As I wrote the other day, Sunday's take on the apocalyptic failure of the Church of England to vote for women bishops was bound to test the impartiality of a programme which often appears to find it hard to hide a certain lack of understanding/empathy for those who hold conservative social views.
Some of today's edition went through the motions of balance. The opening vox pops featured two from one side and two from the other. Then when Sunday reporter Kevin Bouquet when to two parishes to find out the views of the laity, he visited a conservative church and a liberal church and spoke to the vicar and three female parishioners from each parish. There's statistical balance for you!
Kevin's report was introduced by presenter William Crawley, who detailed the figures for bishops, clergy and laity voting for women bishops, emphasised the narrowness of the loss in the House of Laity and then said:
"And that's led many people [his emphasis] to question just how representative the Synod's House of Laity actually is of the views of ordinary members of the Church of England".
[Has anyone ever wonder just how representative the Synod's House of Bishops actually is of the views of ordinary members of the Church of England"? Certainly not Sunday!].
Here are the questions Kevin Bouquet put to the errant conservative Anglicans in Northwich, Cheshire:
"Mike, and do you think that people opposed to women bishops...do you think that they anticipated the depth of disappointment and frustration that there would be when this decision did not go through?"
"Do you have any regrets, having seen the division, the upset it's caused?"
"The Bishop of Chelmsford called this decision "a national embarrassment". What's your reaction to that?"
"And yet the people are important, aren't they? And more than 72% of Synod members voted in favour of this legislation. Was it right that the view of the minority should prevail [incredulous tone of voice] in this way?" [a partial contradiction of the lady who said that the Church should be there to please God not the people]."Do you accept that there will be women bishops one day?""So all you've won now is a kind of temporary reprieve?"
Compare those accusatory questions to the unenlightened traditionalists with these commiserating questions to the enlightened but hard-done-by liberal parishioners of Manchester:
"How do you explain the profound reaction to the decision of the Synod this week? People weren't just disappointed, they were distraught. People were in tears, weren't they?" "I wonder how you feel towards the traditionalists who prevented this legislation going through."
The first thing you will notice is that Kevin asked them far fewer questions and that they were a very different type of question - not challenging, unlike those he put to the conservative Anglicans. Instead, he just let them air their complaints at length, without interruption.
And, as I will keep saying about Sunday [and will produce a complete list in time], the last word of the report went to the side with whom the programme's sympathies seem to lie:
"So I think we have to be much more proactive. We have to be very careful in choosing the people we send to deaneries, synod and diocesan synod and we have to canvass them constantly, ask them questions, challenge them, make sure they are representing the voice of the laity and not just their own eccentric opinions."
That was one of the liberal parishioners, not the BBC reporter. Curiously, however, her statement that the "eccentric" conservatives need questioning and challenging (and being weeded out if found wanting) for holding on to the view which the Church had held to be orthodox teaching for 2,000 years tied in neatly with the framing of this very report and the behaviour as an interviewer of Kevin Bouquet. These traditionalists may indeed be wrong and hold opinions we may not (do not) share, but it ill behoves a BBC programme to dismiss them or treat them with disdain.
As former Sunday presenter Roger Bolton said of the BBC:
“There should at least be an effort to say that just because somebody is against gay marriage or against IVF [or against women bishops] doesn’t necessarily mean they are a lunatic – it is part of their belief, they have a genuine problem here with the legal authority or whatever – understand that position.”
We then heard from Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry, who believes - like the Labour MP Frank Field (a clip of whose condemnation was played first) - that the Synod's decision "makes the church look outdated, irrelevant, eccentric and like a sect." Across the House of Commons, parliamentarians seem to be chomping at the bit to turn the views of the parishioners in Northwich into a 'pariah' point of view. Unhealthy.
William Crawley's interview with Sir Tony was, of course, a chance for the presenter to redress the balance and challenge the MP's criticism of those who opposed the Church of England's legislation. Did he take it? No, instead he chose to harry Sir Tony over his refusal to go all the way with Mr. Field and enforce women bishops through parliamentary legislation. All of his questions came not from this stance - the standpoint of the even-more-liberal side of the debate (where, here, Sir Tony has positioned himself as a liberal) rather than posing devil's advocate questions from the conservative side. I have to admit I expected better from William Crawley.
Doesn't that justify Roger Bolton's complaints about the marginalisation of those who hold views than run counter to the prevailing "liberal secular humanist" outlook, shared so markedly by the BBC?
OK, so far, so not-so-good. What of the big three-way debate at the end? Well, this was about as biased as BBC interviewing gets. William Crawley did not impress me here one bit.
We heard from two liberal figures in the Church of England: Rev. Rosemary Lain-Priestley, Dean of Women's Ministry in Central London and Bishop Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden. The other guest was the conservative Dr. Philip Giddings, chair of the House of Laity, and someone who voted against the legislation. In these circumstances, 2 against 1 wasn't unreasonable. However, it was very much 3 against 1, thanks to William Crawley.
