Daily Archives: 18 September 2007

How the BBC gets it wrong over religion…

I got a response from the BBC today about my complaint regarding Jonathan Sacks’ programme on Rosh Hashanah a couple of weeks ago in which he lauded a Jewish school which had a multi-faith intake while, off-camera, doing everything he can to prevent faith schools from having to have a minimum intake of pupils of other faiths and none.

The response is as follows:

Dear Mr Graham

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Rosh Hashanah 2007’ on 9 September.

I understand that you had concerns over how the issue of faith schools was dealt with in the programme.

This programme was an authored piece by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks’s which examined the British public’s attitude to faith and religion. During the programme he visited a Jewish faith school at which over 50% of the alumni were non-Jewish. His point here was that the fact that so many people wanted to send their children to faith schools showed (in his opinion) that people still have an appetite for religion. The programme was not intended to be a programme-long debate on the positives or negatives of faith schools. Sir Jonathan Sacks’s views on faith schools are well-known and BBC News and Current Affairs programmes have often featured debates on whether or not these schools have a place in modern society, how they should be funded etc. The views expressed by Sir Jonathan Sacks in the programme do not represent those of the BBC.

I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact the BBC.


Paul Wheeler
BBC Information

This is to completely miss my point, which was, as I put it in my complaint, “he was using this faith school to justify public expenditure on all faith schools, despite the fact that he believes they should be free to have a religiously exclusive intake.” This school was being used as a beard to justify the policies of other schools that have more restrictive practices. I’m a little surprised they went along with it to be perfectly honest.

The BBC’s justification is that this was just an “authored piece” by Sacks and therefore not reflective of BBC policy. But they are selective about who gets this free air time and don’t allow any response or debate.

This whole episode had lead me to look at the BBC’s religious coverage online. The first thing that struck me was that the religious broadcasting editor does not have a blog, unlike most other editors these days. So no dialogue there then. Secondly, their mini-site is called “religion and ethics,” which suggests that it is concerned with the wider philosophical debate. Indeed, it includes details about atheism and humanism – but they are listed as religions. Lest you think that they were getting equal treatment though, famously atheists are excluded from Thought of the Day.

So in short, the website claims to be about the wider debate about ethics, antagonises atheists by calling them a religion only to shut them out when it comes to actual programming. But it gets worse, because its section on “ethics” is restricted to the sort of ethical issues that religious people restrict themselves to. Thus, we have whole sections of the rights and wrongs of female circumcision (carefully balanced so as not to any child abusers who happen to stumble upon it), while poverty gets studiously ignored.

It seems to me that all this is hopelessly confused. The only policy that I can find governing all this are the BBC’s editorial guidelines regarding religion:

The BBC respects the fundamental human right to exercise freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this includes an individual’s freedom to worship, teach, practise and observe. At the same time, we recognise our duty to protect the vulnerable and avoid unjustified offence or likely harm. We aim to achieve this by ensuring our output is not used to denigrate the beliefs of others.

The guidelines are very clear about respecting people’s “religious views and beliefs”. The only time this rubric is not used is very telling:

Contributors should not be allowed to undermine or denigrate the religious beliefs of others.

Of course, Jonathan Sacks was entirely free to “author” a half hour programme denigrating the non-religious beliefs of others, but that then isn’t against the guidelines.

As far as I can see, the organisation has no guidelines whatsoever about what constitutes an ethical issue and how they are presented. The religion department appears to have co-opted “ethics” to suit its own ends, the clear implication being that religion is primarily about ethics rather than identity or politics. I would strongly question that equation; what’s more I would suggest that the subtext of that is that religion, of whatever flavour, is good. That godlessness means immorality.

Mark Braund, who I alluded to yesterday, has a lot to say in his book the Possibility of Progress that is of relevance here. I’m halfway through the book and don’t currently have it on me, so I’ll leave discussion of that for another time. Suffice to say he has plenty of interesting things to say about morality in pre-agrarian (and thus pre-organised religion) societies, and the tensions between morality and moral codes. But to bring this article full circle, and back to Jonathan Sacks’ programme, is it really any wonder that people seek out faith schools to educate their kids if they have it drummed into them that such schools will have a strong ethos which, by implication, non-denominational schools inevitably lack?

Secularism isn’t unethical – it is all about living with each other according to a shared set of universalist moral values. Those fundamental moral values are not only shared by religious people but by atheists too; they are the fundamental building blocks of civilised society. The only time we get into conflict is when principles such as equality and tolerance conflict with religious strictures such as the proscription of homosexuality. It seems to me it is those univeralist values we want schools to be teaching, not the exceptionalism of religion. Yet our national public service broadcaster seems to want to only discuss ethics in the narrow terms of how each religion differs in its approach.

Credit where it’s due therefore, Gordon Brown is therefore probably onto something when he talks about the need to develop a British set of shared values. A bit of universalism can’t do us any harm. Once such a set of values has been written down – even codified – it must therefore be up to public services to embrace them. If this lead to all schools becoming much clearer about their ethos, and the BBC suddenly finding itself having to distinguish ethics from religion, it can only be a good thing.

The proof will be in the pudding however.

