Sunday 2 December 2012

Out with the old...

...and in with the biased!

In my #Occupy post I recalled an edition of Sunday that struck me as providing clear evidence for a 'yes' answer to the question 'Is the BBC biased?'

That was this year's New Year's Day special .

The programme's website lays out the cast list:
"On this special New Year Edition of Sunday, our Presenter Samira Ahmed discusses the role of religion in politics with guests Canon Giles Fraser, Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association and Inayat Bungalwala [sic] of Muslims UK." 
There was a fourth guest too - "Rosemary Hollis, an expert on Middle East Politics from City University London" -  who contributed to some of the discussions.

For those who accuse the BBC of simultaneously holding a number of specific biases - pro-secular, pro-Muslim, pro-Left, etc - that's something of a cast list from Hell. Giles Fraser is, of course, a left-leaning Anglican (and now a lead writer for The Guardian); Andrew Copson is a left-leaning humanist (and a columnist at The Guardian and The New Statesman) and Inayat Bunglawala is a controversial Muslim apologist (who writes mostly for The Guardian). As for Rosemary Hollis, well, we've met her before

David Cameron and the UK's Christian values

Only Giles, Andrew and Inayat joined Samira Ahmed (who pens the occasional piece for The Guardian too) for the first discussion - a reaction to David Cameron's December 2011 speech marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible saying that we shouldn't be afraid to say that we're a Christian country, shaped by Christian values:

"Third, we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.
Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong.
I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger.
But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend." 

Can you guess in advance what a secularist, a left-leaning Anglican and a Muslim apologist, all Guardian writers, would make of David Cameron's speech? Do you think they'd like it and agree with it, or not?

Samira Ahmed's first question tackled David Cameron's statement that 'we're a Christian country shaped by Christian values' head on': 
 "Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Society, what do you make of that assertion?" 
A very revealing word that, "assertion". 

The humanist Andrew didn't make much of it, unsurprisingly: "It's a pretty bizarre set of statements to make," "highly contestable", "some are just untrue", "extremely simplistic", "meaningless sop", "worrying".

Samira's next question (to the man from the National Humanist Society, which - as we all know - fundamentally objects to the idea that faith should have a formal role in politics) was:
"Well, let's assume he meant it. He says you can't fight something with nothing, that we need moral values and that faith provides them, and he also mentions other religions. Do you object fundamentally to the idea that faith should have a formal role in politics?"
Andrew replied that Cameron's right that we need moral values but social morality needs to be something everyone can buy into.
"Giles Fraser?"
"Well, I'm not a million miles away from Andrew on this one at all," replied Giles (accurately). Christianity has been important but we're a multi-cultural country now, he said. (Or should that be "he asserted"?)  

Now we come to what Samira really seems to think - and a remarkable question to put to Giles Fraser. She, we, everyone knows in advance that he would be bound to agree with her on this:
"Wasn't the prime minister trying to say that, you know, the Church of England is actually part of the state and it should be more overtly part of the moral structure of this country? This is what went wrong with the St. Paul's Cathedral protest, that, in a way, the Church didn't make a stand, it was perhaps too concerned about its sort of status and day to day business?"
He did indeed agree with her, saying he thinks the Church can get too close to the state and that he's beginning to come round to the idea of disestablishment. "To that extent I think the prime minister was completely wrong," he added.
"Inayat Bunglawala, the prime minister was also making the point about faith in general having a role. What's your view?"
Inayat replied that David Cameron was sending "a very worrying signal to minority faith communities" with his "divisive words"

You are probably getting the picture. Three thumbs down from all three of Samira's main guests for David Cameron's speech asserting Britain's Christian values. The programme's editors should have known - and, I believe, would have known - what these three people were likely to say on this very hot political issue. They should have ensured a far wider spread of views. They should have had someone on who would defend Cameron's speech and who was prepared to robustly assert our country's Christian values. 

The questions continued with a BBC presenter asking a humanist if he agrees that religious groups are "wrongly given a privileged status"? Hmm, now what could the answer to that be?
"If we look more broadly at the idea of a bigger role for faith in politics, what do you all think of the idea that religious groups are wrongly given a privileged status and that the prime minister, and politicians in general, seem to be wanting to pursue that?"
Andrew Copson replied, "I completely agree with that". [Well I never! /sarc.] Faith schools are discriminatory, the government's policies are "extremely bizarre and concerning", etc.

