their religion, but are routinely mocked in the Times of London and discussion panels of major newspapers on-line and in print and at soccer games in Scotland. Why can only the exotic non-Christian religions be grievously offended?

    As for Christians being comfortably established – in England only Catholics are forbidden as mates for possible heirs to the throne. We are the antithesis of being established.

    This guy needs to be asked tmatt’s questions for Catholics. He is so assimilated that I can’t believe he refused to see “The Life of Brian”. I thought it was hysterical; it was not about Jesus, it was a guy named Brian. “Jerry Springer; the Opera” mocked the views of the folks who populated his shows – don’t they qualify as a minority group who closely identify with their religious beliefs? [I didn't see it, but I remember the people in the real TV show]

    Who is the BBC to judge the intensity of people’s visceral responses to attacks on their religious beliefs and practices? How do they measure it? what constitutes sufficient intensity and outrage?

    When he was saying that Muslim reactions to blasphemy are partly explained by the belief that such statements cause a disruption in the real world – couldn’t help but think of the bishop who got zapped on the golf course for cursing in “Caddy Shack”. First time I saw “Piss Christ” or that painting of the Madonna with elephant dung, I gasped and the thought crossed my mind that lightening might strike. Is that visceral enough?

  • Julia

    The interlocutor asked very good questions.

  • R9

    I do fear the media treads too carefully around Islam. But I see his point.

    While actively churchgoing christians are a dwindling group, it’s still of the cultural background for most of britain, even godless types like me. Criticism isn’t going to upset a vulnerable-feeling (and probably immigrant-based) minority group.

    So, yeah, it’s not perfect objectivity but before punching the outrage button christians should take into consideration the current makeup of british society.

    Julias examples aren’t great. While eastern-european immigration is a touchy subject here, religion tends not to come into it. People don’t really associate Catholicism with Poles in the same way they do Islam or Hinduism with ethnic minorities.

    (also, that no-marrying-catholics rule for heirs to the throne was, I believe, recently scrapped.)

  • John Pack Lambert

    Julia has a good point about Catholics being the anti-thesis of establishment in Britain. It just shows how out of touch the BBC is to claim that Catholics can be attacked with impunity.