Rage Over Age Rates

The answer to my earlier question “Will the Lib Dems finally get serious about taxation this morning?” was sadly no. With housing now more of an issue than it was in 2005, expect local income tax, which seemed to do us almost as much harm as good, to start actively damaging us as Labour and the Tories start writing to first time buyers about how the Lib Dems will both make their first home even more unaffordable. I’m sure these people, who claim to be having more visits to their website at the moment than ever, will be most receptive.

Meanwhile, we are to have another debate this afternoon on poverty. One of the main topics of debate will be whether or not to drop the Lib Dems’ longstanding commitment to have a single minimum wage rate regardless of age. I spent much of this morning handing out flyers, and had an odd sense of deja vu: 9 years ago I was standing in the same spot handing out remarkably similar flyers. The difference is, back then I was doing it for LDYS; oddly LDYS don’t appear to give two hoots about this issue any more.

The argument being used for differential age rates is that we should be encouraging younger people to stay in education and training. Apparently, the siren call of £5.35 an hour will tempt them to abandon personal development in favour of making a quick buck. Perhaps if the education and training that we offer them were rather better, they would be less tempted; either way my recollection of being that age was that the actual hourly rate was rather less attractive than the prospect of getting paid. So I was happy to do a Saturday job in the early nineties for a couple of pounds an hour, and when I took a year off (fully intending to go on to HE) I didn’t particularly mind being paid £3.50 an hour full time when I was 18.

Either way, I’m not convinced this is economically sound. If you give companies providing low skilled jobs a clear profit motive to employ 16 year olds, they will employ 16 year olds. Supply has a habit of following demand. On the other hand, if you only had a single hourly rate, companies would surely favour older, more mature applicants.

The bottom line is, this is exploitation pure and simple. That may not bother the Labour Party, but it should bother us. On the same basis you could argue that we should deny minimum wage to immigrants (and then wonder why they continued to come). You could argue that differential age rates should apply to black people on the basis that we want to encourage them to continue with training and education because they face discrimination in the workplace. If that sounds bogus, it’s because it is bogus. What is so magical about age?

I repeat: if you want to encourage young people to continue with training and education, make that training and education mean something. At a time when female politics graduates actually earn less than if they’d started work after their A-levels, I’m not sure you can say we’re doing that.

(I wanted to add this funky public information film here, but annoyingly the archive doesn’t include an embedding facility and I don’t have time to plonk it on YouTube).

Will the Lib Dems finally get serious about taxation this morning?

Mark Braund is remarkably generous about the Lib Dems on Comment is Free this morning, saying that “what makes the Lib Dem position on tax most interesting is their apparent willingness to discuss the far more radical idea of land value taxation (LVT).”

The truth is, this debate will be happening in the face of the Policy Committee and many members of the Party’s front bench. Last year’s Tax Commission report promised jam tomorrow, promising to revisit this issue. This year’s “Reducing the Burden” report makes almost no reference.

The debate within the party over LVT is often portrayed as an either/or deal between it and local income tax. Actually it is rather more complicated than that. Regardless of LVT, replacing Council Tax with a tax based on incomes will mean that we have no residential property tax. At a time when house prices are at an all time high, removing the one tax which is discouraging speculative investment – however slightly – is simply irresponsible. The Council Tax – Local Income Tax switch will lead to an average property price increase of £15,000. Great news if you already own a home; a slap in the face if you don’t. Worse, many people struggling to get on the property ladder will see their tax bill rise, while people sitting on enormous unearned wealth in the form of a house which has increased its value tenfold and more since they bought it, will be taken out of taxation altogether.

Party leaders like to claim that, regardless of the economic disbenefits, the policy is enormously popular. One of my less political friends naively put that to the test during the 2005 General Election by forwarding the party’s tax switch calculator website onto all his friends. He was shocked to find that almost all of them duly reported back that there was no way they were going to vote Lib Dem as they would have to pay more tax. When the party publishes figures to “prove” that most people would be better off, they like to cite pensioners and single income households. If the economic reality forces you to live with your parents or in an HMO, you are simply screwed.

Council Tax is a dreadful tax, but replacing it with LIT would be worse. You couldn’t replace CT with Site Value Rating (the local version of LVT) instantly, but you could make it fairer – as the Lyons Committee suggests – and begin work on replacing it with a progressive land value tax. What’s more, you could still have local income tax simply by localising 4p of income tax – that would have the added benefit of increasing the amount of taxation that local authorities collect from around 75% of their revenue to 50%, which would reduce the inflationary pressure we currently have on CT.

Longer term, we need to consider the benefits of a nationwide system of LVT. As Tony Vickers explains in his new book Location Matters, this would not only dampen speculative investment in property and make many more houses and derelict sites available on the market, but it can be used to invest in big infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and even be used to replace the Barnett formula. Much work would need to be done to introduce a pure system of LVT, but it could be done over the course of two parliaments. The Lib Dems’ vague promises on LVT, as they stand, aren’t a promise to do anything at all.

Hopefully the debate this morning will go the right way and the Local Income Tax obsessives will be thwarted to at least some extent. But either way, the party’s policy committee really needs to start taking a serious look at this and evaluate policy on the basis of what is best for the country rather than the short term (and highly debateable) political gains of introducing such economically irresponsible policies.