In the first proper note of disagreement, Giles Fraser completely disagreed with Andrew about faith schools, but (left-liberal) harmony was soon restored as he agreed with him about bishops in House of Lords. Giles also wants the Church to be more "critical" towards the powers-that-be. 
"But if you're not inside, you know, isn't it harder to influence the government?"
Giles replied that you blunt your message if you get too close, risking becoming an organ of the state. Cue a question about Giles Fraser:
"With St. Paul's, which you resigned over, is that's what has gone wrong? I mean, has that damaged the Church very badly?"
Giles didn't take the bait there. He replied that there was no state influence there, that they disagreed over decisions made autonomously.

Now we come to a question from Samira Ahmed that seems to me to be highly revealing of her own personal biases. I'll leave in the notes I scribbled at the time to show how I reacted when I first heard this:
"I just want to broaden it out a little. When we talk about the privileged role of religious groups, Inayat Bunglawala, one of the concerns that perhaps people like the humanists have is that they often seem to be pushing quite a conservative agenda [booooo!!!!!], which could be seen to be at odds with majority society [you think, Samira?], you know, concern over abortion, over gay adoption and marriage, over stem cell research. That's what concerns people." [Cripes! Speak for yourself, Samira!]
She rather sounds as if she was speaking for herself.

Inayat Bunglawala replied that "if religious groups were pushing a conservative agenda then it would be a cause for worry.."

Doubtless to the delight of Ed Stourton, Samira interrupted him there to say...
"Well, Catholic groups in particular..."
though she did then continue...
"...but also some Muslim groups seem to be pushing a conservative agenda, aren't they?"
Inayat said that it would be wrong to look at any one group as an "homogeneous entity". Some Muslim groups recognise that the recent equality agenda hasn't just led to greater gay rights but greater Muslim rights too. The two go hand in hand, protecting minorities, whether Muslim or gay.
"Andrew Copson?"
Andrew said in response that all religious groups suffer from the tension of having "socially progressive" people but also those seeking to defend their own privilege and power. "I think that's as true of Catholic groups as it is the Church of England". [He kept quiet about Muslims though!]
"Giles Fraser?"
Now, here came a pleasant surprise. After all this bashing of conservatives, Giles argued that they [Samira and her guests] shouldn't just be "soft-Left and inclusive" [which, of course, is precisely what the discussion had been up to that point]. It's "absolutely right", he continued, that there should be people sincerely expressing their "very conservative views".

Those were very sensible comments from Giles, especially coming from someone who holds "very liberal views". I'm not at all sure that it would have occurred to Samira Ahmed to suggest this. She may be fairly new to the BBC but she seems to have caught more than a bit of their mindset (if that question of hers is anything to go by).

What Giles said next ties in very well with what Roger Bolton had to say about the failure of the BBC's religious programmes to treat those who hold conservative religious views with either respect or understanding: "I wouldn't want this conversation to be seen to be, as it were, disenfranchising those people who had very conservative views. Absolutely legitimate thing to have within our society." Well said Giles!

Frankly, Samira Ahmed's question ("When we talk about the privileged role of religious groups, Inayat Bunglawala, one of the concerns that perhaps people like the humanists have is that they often seem to be pushing quite a conservative agenda, which could be seen to be at odds with majority society, you know, concern over abortion, over gay adoption and marriage, over stem cell research. That's what concerns people") suggests (to me) that she wouldn't half mind disenfranchising those people who hold very conservative views. [Her appearances as a presenter on Sunday Morning Live suggest that there might be more to her than that though, though that probably needs investigating.]

In fairness, she did then try to ask a question that was balanced, though the attempt rather failed due to her seeming difficulty in trying to make an intelligible conservative (or 'Conservative') point:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury's in theory the kind of spiritual head of, you know, religion in this country, even if we are a multi-faith society and, you know, this year, you know, he has made these criticisms of government, when he talked about being committed to a radical long-term policies which no-one voted for back in June.  How far do you think he is providing the kind of moral leadership, you know, that is rightly talking on politics and how far has he got himself in a mess which is sort of backfiring in a way against his status in the Church? [Huh?]"
Atheist Andrew Copson said that Rowan Williams is compromised. At the same time as he's making these pronouncements he's also the head of a "tremendously privileged" institution, with its "divisive" selective schools.

