BBC bias from Cuba

In my experience, the BBC does not “get religion”. I am not speaking of the reporters assigned to cover religion stories — they are a professional crew and are always worth reading. I find the problem with the BBC’s coverage arises when a religion angle appears in a non-religion story. More often than not the BBC is at sea when it comes to the faith. You can see this confusion in the BBC’s coverage of the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.

The BBC story entitled “Cuba dissident ‘forced off road’ to death, says family” consists of 24 paragraphs, each one sentence long. It begins:

Family members of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who died in a car crash on Sunday, say they believe his car had been forced off the road.

At a funeral mass attended by hundreds of people in Havana, Mr Paya’s son, Oswaldo, told the BBC that his father had received many death threats.

An official statement said the driver lost control as it drove on a road in eastern Granma province and hit a tree.

Mr Paya, 60, was one of Cuba’s main pro-democracy campaigners.

The story proceeds to offer details of the auto accident; the claim by the family that it was murder; a summary of his anti-Castro activism, his awards from European Human Rights organizations; and the funeral arrangements. The BBC notes:

Mr Paya is best-known as the founder of the Varela Project – a campaign to gather signatures in support of a referendum on laws guaranteeing civil rights.

And then offers one or two snippets about what might have motivated the man to stand against the Communist regime.

Paragraph 13 gives us a hint:

Mr Paya was sent to a work camp in 1969 as punishment for his faith.

But it is not until paragraph 22 (of 24) that we learn that Oswaldo Paya was:

A devout Christian, Mr Paya was also the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, which campaigns for political change, civil rights and the release of political prisoners.

What sort of Christian Mr Paya was the BBC does not say. We may infer he was Roman Catholic as the story reports that his funeral was held at San Salvador Catholic Church. The photo the BBC used to illustrate this article may also be a give away as to the man’s beliefs — he is standing in front of a mural of Jesus Christ with hands raised to mid-chest — though obscured it could be a representation of the sacred heart of Jesus or of his giving a blessing.

Compare the BBC’s treatment of Mr Paya with the Los Angeles Times. The lede in its story entitled “Oswaldo Paya dies at 60; Cuban anti-Castro activist” begins:

Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya, who spent decades speaking out against the communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro and became one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule, died Sunday in a car crash in Cuba. He was 60.

Paya and a Cuban man described by media as a fellow activist, Harold Cepero Escalante, died in an accident in La Gavina, just outside the eastern city of Bayamo, Cuban authorities said. A Spaniard and a Swede also riding in the car were injured.

Cuba’s International Press Center told the Associated Press that witnesses said the driver of the rental car lost control and struck a tree. Rosa Maria Paya, the dissident’s daughter, told CNN en Espanol that other witnesses said the car was run off the road by another vehicle. Police are investigating.

Paya, who drew strength from his Roman Catholic roots as he pressed for change in his homeland, continued to voice his opposition after Fidel Castro resigned due to illness in early 2008, calling the passing of the presidency to younger brother Raul a disappointment.

The LA Times story notes Paya became a dissident when he “founded the non-governmental Christian Liberation Movement, which emphasized peaceful, civic action.” It states Paya:

… gained international fame as the top organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on laws to guarantee civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

… The Varela Project was seen as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the system the elder Castro established after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

The LA Times article closes by stating:

Oswaldo Jose Paya Sardinas was born Feb. 29, 1952, the fifth of seven siblings in a Catholic family. An engineer by training, he was employed at a state enterprise that deals with surgical equipment. Survivors include his wife and three children.

Reading these two articles, which do you believe paints a better portrait of the man? The BBC pushes his faith all the way to the end of the story — mentioning in passing that he was religious. The LA Times places the man’s faith front and center, stating that it was his Catholic faith that led him into opposition against the Communist regime.

We see in these two stories a clash of sensabilities. For the LA Times, Paya could not be understood apart from his faith. For the BBC, the pertinence of his Catholic faith is not understood and added as a subordinate item to the main story.

Perhaps one could argue in defense of the BBC article that it led with the accusation of foul play — that Paya may have been murdered. It might be argued that his Catholicism was not the proximate cause of his suspicous death — and hence more time was devoted to his political work such as the Valera project.

