Sunday, 28 October 2012

Double standards?


Before pursuing the interaction of Sunday with its Tablet guests (see previous post), I want spend this and the following post outlining why some people might mistakenly believe the programme to be anti-Catholic. As someone whose eyes have been inexorably drawn to comments on blogs and newspaper websites on this subject (especially since beginning this survey), I can safely confirm that there are plenty of people out there who believe that the BBC is actively campaigning against the Roman Catholic Church; indeed, that it is institutionally anti-Catholic. However absurd this may sound to some of you, it doesn't sound remotely absurd to others. Indeed, I must admit that my early, much more casual listening to Sunday would often leave me wondering why on earth there weren't crowds of furious Catholics hammering on the studio door whenever the programme was being broadcast!

I want to outline the 'evidence' of an anti-Catholic agenda on Sunday for you. If you've read my previous post I hope you will appreciate that this isn't really evidence of an anti-Catholic agenda at all. It's actually evidence, I believe, of the programme's liberal Catholic 'agenda' [I'll put the word in inverted commas for the time being], with clericalism, conservative figures and traditional social attitudes within the Church being its principle targets. 

There's a lot to discuss here, so I want to start on this post with just one strand of the argument - what some people might see as the programme's rather relentless and disproportionate coverage of the Roman Catholic clerical abuse scandal. The decades of child sex abuse carried out by priests and Catholic institutions and, it appears, extensively covered up by the Church has been one of the major ongoing religious news stories of the past few years. The Church has suffered severe setbacks to its reputation and influence in several countries as a result of the revelations, from the public realisation of the sheer scale of the abuse and, above all, from that evidence of a massive cover-up. The BBC has rightly gone after the Catholic hierarchy over this. However, has Sunday in particular gone over the top in its coverage of clerical child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church?

Before I list the editions that have - to varying degrees - dwelt on the issue, would you care to have a guess - working on the 93 editions between 9/1/2011 and 14/10/2012 - as to how many of those 93 editions have featured the Catholic abuse scandal?  What total (in advance) would you consider appropriate? 


Here's a comprehensive overview:

23/1/2011 - "A new documentary in Ireland has shed more light on the role of the Vatican in the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church. We will examine the claims based on a letter sent by one of John Paul II closest advisers."

20/2/2011 - Question from Jane Little about the Catholic Church during an interview about the upcoming Irish general election with David Quinn of the Irish Independent : "I'm wondering how much the child abuse scandal, for example, has eroded trust in the institution?" 

27/3/2011 - "Kevin Bocquet explores claims made by survivors of clerical abuse at a top Manchester school in the 50s and 60s at the hands of an alleged paedophile priest. The Diocese has apologised, but for victims that gesture is too little and too late."

10/4/2011 - "Is the Catholic church still ignoring official guidelines about defrocking priests who are convicted of child abuse? Kevin Bocquet returns to Salford to investigate these claims."

1/5/2011 - John Paul II beatification special. Various reports and interviews allude to the paedophile priest scandal, ending with a debate on the subject featuring an a survivor/campaigner.

12/6/2011 - "This week the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) published a damning critique of the Irish state's failure to protect women [and sexually-abused children] confined to the Irish Church's 'Magdalene Laundries'. Edward speaks to Mary Currington, a former Magdalene survivor."
19/6/2011 - "A BBC1 documentary will investigate the sexual abuse by teachers of the Catholic Rosminian order in two schools in the UK and Africa. Reporter Olenka Frienkel tells Edward how after initially supporting the victims, the head of the order is now ignoring their claims for compensation."

26/6/2011 - A statement by the Rosminian order  is read out concerning last week's report.

17/7/2011 - "This week a report into abuse in the Cloyne diocese in Ireland painted a depressing and familiar picture of failings in the safeguarding policy of the Irish Catholic Church. Jane will hear from Ian Elliot, who first brought the failings of the Church to light, and priest Father Brian Darcy." 

31/7/2011 - "Is this the end of Catholic Ireland? The Irish Prime Minister has accused the Vatican of complicity in the rape of children and the Papal Nuncio has been recalled to Rome. Jane speaks to correspondent Ruth McDonald."