You will have to listen to the programme (linked to near the top of the post) to get the full flavour of William's tone when addressing Dr. Giddings - which had something of 'the headmaster scolding a naughty schoolboy' about it. Repeated, rather hostile interruptions and challenges were the order of the day. William did not try for one second to disguise what sounded very like his own personal disapproval. Contrast that with the way he treated Rev. Rosemary and Bishop Pete. He didn't interrupt Rev. Rosemary once and only interrupted Bishop Pete to help the bishop's argument along. Both Rev. Rosemary and Bishop Pete repeatedly found themselves able to agree with William's points. There was nothing of the hostility towards Dr. Giddings in his questions to them. It is a remarkable difference of treatment and can, I would say, only be ascribed to bias on the part of the interviewer.
It's never good to find an interviewer taking sides against the one guest in a three-way discussion who disagrees with the two other guests. To find him not just doing that but doing so in such an antagonistic way just adds to the sense that this was not impartial BBC broadcasting.
Let me list the questions/comments put by William Crawley to each of his three guests. You will see that all of those put to Dr. Giddings from asked from an opposing standpoint. Not so those put to his other two guests. All the questions, again, came from the liberal or more-liberal-than-liberal standpoint, none from the conservative standpoint. Please see what you think.
Questions to Rev. Rosemary Lain-Priestley (liberal):
"Rosemary, can I begin with you? As a woman priest in the Church of England, how were you feeling today?"
"And Rosemary there seems to be a widespread agreement that it's inevitable we're going to have women bishops in the Church of England?" [She agrees.]
"Well, maybe compromise isn't actually the way forward. I know that's a very unAnglican thing to say, but there have been some commentators, not least Giles Fraser, saying this week that it may just be time to ignore conservative evangelicals and move forward without them."
"Rosemary, how damaging is this for the Church of England?"
Questions to Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden (liberal):
"OK, Bishop Pete Broadbent, what's your analysis of what went wrong here?"
"Let me put the point to Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden. Pete, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says the Church should simply rip up its rule book and speed through the introduction of women bishops. How do you do that?"
[Pete says that's easy for a former A of C to say. WC interrupts to agree with him.]
"What's the point of a rule book if you just rip it up it up if you don't like it?" ["Yes, I think that's right", said Pete].[Interrupting Pete] "And you're hearing some very unveiled threats from parliament, aren't you?""We've an e-mail here from Linda Shelley who said "Here's one possible way forward..." and let me get your response to this, Pete Broadbent. "A lay referendum. All members of the Church on electoral rolls should have a vote, not just the House of Laity?" [Pete is a strong critics of the H of L, so he doesn't mind this question one bit and likes the idea].
Questions to Dr. Philip Giddings, chair of the House of Laity (conservative:)
"Philip Giddings, we've had lots of rather colourful language being used in the public debate about that. We're getting some of that also in e-mails this morning. "National disgrace", "an embarrassment". "A Church behaving like a sect", Tony Baldry said. You realise that many people now think that the House of Laity, which you chair, has brought the Church of England into disrepute?"
"Philip, you have been very exercised about the importance of headship and authority and a lot of people in the public are learning about these theological ideas during this debate. If you're so convinced about the importance of headship and authority, why didn't you listen to the bishops?"
[Interrupting Philip] "Well, you know there are people who will never accept this."
[Interrupting Philip] "Does that mean they have an eternal veto on the ordination of women bishops?""Let's talk about where we go from here. It's important to talk about where we go from here. [Firmly topping Philip from continuing]."Philip, you believe in democracy, don't you, within the Church of England?"[Interrupting Philip] "Is it right then...is it right then that a significant minority should hold the Church to ransom on this?"[Interrupting Philip] "Do you really think that the House of Laity's decision is representative of what lay people across the Church of England widely believe?""Meanwhile, Philip, we've got the important business that hasn't been talked about much in the media this week - the living wage, youth unemployment - that was debated, discussed at the General Synod without much coverage because this is overshadowing everything and yet it seems inevitable that there will be women bishops anyway. Is it really worth the candle?"
It's funny, but as a lapsed Anglican and a voter in a country with an established church who believes in lots of socially liberal things, including women bishops, I might be expected not to mind one bit when a BBC programme behaves in such a blatantly biased fashion towards a point of view I don't personally share; however, I don't believe that the people who hold such views are bad, mad or dangerous to know and I don't want a licence-fee-funded broadcaster to take my side in a highly-charged argument against them. I'd like its presenters to treat each side in a debate like this with the same understanding and not treat one with disrespect while treating the other with respect. Yes, William Crawley and Kevin Bouquet may not personally respect these people or their conservative views but they should not be letting their listening public know that. I'd like the BBC to try to be impartial.
Please take a listen to this edition of the programme and see what you think.