Yet the LA Times also places the suspicious circumstances of Paya’s death high in the story. And by the way it links his politics and his faith a reasonable assumption is that if this was a political murder, exploring Paya’s motivation for his politics is necessary to the story. The BBC also appears to have missed the significance of the name of Paya’s civil rights project. Padre Felix Valera was a Cuban Roman Catholic priest who was forced to flee the island after he was sentenced to death for his agitation against slavery and Spanish political tyranny.

On 12 April 2012, the Sun-Sentinel reported Fr. Valera is currently in the process of canonization.

 It may have been Easter, not Christmas; but South Florida Catholics — especially the Cuban-Americans among them — got a gift when the church declared Father Felix Varela “venerable,” one of three steps toward possible sainthood.

Varela, a 19th century priest, philosopher and statesmen, was approved for the title by Pope Benedict XVI, reported the Archdiocese of Miami. The title is given to Catholics whose lives are considered virtuous and worthy of emulation.

As one measure of Varela’s regard in the United States, the announcement was shared on April 7 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York and by Father Juan Rumin Dominguez at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami. The shrine not only has a statue of Varela, but a mural of Cuban patriots that is dominated by his face.

I am not saying the BBC made factual errors in this story. Rather the story it told was incomplete. The BBC appears tone deaf to the religious meaning and significance of words and to Cuban history. Nor is this a one-off mistake. When dealing with religion — apart from anthropologically tinged stories about non-Western faiths or deferential, often cringe-inducing stories about Islam — the BBC more often than not is incapable of reporting accurately. There is an institutional blindness against Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism — no sympathy, no empathy, no understanding of what is going on or why.

The inability to understand the role faith played in the life and death of Oswaldo Paya and of Cuba speaks poorly of the professionalism and rigor of BBC reporting. At best it is ignorance, at worst it is bias.

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About geoconger
  • Peter

    Thanks for this post, it is interesting.

    My opinion is that the majority of reporters with the BBC are of the same opinion as many of the influential leaders of the U.K: that Christianity is a foolish and deplorable religion and that we’ve lived long enough uunder silly superstitions and now we need to grow up and move on.

    The U.K, as with much of Europe and indeed the Western world is undergoing an insidious form of anti-religious, and in particular anti-Christian propaganda.

    Almost all reference to Christianity is framed in terms of being an abnormal belief system lived out within an abnormal lifestyle.

    My fear is that eventually this will lead to very widespread persecution of Christians in the U.K, Europe and other Western countries.

    I pray this does not come to pass, but my heart is heavy on the matter.

  • Dan Bloom

    The BBC is notorious for using the meaningless and ill-coined scare quotes term and using scare quotes in its BBC headlines. Language Log has written much about this, too. It’s a BBC thing and totally uncalled for. See Language Log online and search for BBC headline news.

  • Dan Bloom

    Cuba dissident ‘forced off road’ to death, says family

    BBC headline. It is common practice at BBC website to
    use flag quotes (aka caveat quotes) to flag things. Go to their site and see! It is a British thing!

  • The Old Bill

    We see in these two stories a clash of sensabilities.

    Thank you, George. The BBC is exasperatingly bad on Christianity. They’d have to improve their coverage significantly to rise to the level of condescension.

    And thank you, Peter. Your first three paragraphs saved me the trouble of typing what I was thinking.

  • Observer

    A Director General of the BBC once said that in any given story if they get complaints from both sides of an issue then they have done their job. What is missing from the analysis in the article above is that the BBC ‘gets religion’ just not in the way this specific article would like it to be described. The BBC seeks to be impartial – this means, simply, that you don’t always get the point of view that reflects your particular stance. It’s why it is the best broadcasting organization in the world. It doesn’t pander to specific viewpoints.

  • John M.


    Is making the perfectly obvious observation that this man was motivated by his Roman Catholic faith to do things that made him newsworthy a reflection of a “viewpoint” or is it “reporting”?

    I’m very much not Roman Catholic, nor am I a communist, so I’m not sure which “side” of this issue I’m on. But this was a big-time swing and a miss.


  • Richard Cheeseman

    The real news regarding this unremarkable road accident was never to be found in the detail of the political and religious delusions of those who were tragically killed in it. The like-minded George Conger’s strong interest in the religious fantasies of one of the deceased is, after all, not generally shared by the BBC’s readership, so the BBC was quite right not to serve its readers a Christian/hagiographic sermon along with its news item about a car crash.

    The only really newsworthy aspect of the accident is to be found in the spurious claim that it was a state-sponsored assassination, a claim which now appears to have originated within the semi-fascist Spanish Popular Party.

