Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The BBC's curious sensitivities

Several days ago, TAE's friends at Biased BBC noted an interesting letter published in The Times from former BBC Broadcast Chief Executive Will Wyatt. While applauding the BBC's treatment of the whole Danish cartoon fracas, Wyatt felt compelled to point out the "double standard" on the BBC's website regarding its treatment of Islam and Christianity.

In its history of Islam we read: “One night in 610 he (Muhammad) was meditating in a cave on the mountain when he was visited by the angel Jibreel who ordered him to “recite” . . . words which he came to understand were the words of God.” This is written as fact, no “it is said” or “Muhammad reported”. Whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned the BBC adds “Peace be upon him”, as if the corporation itself were Muslim.

How different, and how much more accurate, when we turn to Christianity. Here, Jesus’ birth “is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophesies in the Jewish Old Testament”; Jesus “claimed that he spoke with the authority of God”; accounts of his resurrection appearances were “put about by his believers”.

A fair point, it seems to me. But I do wonder what exactly Wyatt found praiseworthy in the BBC's treatment of the Danish cartoon affair, given that it is fraught with precisely the same kind of double standard. Although the BBC did, apparently, show "fleeting" glimpses of the cartoons in question on television (which is at least more than can be said of most other media outlets in both the US and the UK), according to Peter Horlocks, editor of BBC's TV news:

We've taken the view that still images that focus and linger on the offending cartoons would be excessively offensive so we haven't used those in our television news pieces.

"We've used moving pictures of the newspapers where they've appeared to show people the context in which they've appeared and to give them some flavour of the type of imagery but without focusing closely on them."

Explaining why the BBC's website is not showing images of the cartoons, BBC interactive's editor Steve Herrmann said:
In addition, images on a web page can have an immediate impact on readers who will not necessarily have absorbed any of the context around them...When we cover any sensitive issue we have to balance our duty to report the story faithfully with our responsibility not to unnecessarily shock or offend our audience.

One can only wonder why, then, an image of a painting that caused much offense among Christians in the US has lingered on the BBC's website for over 6 years without Herrmann or Wyatt being fussed about it.

Readers may recall that, back in 1999, an art exhibition in NYC controversially included a painting by Chris Ofili, purportedly of the Virgin Mary and adorned with cut-outs from pornographic magazines and elephant dung. Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, took offense (along many other Christians) and threatened to withdraw public money which funded the gallery showing the painting. The BBC website covered the story with several articles, including one which contained a picture of the offending painting. That article remains available on the BBC's website to this very day.

Is it too cynical to wonder whether the degree of concern the BBC shows over offending a particular culture's sensitivities is directly proportional to that culture's tendency towards violence?

(BTW, for those interested in seeing the cartoons, they can be found here.)


Anonymous Gordon said...

About 15 years ago I was a governor of an English school.
One of the Governers' jobs was to approve the Religious Studies syllabus. The teacher responsible had asked a representative of the 5 main religions in the area to submit a short description of his religion. With one exception, they produced reasonably objective accounts which could in fact have been written by any fair minded member of one of the other religions. The exception was from the Muslim; who offered what was in effect an act of worship, 25% of which being made up of the honorific epithets. I must admit that I thought little of this at the time but now I see it as a attempt to enforce dhimmitude!

9:34 AM  

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