A couple of things are striking about today’s offering from Stephen Glover:
“Despite being required under its charter to provide religious programming, and despite being funded by licence-payers who overwhelmingly describe themselves as Christian, the Corporation has been increasingly pursuing what can only be, at best, described as a non-Christian agenda and, at worst, as an anti-Christian one.”
These two striking things are the claim that this is a Christian country and the jumping off point for this particular article on religious persecution, the appointment of a non-Christian to the head of religious broadcasting at the Beeb. Taking those in reverse order, Aaqil Ahmed, a practising Muslim who believes that “there should be more coverage of Muslim matters in the media”, has been appointed as head of religious broadcasting for the BBC. He comes from a similar post at Channel 4 and replaces Michael Wakelin, a Methodist lay preacher. Or, as Stephen breaks the news:
“On Monday, the Corporation announced that it has appointed a Muslim as head of religious broadcasting. This is not a joke, I can assure you.
The person responsible for overseeing the BBC’s — so far — largely Christian output will be Aaqil Ahmed, a practising Muslim.”
There appears to be an implicit assumption here that to accurately represent a group you have to be representative of it. On this basis, to take an obvious example, in every constituency in the country, half the population are disenfranchised through the gender of their MP. Generally it is felt that this is not a pressing concern, as someone good, nay merely competent, as an MP should be able to see beyond their own concerns as a gendered individual and extend their representation to those of the wider community. Anecdotally, MPs at least do seem able to do this to some extent – despite being predominantly straight, parliament has over recent decades been able to roll back legislation discriminatory to gays; despite being predominantly monied, we have on the books a small number of laws running against the monied classes in favour of the underprivileged. One would imagine that it would be a condition of Mr Ahmed’s terms of reference, and the oversight that ensures he keeps to them, that he shares similar representative skills.
It’s also worth noting that, for all the use of ‘Christian’ as a concrete noun, the set of items covered by the label ‘Christian’ is very broad. If you need to have an understanding of the beliefs of a group to fully represent them, the Catholic population of the UK, for example, may well have had reason for concern over the appointment of the previous head of religious broadcasting. Methodism is a non-hierarchical denomination, structured as a direct democracy with doctrine discussed and decided on the level of elected national committees. It’s not that unlike the Women’s Institute in that respect. A Methodist lay preacher could reasonably be expected to find it difficult to fully justify the practices of a church based on the doctrinal opinions of an elderly celibate in slippers, appointed in secret by other such elderly celibates and claiming authority through a direct lineage from an apostle of the human incarnation of God. This is no small issue given the research in 2007 which suggested that Roman Catholicism would surpass Anglicanism¹ as the country’s biggest Church and so, presumably, the biggest subset of BBC-funding licence payers. Although under Mr Wakelin’s watch the religious coverage of the BBC may have become, in Stephen’s opinion, more “anodyne”, he still managed to make it through without claims that Catholicism was being ignored or slighted, or that there was a noticeably Methodist slant to coverage. The fact he was non-representative of the vast majority of the Christian population of the UK didn’t seem to affect his ability to represent them.
For this reason, there is something slightly unsettling about the claim that Muslim will not do the job as well as a Christian (and the attached claim that a Hindu won’t be as good at organising ‘Songs of Praise’), and taking their appointment as evidence that the BBC is sidelining Christianity. If we’re happy with a member of a minority denomination handling the role, and we’re happy in other areas of public life that you can represent without being representative, there seems to be no reason to see a Muslim’s appointment as a potential punchline to a joke.
Moving on to the other striking thing:
“No doubt [the BBC’s] secular suits assume that Britain is as anti-Christian as they are. They’re out of touch again.”
On the face of it, this is an uncontroversial claim – the last national census (2001) showed that (of the 92% of the population choosing to answer the question) 72% of the population felt themselves to be Christians. However, whilst there is a very vocal population of Christians in public life, 72% seems like a very large number given the number of non-Christians encountered in everyday life. Looking at more recent alternative data, the last British Social Attitudes report to look at the subject of religion (2007) found 69% of respondents did not belong to a religion or attend religious services. Leaving aside the possibility that the intervening six years of anodyne religious broadcasting had persuaded a large chunk of Christians to pack it in and worship capitalism instead, there is a big gap between these two results which needs to be explained. Part of it may be the way the question is posed – in the census you are asked ‘What is your religion?’, a formulation implicitly implying that you have a religion of some sort that is both nameable and listed on the form, while in the BSA you are asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’, which is much more open-ended and places ‘no’ on a par with ‘yes, and it is …’. In particular, in the BSA version of the question, the onus is on the respondent to say that which religion they follow, rather than having a list presented from which they can select the best that fits. It avoids the danger of people who were raised Christian or passed through the Christian school system feeling the need to tick the box as it brings in the idea of active pursuit of the religion rather than mere membership. This seems a much more meaningful measure – to take another political analogy, we would consider someone a ‘Conservative’ only if they voted Tory, having been raised in a Tory household but now not voting would be insufficient.
We should probably be wary of both measures – the question on the census is badly phrased while the BSA is a voluntary survey and so subject to things like selection bias² and both rely on self-definition which is changeable and non-uniform. However, taken with evidence of low attendance of religious ceremonies, low viewing figures for religious programmes and little evidence of religious belief in daily life³, we can have reason to doubt the claim that we are still a ‘Christian nation’. To what extent this means we should change our approach to questions of religious involvement in public life is a subject for another time, but at the very least we should stop seeing such claims as truisms which justify any claim to special treatment.
On which bases, Stephen’s conclusion:
“In appointing Aaqil Ahmed they do not simply offend against this country’s Christian heritage and traditions. They also further weaken the hold and authority of the BBC.”
should probably be taken with a pillar of salt.
¹ Which, although being hierarchical in a way which Methodism isn’t, is much closer to it on issues like same-sex relationships, birth control and the intercession of the saints.
² Although they are actually quite good at avoiding such issues.
³ Where, for example, do we find evidence of Christian belief in our daily newspapers – judgemental, thoroughly lacking in brotherly love and doing a fine line in leery, some might say outright covetous, photos of celebrities – for all their protestations when their privileges are threatened.