    Neither the BBC’s nor the LA Times’ coverage of the story picked up on the flimsiness of the assassination allegation which instead was retailed uncritically as coming from the deceased man’s family, although it was always obvious that the family’s information (or rather disinformation) could not have been first hand and that the actual source of the claim remained unknown and uncorroborated.

    Rather than checking it or suppressing it, as they should have done, the BBC, and the LA Times even more, chose instead to boost the anti-Cuban propaganda fabrication with uncritical publicity, thereby helping it to perform its tasks of disinforming the public and poisoning minds with hatred.

    That’s because both the BBC and the LA Times, along with other capitalist media, share a brutal bias in favour of promoting hatred towards Cuba’s communist government … and neither outlet has scruples about the means it uses to do so.

    • geoconger

      Mr Cheeseman, I will put to one side your comments about religion and politics as this is not the forum for the discussion of those views and respond only to your journalism claims.

      You take issue with the assertions made by the family that the death was murder, arguing that as the family was not present they would have no first hand knowledge of events. That is an argument, but the way in which you make the argument would lead most people to dismiss what you say out of hand.

      What is stated in the newspaper reports is that the family has charged murder by persons unknown — The state press agency has offered a different account of the death and the police are said to be investigating. How would a journalist check this given the location and the regime? At this stage of the story it is not incumbent upon a reporter to solve the mystery, only to say that a mystery exists — and to offer any background information that might put this in context.

  • kes

    This is a quote from the BBC coverage of the Paya funeral. Hardly hides Paya’s faith, does it?

    The bells of Havana’s San Salvador Church tolled on and off for several hours, calling friends, family, diplomats and fellow dissidents to pay their respects to Oswaldo Paya.

    The dissident, who died on Sunday in a car crash, was a devout Catholic.

    On Monday, mourners gathered round his coffin, laid out in the church, for a memorial service and all-night vigil, ahead of a funeral Mass expected to be attended by Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

    By the time the memorial service began the pews and the aisles were packed.

    Those inside the church talked much of a man of a peace; someone who wanted democratic change in Cuba but who believed that could happen through dialogue and reconciliation.
    Continue reading the main story
    “Start Quote

    Like many Cuban dissidents, Mr Paya was probably better known abroad than at home ”

    “He was the first person to try to change things, through the Cuban legal system – through parliament,” said Lilvio Fernandez Luis, a young opposition activist.

    “He was a pacifist, never aggressive. It is a heavy loss.”

    The Cuban authorities saw Mr Paya, like all critics, as a mercenary paid by the US to undermine the revolution.

    Mr Paya always denied receiving any funds from America, although he was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for human rights.

    The priest leading the memorial service spoke of man with three loves: for Cuba, the Church, and Jesus. He was also, those present recalled, a family man.

    • geoconger

      A story that focuses on a church funeral is likely to have religious imagery. This example does not mitigate the failure of the BBC to “get religion” — to use a short hand phrase — in its summary of Paya’s life and political work. The issue being raised is not that the BBC will not report on religion. The issue is that the BBC’s non-religion reporters often do not understand religion and as such are doing a poor job professionally. By omitting, ignoring, or denigrating the role religion plays in the lives of others — by not being aware of the faith connotations of words or history — the BBC is not doing its job. Now I admit these are broad brush statements, and there are many individual exceptions, but I am confident in saying that the general tone or culture of BBC reporting displays these traits.

  • Nicked E

    You are comparing apples and oranges. One is a news story the other is an obit; of course they have a different tone.

  • Mouse

    After seeing this pattern repeated constantly in the mainstream media, I no longer believe that “they just don’t get it.” I believe they are Against It, so they Blatantly Exclude It.

    Just like they ignore stories of Christian persecution, or call it “sectarian violence” when it is in fact Muslims murdering Christians for no other reason than their religion (ie, Nigeria). Or when they ignore major religious stories altogether. Or fail to report 40 lawsuits filed against the Obama administration for religious discrimination. Or when they fail to report the numbers at the March for Life, or don’t report the March at all, or show ridiculous pictures to try to make it look like the same number of people are there on the pro-choice side. It goes on and on.

    At this point, I think it is unreasonable to think it’s unintentional or innocent. I think it’s outright bigotry and propaganda. They want to downplay Christianity…unless it’s a scandal. Then they’re ALL ABOUT RELIGION!