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.