Appreciating BBC online for Paris coverage

Being the other side of the world when hearing of the Paris attacks has been a strange experience. But it’s made me even more appreciative of the BBC’s online presence. Anti-BBC “culture” secretary John Whittingdale (his philistinism really does justify the scare quotes) may want to get rid of it, but as a licence fee payer overseas on work, I’d say I ought to be able to access it. 

Why’s it been so good? Let me give two examples. First, BBC caution about confirming their facts meant that news might be a little slower than CNN which I could get on TV, but CNN were exaggerating the death toll by around 25. Secondly, CNN managed to include in successive sentences “This is an attack on French multi-culturalism” and “This is an attack on laïcité”. Since the secular policy of “laïcité” is what makes France the least multi-cultural society in Europe, this seems to represent the triumph of rhetoric over understanding. By comparison BBC explanation has been careful and acknowledging its limits.

When something bad happens in the world, I, like millions of others, including a great many citizens of other countries, trust the BBC. We do so with reason (and not uncritically). This government’s ideological  crusade against it, is a disaster in the making for those who want a trustworthy source for news. No doubt they are pandering to their friends the wealthy proprietors of newspapers who resent being held to the BBC standards rather than pursuing the profit drive downmarket. But it seems a wilful attempt to dilute one of the greatest of British brands, and the removing of a world-renowned benchmark for accuracy and truth.

Please do not feed the paranoid

Western Christians seem to be developing a rather unhealthy persecution complex.It can be seen in the ways in which Christians have assessed early media interviews with Tim Farron. It can certainly be seen in a recent (well almost any vintage) story from the Christian Institute, which I noticed when a Facebook friend shared it at face value. It’s growing more common.

I want to offer a couple of brief observations, starting with the Farron election and subsequent interviews. Gillan Scott, in one of the more thoughtful reactions, provides the key links from The Times (paywall), the Spectator’s transcription with comment of the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News. He signs up to the persecution reading of these:

This whole episode has demonstrated that it is not Tim Farron who is being illiberal in his views and beliefs, but rather those who have set themselves up as a liberal elite, casting scorn and treating as pariahs those who do not bow down at the throne of secularism. God has been pushed to the margins, and religious illiteracy glories in its own folly.

I am not so certain this is the right way to read it, and Gillan’s comment about “religious illiteracy” seems to me nearer the mark. The more interesting reaction, and to my mind the more helpful one, is the reading offered by Ben Ryan at Theos. Media stories rely far more than we usually allow on two factors, a pre-existing script or story template into which the story can be fitted, and an easy controversial point, ideally with a completely contradictory view for balance.

When you take the religious literacy problem prevalent in our media into consideration, then Humphrys’ and Newman’s crassness becomes rather more understandable as floundering for cheap controversy without a decent story template to help them.

The problem with the easy cry of “persecution” or even just “marginalisation” is that it doesn’t put the core problem, media ignorance of a subject that is central to an increasing amount of global reporting, into the spotlight. (To which we should add Christian incompetence at providing accessible and intelligent presentations of the faith that sound like there may be a though worth pursuing.) And developing religious literacy in the media is key to developing it in society. See these repeated calls for a BBC Religion Editor to give the area due weight and competence.

The other story I saw today which illustrates the Christian persecution problem comes from the Christian Institute. Sadly, I came across it from someone on Facebook seeming to take the CI’s headline as gospel: Police to crack down on street preachers in Manchester. Their overblown news release starts off with “Police and council officers will target street preachers in Manchester city centre.” Their cited source, however, from which it appears the whole story has come, says something rather different:

Council officers will target pedlars and chuggers but officers will also crackdown on any nuisance booksellers, preachers and noisy musicians (emphasis added)

Frankly, if Manchester is anything like Birmingham, my sympathies lie largely with the council and police. By the time I’ve passed several stalls of Muslims on da’wah, a troupe of Hare Krishna, endless charity collectors, competing Christians with shouted KJV verses, Yoda impersonators, more charity collectors round the corner and so on, I sometimes wish I hadn’t ventured out.

Treating a crackdown on cacophony as “persecution” shows just how deeply this narrative has embedded itself in some people’s psyche.

The first problem with this modern Christian persecution mania is that it is not going to encourage us to find creative ways to address the key problem of religious illiteracy, especially in and among media people. The second is that it is likely to lead to short-term and knee-jerk thinking about campaigns, most of which show every sign of being fought in the wrong ditch. The third is that is likely to grow an us-and-them mentality and so become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Easter Eggs and the Daily Mail’s resurrection of George Carey

Today’s Mail on Sunday has one of those stories (click at your own peril) which makes it sound as if they’re on the churches’ side. (They really have mastered the art of link-bait – the url includes Jesus, Sainsburys and Darth Vader amongst others.)

But what is this? In a story complaining about the ignorance of supermarket chains about Easter, the Daily Fail subs show their ignorance of the Church of England. They think their occasional columnist George Carey is still archbishop of Canterbury.


The nub of the story is that some supermarket chains won’t stock the Real Easter Egg. I confess I remain seriously suspicious of the report that:

One chain even asked ‘what has Easter got to do with the Church?’, according to the makers of The Real Easter Egg,

When a quote is that anonymous – one chain – and it is qualified by attribution to a company, my instinct is to doubt its veracity. I don’t doubt there is widespread ignorance of the Christian Easter faith, but when a quotation is so carefully not attributed to anyone who might be able to sue, it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what anyone actually said.

I also have to say, while I think the Real Easter Egg is a great idea, it is a commercial initiative. It has to succeed on commercial grounds, not on the basis of archepiscopal, or wish-I-still-were-archepsicopal pronouncements. As a bare minimum, it has to taste good, in order for people (other than those who wish rightly to support its message), to want to buy it. And, much as I regret having to say so, based on my personal chocolate taste, the Real Advent Calendar has put me off “Meaningful Chocolate” for some time to come.

The Church of Enunciation and Resurrection Tuesday

Some typos are too good to pass over without comment. I was fascinated to read in the Independent this morning about the Church of Enunciation.

Church of Enunciation

On one level it’s simply amusing. Although I hadn’t noticed any qualitative difference in people’s elocution at the Church of the Annunciation. At another level, you wonder why someone reporting on a country in which religion is such a significant part of cultural, racial and political identity, shows himself quite so ignorant of a fairly basic Christian concept. (And of the importance of Nazareth as the largest Arab city – leaving disputed Jerusalem out of the equation – in Israel, not just another Arab majority town.) Perhaps as a Defence Correspondent, he’s simply filling in, and the Indy is underfunded and understaffed.

Indeed that may be a more likely explanation, for in another article, someone who is described as an “online news reporter” has written a piece describing why Easter moves around in the calendar. She seems to think it moves around considerably more than it does, since she has it falling a week on Tuesday.

Easter dates

It suggests to me that not only is the Independent unable to source stories from specialists, but it’s unable to pay for basic sub-editing. But I wonder if it is revealing problems of religious literacy in the media more generally, that such basic mistakes are allowed in a news organisation that once had aspirations to change the industry for the better.