Giles Fraser, daring to disagree again, didn't  agree at all about him being compromised. The Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly a man of great principle, he said. 
Inayat says should be no privileges from being born into a particular faith. You should get ahead only on your merits.

Thus ends the first discussion. 

U.S. Elections

The panel rested for a while as the programme moved on to its U.S.-based reporter Matt Wells. For a religious and ethical current affairs based programme, Sunday has spent a surprising amount of time on the U.S. elections. A large proportion of Matt's pieces over the last year or so have traced the course of the election, particularly the course of the Republican race. Like most BBC reporters (and most Brits who have an interest in U.S. politics?), Matt doesn't seem very keen on U.S. Republicans. His language is full of stuff that those who seek out 'bias by labelling' would have a field-day with. You won't hear him call a Democrat "a hardline liberal" or a "├╝ber-liberal Catholic",  but phrases like "hardline conservative Catholic" - as applied here, I think not inaccurately, to Republican hopeful Rick Santorum - trip out of his mouth with the greatest of ease.  

The 'Arab Spring'

It was time to introduce Professor Rosemary Hollis into the mix. Samira Ahmed introduced her as "an expert" and repeatedly asked her "what is the right way to view...?" various thing. She began this next discussion in this way:
"Now, it was perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year, the so-called 'Arab Spring' - a string of popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, mobilising thousands - including many young people - against some of the longest-established authoritarian regimes in the world. They wanted democracy and greater equality but the revolutions also exposed divisions between educated, urban, secular elites and the rural poor and sectarian tensions between Islamists and Christians, which were often exploited by the military regimes determined to hold onto power. And the process is far from complete as the ongoing violence in Egypt as well as Syria reveals." 
That's a nice, tidy description. It seems overly tidy to me, with its easy explanations and simple dichotomies. Did you spot the way Samira described the sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians as being "between Islamists and Christians"? "Between Muslims and Christians" is surely a more accurate way of putting it, isn't it, given what actually happened (especially in Egypt)? Why did she describe it in that way?

Inayat Bunglawala joined in later. Both he and Professor Hollis waxed enthusiastic for the 'Arab Spring' and, with Samira's assistance, took a disapproving tone towards past Western policy in the region. 

Restorative Justice

Here are two ways of seeing things, altered by the use of just one word:
"Now, one of the consequences of the English summer riots was a sharp rise in the number of people in prison to more than 88,000, thanks partly to tough sentencing. At the same time, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has controversially sought to reduce the prison population with the focus on cutting re-offending rates among people released after short custodial sentences."
"Now, one of the consequences of the English summer riots was a sharp rise in the number of people in prison to more than 88,000, thanks partly to controversially tough sentencing. At the same time, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has sought to reduce the prison population with the focus on cutting re-offending rates among people released after short custodial sentences."
The second of those statements was Samira Ahmed's controversial introduction to the next report - a piece by the controversial Bishop of Liverpool extolling the virtues of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a fashionable but controversial innovation:
"The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, the Church of England's Bishop for Prisons, has been exploring the use of restorative justice schemes to do so, bringing offenders face to face with victims of crime for a new Radio 4 series starting tomorrow. In this report for 'Sunday' he looks at the effects such schemes have on victims as well as offenders".
The bishop 'shows' that the schemes are very effective indeed and reminds us that we need to be more forgiving, like Jesus. However, Peter Hitchens is one of the bishop's talking heads and the bishop debates with him - as Mr. Hitchens doesn't share his enthusiasm for restorative justice. The bishop would make a great BBC reporter. He features someone who disagrees with the right-thinking person's point of view (his) and then editorialises after they've spoken, thus undermining what they have just said. Still, he was not uninteresting and if it works and does good then good luck to the scheme.

(Of course, something is controversial if you make it controversial (by airing disagreements about it). If you don't make it controversial (by not airing disagreements about it) it doesn't become controversial.....or it may not be controversial because everyone - or almost everyone - agrees it's right).