4/9/2011 - "In Ireland, a consultation has begun on the future of primary education. At present the Catholic Church runs ninety three per cent of primary schools, but all sides agree that such a state of affairs is no longer tenable. Ruth McDonald reports." [Turns out to be because of the child abuse scandal.]

18/9/2011 - Passing mention of the abuse scandal during a report from Dublin on the Irish Catholic Church's involvement in education followed by another passing mention (by Ed Stourton) during his introduction to a piece on the anniversary of Pope Benedict's visit to the U.K.

25/9/2011 - Discussion, following William Crawley's lead, of "the abuse tsunami" during an interview about Benedict's visit to Germany. 

30/10/2011 - "The Vatican has ordered an inquiry into child sex abuse at Ealing Abbey and the adjoining school in west London. Jane speaks to Sean O'Neill, Crime Editor of the Times on the paper's investigation into a number of high-profile cases at the Abbey. She also hears from Bishop John Arnold, the man appointed by Rome to conduct the Apostolic Visitation."

6/11/2011 - Discussion of the abuse scandal during an interview between BBC reporters about the closure of the Vatican embassy in Ireland.

13/11/2011 -  "Who employs a priest? In a week that the high court has ruled that the Catholic church as an organisation was responsible for the actions of one of its priests..and not God... Kevin Bocquet talks to those at the heart of this dispute and looks at attitudes to employment amongst other denominations and faiths.
This week Lord Carlile published a report into abuse at St Benedict's in Ealing, West London. His report detailed a failure to detect, investigate and stop the abuse. Edward talks to Lord Carlile about his recommendation for a new governing structure to separate the school from the religious order and he hears from Abbot Martin Shipperlee from Ealing Abbey ."

4/12/2011 - "A report by the Church in Ireland into the Raphoe Diocese has revealed more shocking stories of clergy abuse and cover ups. Edward will speak to Mary Harte, who has been following the case, and the Bishop of Raphoe Phillip Boyce."

18/12/2011 - A report from the Netherlands: "Even by the grim standards set by recent revelations about the scale of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, the figures to emerge from a Dutch inquiry into the matter are shocking." 

15/1/2012 - A discussion about Catholic abuse between Ed Stourton and The Tablet's Catherine Pepinster following the resignation of Baroness Scotland from a Catholic child protection body.

5/2/2012 - "As Catholic bishops gather in Rome for a global conference on child abuse, we ask what they hope to achieve. The Tablet's Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens joins us live."

12/2/2012 - "The Tablet's Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens joins William from Rome on the Catholic Church's global conference on child abuse."

25/3/2012 - "The results of the Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, ordered by Pope Benedict in the wake of the Child Abuse scandal was made public this week. Cardinal Sean Brady gives William his reaction to the findings of the report and Michael Kelly of the Irish Times discusses the public response."

6/5/2012 - "Victims of child abuse in Ireland are calling for the resignation of Cardinal Sean Brady after a BBC investigation revealed more details of his role in investigating Ireland's most notorious paedophile priest Father Brendan Smyth in 1975. We speak to the Michael Kelly, Deputy Editor of the Irish Catholic Newspaper and Father Brian Darcy."

10/6/2012 - Report featuring discussion about the impact of the paedophile priests scandal during a discussion about the Catholic Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, followed by more such discussion between Edward Stourton and William Crawley. 

15/7/2012 - "The High Court ruled against the Portsmouth Diocese this week saying that the Catholic Church can be held liable for the wrongdoings of its [paedophile] priests. Joshua Rozenburg explains the wider implications."

14/10/2012 - Passing references/questions throughout the special Vatican II edition. 

So, there have been 26 editions featuring items about the Catholic child abuse scandal, some containing several separate features, others including only brief discussions. This means that 28% of all the editions of Sunday throughout the period of this survey contained features on the Catholic clerical abuse scandal (particularly in a neighbouring country, the Republic of Ireland). Does that seem disproportionate to you? Or fair enough, given the importance of the story?

