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Last week I set out 5 tests by which to evaluate Nicky Campbell’s BBC television documentary on alleged Christian ‘persecution’ in the UK, which was broadcast tonight, on Easter Sunday.
Ekklesia has been examining these issues closely since 2004. We produced a book which analysed the reasons for feelings about 'persecution' and predicted the growing trend towards confrontation over this, back in 2006. We also did a report in the same year on one set of conflict situations in universities. It suggested an alternative approach which was welcomed by Government and others involved. We have also spoken to many of the actors caught up in similar cases, on all sides, as well as observing what has been going on behind the scenes.
This is quite hard for me to write, as I know Nicky through doing BBC1's 'Big Questions' TV programme. It is right to be honest however, particularly given the work we have done in this area. (I am aware however it could lose me the Big Questions gig, as criticism seemed to lose me Thought for the Day, but here goes anyway....!)
The documentary concludes what most of us already know - that Christians aren't being 'persecuted' in the same way as in many parts of the world, but that some feel marginalised. But the programme's overly simplistic hypothesis is (implicitly) that this marginalisation is happening, and is down to 'secularisation' which has brought about competition around 'rights' in the public square between the religious and the non-religious. It further concludes that religious (Christian) liberty is being lost.
The immediate observation is that the selection of those interviewed was one sided. There was no religious voice to provide an alternative view to the documentary's central hypothesis. The only people who came close were Nick Spencer from Theos and Muslim Ziauddin Sardar. But they simply offered their thoughts about how to deal with ethics and morality in a pluralist society. There was no real challenge to the use of the 'rights' discourse, nor a hint that things might be a little more complex. Neither was there a challenge to the 'secularisation' hypothesis which is challenged by many academics and others not included or mentioned in the programme.
The other side, however, was represented by interviews with about a dozen others. Those interviews included former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir Ali, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Anglican Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard, Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Andrea Williams from the Christian Legal Centre (formerly Lawyers Christian Fellowship), and the Rev George Pitcher from the Daily Telegraph. (NB. three establishment Anglicans, a Catholic and a highly conservative Evangelical as far as the Christians go).
The only dissenting voice was journalist and commentator Polly Tonybee, President of the British Humanist Association, a choice which also reinforced the programme's mistaken paradigm that this was primarily a 'religion v atheism/secularism' issue.
The polling data was also represented in a one-sided manner. Campbell cited a 'special' BBC poll commissioned through ComRes for the programme. He said it was to determine whether people were becoming more 'tolerant' of religion. What it asked about was whether people 'believed' Britain was becoming less tolerant, which is a different matter.
He reported one poll finding - that 44 per cent of people believed Britain is becoming less tolerant of religion. He did not mention however that the same BBC poll found 39 per cent believing Britain is in fact becoming more tolerant.
The poll findings were presented as ‘revealing’. But more in depth studies around the same time by the same polling organisation, paint a different picture. When the question was put: "Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statement?" (sic) "'Religious freedoms have been restricted in Britain over the past 10 years'" this other survey found that most disagreed. Almost double the number (59 per cent) in fact disagreed (as opposed to agreed) with the statement. Amongst Christians the disagreement was even slightly higher (60 per cent). This evidence was not referred to, even though it provides a compelling case against the programme's central hypothesis.
But what of the five questions that were raised previously by which the programme might be evaluated?
Question 1. Will the claims of ‘persecution’ be properly scrutinised? There has been so much misinformation about what local councils, hospitals, schools and other bodies have been doing/saying. The claims make great headlines, but upon further scrutiny – including talking to the bodies involved - the claims often have little substance. There are certainly disagreements, but they are often of a different nature to the way they are being presented. Will the documentary interview the public bodies involved and get the story from their perspective? (It is sometimes the case that the people involved in the bodies are themselves Christians).
There was next to no scrutiny of the claims. Cases cited included that of Duke Amachree, the Wandsworth homelessness prevention officer. Like the others, the account of his story was one-sided. There was no interview with anyone from Wandsworth council, or even an indication that they had asked the council to comment. There was no reporting of what the local papers said about the case, which is public record, and gives a very different picture. It was not reported for example that there is evidence that it was the actions of the Christian Legal Centre in giving confidential information to the Daily Mail, that may have led to Amachrie's dismissal. An absolutely crucial point.
The cases of both nurse Caroline Petrie and teacher Olive Jones were also cited. There was no acknowledgement that they are friends. There was no mention of the fact that the allegations against Olive Jones in particular came from the family of a girl with leukaemia who she was tutoring, and the distress that they expressed about what had happened. There was no mention that the Christian Legal Centre wrongly claimed that Olive Jones had been sacked - a point which was also uncritically repeated by the media and never scrutinised.
2. Will there be a proper account of why some Christians feel marginalised? Specifically, will the context of post-Christendom be taken into account? The churches have had centuries of special privilege, with Christianity being a dominant narrative. Religion is relocating and finding a new place in society. This is making many Christians feel unsettled and making others fearful. This is being fuelled by many of the reports in the press and media.
After a promising start, which seemed to take this into account, the documentary slipped into the ‘secularisation’ thesis. As predicted Campbell fell back on the example of the Russian/ French revolutions. The reports in the press and media were presented uncritically. There was no acknowledgement in a section about the attitudes of teachers to sharing their faith, that one third of primary schools are faith schools, and that there are legal safeguards, as well as special opt outs, for them to teach in accordance with their ethos. A remarkable and significant omission. Nor was it mentioned that faith schools can legally discriminate in employment against those of other faiths and no faith.
3. Will the documentary scrutinise the work of pressure groups like the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship, Christian Concern for our Nation and the Christian Institute, who have been feeding the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph with stories, sometimes with dire consequences? Will there be examination of their ideology and what is driving their efforts, which we have suggested involves a radicalisation as a response to post-Christendom? Will the links to what is going on in the US also be made?
There was no scrutiny of these groups. The Christian Legal Centre was featured several times, and again without any critical analysis, or even a question that they could be fuelling the problem, despite evidence that they are (cited above). There was also an interview with George Pitcher from the Daily Telegraph. No questions of this nature were put to him either. There was no examination of the radicalisation hypothesis or mention of the links to the US.
4. Will the documentary look at mediation efforts to sort out the disputes? What has often been happening is that positions quickly become entrenched and there is little chance of amicable resolution following misunderstandings or mistakes. This is often because pressure groups get involved and raise the stakes, giving stories to the media. I know for a fact that the documentary makers spoke to a top QC who is not just an evangelical Christian, but one of the most experienced commercial mediators in the country.
There was no mention of mediation whatsoever even though the programme makers had been told about its existence. The QC did not feature at all.
5. Will the documentary primarily frame the debates as a simplistic conflict of rights, or accept that the situation is far more complex? Will it bring in different Christian perspectives which do not see this primarily as about one person trumping another?
The documentary framed the debates primarily in terms of conflicts of rights. Although the Equality Bill featured heavily, there was no mention, let alone interviews with, for example gay Christians or Quakers who were lobbying on the other side. The issue was presented as one of religious liberty for only one 'side', completely failing to acknowledge the liberties of Christians and other religious groups on the other side. Nor were any religious perspectives represented who did not see this as a competition of "rights".
This could have been a great documentary which brought some light to the debates, and offered a way forward. Instead it uncritically accepted the claims which have been reported consistently in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and failed to challenge the groups who are actually the cause of many of the problems. In a programme which was supposed to be addressing the marginalisation of Christians, it also did a great deal to marginalise Christians who held dissenting views. It took little or no account of poll data and other evidence which would challenge, or even balance the perspective that the programme was seeking to present.
[Update 5 April: 15.48 Nicky Campbell has responded very graciously, saying this blog raises some 'interesting points' is 'thoughtful' and that he 'enjoyed'. But he also says: "Thing is it wasn't a some say this but others say that documentary. It was more a 'here's the view..now debate' ". I have tweeted back saying that the title: "Are Christian Persecuted?" suggested that it was an enquiry, and pointing out that the title was not "This is what some Christians believe". ]
[Update 6th April: 15.01 Nicky has said there is a "detailed and comprehensive response" to this blog on the way from the documentary's Exec Producer". I will publish it when it arrives]Tweet