Debate on Restorative Justice

Following the Bishop of Liverpool's report, Samira returned to her three main guests - Andrew Copson, Giles Fraser and Inayat Bunglawala. Cue lively debate, disagreement and a broad and representative range of opinions? Not exactly. 

Giles said, "My sympathy though is with what the Bishop of Liverpool is trying to do here". Retributive justice hasn't worked and we need more compassion. Andrew said that if you understand the causes of crime you will rehabilitate people. He said however, that retribution and punishment is a tradition of this country, "unfortunately". Inayat said that faith groups can help the rehabilitation process. 

There was a little disagreement though. Inayat blamed a "culture of instant gratification" for the August riots and Giles joined him, blaming "individualism". Andrew, however, said we need to be careful before we start blaming individual people's materialism, consumerism and freedom for the riots.

Mayan Prophecy of the Occupy Movement's Success

I bemoaned this feature in my last post. To reprise (briefly):
"The latest Hollywood blockbuster, 2012, is based on a Mayan prophecy that this is the year when the world will come to an end, we get the thoughts of David Wilkinson, Professor of Theology and Shaman practitioner Manda Scott."
The Shaman practitioner must have been a keen Sunday listener because she was very much in tune with the sacred spirits of the Occupy movement:
"2012 is going to be a year, potentially, of revolution. And I would imagine we're going to hit a conflict between what we might 'the forces of reaction', the 1%, the people whose greatest interest is in keeping power and money in the hands of the 1%".

The Panels' Predictions for 2012

Here's what Samira's four guests predicted for this year:
Rosemary Hollis: "Well, my worst fear is that there could well be a war in the Middle East with the U.S. on one side and Iran on the other. Absent that, I anticipate that the next phase of the so-called Arab Spring will be much rockier and more alarming to outsiders and very painful to some of the people directly involved, but that there's no stopping it and my hope and suggestion for the coming year is that we create a new fashion for nourishing the mind as an antidote to the consumerism and materialism." 
Giles Fraser: "Well, I always think it's a fool's game to make predictions. If we did this last year, those people who did it would have definitely had eggs on their face, so the economic squeeze is going to continue to #effect# all our lives. I hope that we'll rethink our, sort of, banking financial services industry, so there may well be some silver linings to what is going to be a really tough year.  
Inayat Bunglawala: "Well, in Islamic teachings the end-time or the Day of Judgement is known only to God and, as my wife never tires of pointing out, I'm not God. I would hope for the continuing spread of the Arab Spring throughout 2012. I hope that it really does lead to the establishment of greater freedoms in the Middle East for people of all faiths and none."
Andrew Copson: "It's difficult to go last. I hope all for all the good things people have said as well, but also I hope that all Anglicans embrace disestablishment as Giles has, that public policy goes on to be based on reason and empathy and that David Cameron didn't mean what he said. My prediction is that none of that will happen, but maybe 2013."
I love predictions. Well, we've still got a month to go but Rosemary Hollis's war remains absent, the Arab Spring remains as painful as it was from about a quarter of the way through 2011 onwards and nourishing the mind doesn't seem to have taken off. Giles Fraser should have heeded his own advice. Banking reform? Yeah right. Inayat Bunglawala's vision of the spread of freedoms in the Middle East looks like a bad-taste joke now. (All hail President Morsi!) Andrew Copson scored best.

My predictions for 2013 (a bit early, I know!) are, on a positive note, that Sunday will feature far fewer guests from The Tablet and include a scattering of extra features on Hinduism and Sikhism [at the prompting of this blog - of which they are now well aware, even if few others are!] and, on a less positive note, invite Giles Fraser back, continue to feature far more liberal than conservative religious voices, regularly report bad news for the Catholic Church and talk a lot about gay marriage in a way that implies that its opponents are as benighted as those Anglican who opposed women bishops. They may also feature less regularly on this blog.

My most confident prediction, however....excuse me for a minute while I just reach for my medication...ah that's better! that the next New Year edition of Sunday will balance the last one by featuring a series of discussions between a right-wing atheist, a conservative Catholic and an Orthodox Jew, with Douglas Murray doing the Middle East bit. Yes, that's bound to happen....Nurse, nurse!

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