How the BBC gets it wrong over religion…

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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.

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