Listing the editions in that way does make it look rather like an attempt to give the Church a bad press. However, to state the obvious, 67 editions (72%) contained no mention of the abuse scandal. Moreover, given that the editions that deal with the priestly abuse scandal tend to cluster around significant developments in a continuing major story (and that the programme went over three months without such a feature when there were no such developments), it seems to me that such intensive coverage is fair enough.  

That is, of course, if the issue is viewed in isolation.

My next post will set such stories in the context of other 'bad news stories' for the Vatican featured on Sunday - and there are an awful lot of them, some of them less easy to justify. Taken as a whole, they do give the impression of being of a campaign against...well, against things liberal Catholics disapprove of. I'll try to fathom out exactly what later.

Still, the programme seems to me to have a solid case that the extent of its coverage of the priestly abuse scandal has not been unduly out of proportion to the importance of the story. I would be curious to know what Catholic readers make of this.

The issue of disproportionality, however, that seems to exercise a lot of comments field critics of the BBC across the blogosphere is what strikes them as being the contrast between such intensive coverage of abuse in the Catholic Church and what they see as the systematic, radical under-reporting of child abuse in other religious communities - by which they almost invariably mean the Muslim community. Is Sunday guilty of this double standard?

Well, there has been very little coverage of child abuse issues beyond the Catholic Church. There have been two editions (2/9/2012 and 29/5/2011) dealing with a clerical abuse scandal within the Anglican diocese of Chichester and, beyond the Christian fold, there have been three editions (13/5/2012, 27/11/2011, 20/2/2011) that have included sections devoted (or partly devoted) to the issue of child abuse from within the Muslim community.


Strong emotions were raised by the convictions for child grooming of nine Muslim men in Rochdale earlier this year. There was a widespread perception (which anyone who reads the internet could hardly fail to have picked up on) that the risk posed by paedophile rings emerging from within the Muslim (particularly the Pakistani) community - some of which targeted white girls - has been downplayed to a dangerous extent by sections of the media (as well as by the police, social services and most of the political class) for reasons of over-sensitivity to (Muslim) community sensibilities and the fear of being accused of racism.

How does Sunday, BBC Radio 4's flagship religious and moral news programme, stand up in the light of such perceptions?

By only discussing the issue of Muslim paedophile gangs, child abuse by imams and within Islamic institutions and other such matters on just three editions (3.2%), as compared to the 26 editions (28%) featuring discussion of Catholic clerical abuse, Sunday does rather leave itself exposed to charges of double standards, doesn't it?

Put in a nutshell, these charges might run as follows: On the one hand the programme has strongly pursued the Catholic Church, picking up on case after case of abuse and keeping listeners regularly updated on the twists and turns of many of those stories. On the other hand the programme has evidently been treading with extreme caution around the issue of child abuse within the mosques and madrassas of the United Kingdom and the world and has rarely responded to widely-reported cases of abuse emanating from within Islamic communities. The central charge, then, would be of Sunday itself being complicit in the downplaying of such issues, doubtless for the same reasons of  'political correctness' .

Is this fair? Is the extent of abuse within the Catholic Church (much of it historic) so much greater than that within and around the mosques and madrassas, thus justifying the much greater attention paid to it by Sunday? Worldwide? Within the United Kingdom?

It's beyond me to answer most of those questions as yet. Like many of you (if I may be presumptuous), I can't say I'm at all clear on the relative numbers for comparisons of scale between present day British Catholic and British Muslim child abuse or between present day (and historic) worldwide Catholic and worldwide Muslim child abuse (or abuse, let it be pointed out - because I have so far failed to do so -, by other faiths and denominations). I suspect a true appraisal of BBC reporting of child abuse and its tie-in to specific faiths will need a proper sense of such scales.

That said, the dramatic difference between the amounts of coverage given to Catholic and Muslim child abuse on Sunday raises questions about over-sensitivity towards Muslim feeling and (more dubiously) under-sensitivity to Catholic feeling - a variation on Roger Bolton's theme about the lack of a "level playing field" between Christianity and Islam, with the latter not having to "put up with what Christianity does".  

No comments: