Protest to the BBC over coverage of the Williams row

By staff writers
19 Feb 2008

As the furore over Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' remarks about religious and civil law subsides into a more considered debate beyond the headlines, the Anglican leader is receiving backing from what might be considered some unexpected quarters.

Well-known media commentator Sunny Hundal, who is from a Sikh background but is not religious, has written a letter of protest to the BBC about its coverage of Dr Williams' speech on Islam and the law - and in particular his Radio 4 World at One interview.

Hundal, a left-of-centre journalist who was voted the Guardian newspaper's blogger of the year in 2007, runs Asians in Media, and has launched two of the most successful UK-based group current affairs blogs, Pickled Politics and Liberal Conspiracy, finds himself in the same camp of concern as right-of-centre commentator Matt Wardman, of The Wardman Wire.

Widely traduced in the tabloids, and with his remarks about family Sharia instantly dismissed by all the party leaders, Dr Williams faced unsuccessful calls for his resignation from hard-line conservatives in the Church of England.

Cynics were able to dismiss the standing ovation the Archbishop got before his address to the C of E General Synod last week as "tribal rallying round", but it seems that he has garnered a wider range of sympathisers outside his natural religious demographic.

Most of those now expressing concern about a simplistic media and political culture say that their backing for Dr Williams is not about whether they finally agree with him or not (many dissent from his views), but about welcoming a serious attempt to create a debate around important issues about how religion is handled in a plural and secular society.

Mr Hundal's letter to the BBC says: "[My] complaint refers principally to coverage on BBC News 24 and news bulletins on BBC television and radio on Friday 8 February and the weekend of 9 & 10th February 2008."

"I found BBC News coverage sensationalist and biased against the Archbishop, muddying the waters over what he said in the speech and with no attempt at giving it context - that is, who it was aimed at, what the current law is on civil arbitration, etc."

Hundal stresses: "[T]his does not mean I endorse sharia or want it to be fully introduced in the UK. I believe in one civil law for all citizens. However, BBC News bulletins did not make any attempts to offer any context to its own coverage."

Commentator Matt Wardman goes further, accusing the BBC of instigating the political firestorm with a misleading headline trailing its interview with him.

Of the headline, 'The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the adoption of Sharia Law in some parts of Britain is inevitable', Wardman remarks: "No he didn’t, or not in the way that your headline was inevitably going to make people think."

Both Lambeth Palace and the Archbishop himself subsequently clarified that he was talking about how existing Sharia provisions that were in line with English law could be officially recognised (but not incorporated or established as a parallel system) provided they were voluntary and did not take away any universal rights.

Critics say that this is still unhelpful, because it would give judicial status to Sharia councils that do not have it at the moment, and they cite Catholic marriage tribunals which do not seek enforcement or recognition in civil law - leaving the matter of civil process entirely separate.

Dr Williams' remarks come from his background concerns about the need for a "pluralist state" rather than one solely constructed along secularist lines, and his advocacy for civil religious groups whose ways of dealing with disputes are not primarily rights-based but relational and traditional.

These are not widely understood issues, and critics say Dr Williams was inept in raising so many complex questions in one place and in the media spotlight. He has also been criticised for edging in the direction of exemptions and exceptions for religion in the civil law, something the Church he heads has openly campaigned for.

Simon Barrow of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, says that "much of the reaction to Dr Williams' speech was ill-informed, inaccurate and sensationalist. Having said that, I still feel that he is handling the issues in the wrong way overall. But the resulting drama undoubtedly highlights the need for more light and less heat in public conversations about religion."

Last week Dr Williams also received backing from Catholic feminist theologian Tina Beattie, writing on another prime new media outlet, OpenDemocracy.

Beattie declared: "Rowan Williams - a uniquely gifted Christian leader and one of the finest theologians alive today - has tried to open up one possible channel of informed debate with regard to law, identity and community in Britain today. Many may legitimately disagree with his ideas and worry over his formulations, but the overall response to them suggests a country whose eagerness to abuse and accuse is crushing its ability to listen and learn."

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Sunny Hundal's Letter to the BBC (Picked Politics) and I'm also backing the bishop (Liberal Conspiracy).

Matt Wardman: Firestorm was started by the BBC (The Wardman Wire)

Tina Beattie: Rowan Williams and Sharia law (OpenDemocracy)

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