“Who’s the family relative to whom we owe the most?
It’s our Auntie; dearest Auntie.
Everybody rise and raise your glasses in a toast:
Here’s to Auntie!”
So sang Hildergard Knef, Vicky Leandros, Alice Babs, Demis Roussos and a host of other European stars to celebrate the BBC’s 50th birthday in 1972. They raised a glass to a time when announcers for the BBC Home Service, in a dinner-jacket that would make Ann Widdecombe swoon, declared in resonating voices that could shake the tower of a Victorian iron foundry: “THIS… IS THE BBC FROM LONDON!” He was normally followed by the reassuring chimes of Big Ben underpinning an honesty and integrity that served as a solid beacon in an uncertain world.
Auntie will be 90 in October and perhaps a more appropriate setting for the ol’ gal might now be Doctor Pippa Moore’s ward in their comedy Getting On.
The BBC rushed to the defence of religion after a wee stooshie in a small Devonshire town more famous for a trial in 1682 that led to three women being sent to the gallows for witchcraft. Bideford’s religionists wanted to pray in taxpayers’ time. Former councillor and atheist, Clive Bone appealed to the National Secular Society, which – unlike the litigious Christian Institute or Christian Legal Centre – hadn’t involved itself in any legal challenges for several decades. The NSS nonetheless agreed to intervene and politely asked Bideford councillors if they’d be prepared to hold prayers before business started – that is, when it isn’t funded by poor, cash-strapped taxpayers. Although I can think of many who’d thank god if their boss asked them to put the switchboard on ‘voicemail’ halfway through the morning for some holy communion, I want to think out the box here and suggest tagging on prayers at the end of the day. I’m sure we’d soon see religious piety crumble under the stampede for the door once the bell went for ‘home time’. But no, backed by the ‘charity’, the Christian Institute, the pious councillors went to court and – as expected – the atheist won.
For those who couldn’t hear Lord Reith turning in his grave, the BBC certainly pumped up the volume. The next day, Thought for the Day, interrupted the news on BBC Radio 4 to have turbaned Sikh, Lord Singh, a familiar voice also on BBC Radio 2’s, spot of religious proselytising, Pause for Thought, accusing the National Secular Society of losing the spirit of “live and let live”. With Auntie’s own publicly-funded ‘Religion and Ethics’ department – although when they both crept under the same cover, I don’t know – the BBC probably thought it all money well spent. My formal complaint of bias was met with a sanctimonious response, explaining: “‘Thought for the Day’ is the personal reflections of the presenter, and not a discussion programme, Lord Singh was perfectly entitled to give his view from a religious standpoint,” adding: “The BBC is committed to impartiality”. (Note the sentence about impartiality immediately following a defence of a programme exclusively set aside for religionists to be able to blast the ruling of a High Court judge that found against them). Since all previous complaints about the exclusivity and discriminatory practices of Thought for the Day from both individuals and the National Secular Society have got nowhere, I was determined to pen a response. I suppose it could’ve been worse. When the psychologist and writer Dorothy Rowe gave an interview on Radio 2, only a few soundbites were used from a 50-minute interview giving the impression that she thought religion both valuable and useful to people. In fact; what she said was the exact opposite!
That wasn’t the end of it. The next day, Lord Carey was wheeled into the Today programme to rant about Christianity being marginalised. He appeared completely indifferent to the fact he’d been warming his backside on 26 seats that were reserved in the House of Lords for bishops; not secularists or atheists!
David Cameron lauded the virtues of a Christian society and Harry Greenway, a former Tory MP and ex-chairman of the National Prayer Breakfast, said he wanted an end to anyone “meddling and busybodying” themselves in the business of prayers, saying: “If they did away with daily prayers in the House of Commons … there would be a revolution.” The first time anyone ‘meddled’ or ‘busybodied’ themselves with the business of religionists by refusing to pray and take a Christian oath in the House of Commons there wasn’t a revolution. Far from it. MPs simply had Victorian MP, Charles Bradlaugh arrested, imprisoned, then, despite winning his seat for Northampton four times, had him beaten up outside Parliament for trying to take it!
The week after Sun columnist, Lord Carey’s rant, the BBC’s Today programme presented two ‘opposing’ sides of the debate. Secular support was provided by LibDem MP, Sir Alan Beith who immediately set about attacking ‘militant secularists’. The presenter Evan Davies suggested a debate between ‘militant’ and ‘ordinary’ secularists. But who were these ‘militant secularists’ dismantling civilisation as we knew it, brick by bloody brick? As Joan Smith wrote in the Independent on Sunday: “Whenever I hear the phrase ‘militant secularism’, I know that someone, somewhere, isn’t getting their own way”.
I had a flash of déjà vu, when a sweet holy man in a frock and dainty red shoes touched the tarmac at Edinburgh airport in 2010; programmes were cancelled to watch choreographed children waving flags lining the route of his Popemobile on the way to Mass in Glasgow after the press broadcast his allusions to secular fundamentalists. Having already linked secularism with Nazism, he seemed to forget it wasn’t ‘Secularism Rules’ the Nazi’s wore on their belt buckles. It was ‘Gott Mit Uns’ (God With Us). I spoke to no less than three BBC journalists who contacted me, wanting to cover the Protest the Pope demo that I was trying to organise in protest against the Vatican’s crimes against humanity, a case backed by leading QC, Geoffrey Robertson. On the day, none called back.
The man who oversaw the construction of BBC’s new production centre at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, with a special space for religionists to sit and broadcast, was BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, a devout Catholic educated by Jesuits. He met senior Vatican figures in Rome to assure them of the BBC’s backing for ample coverage of the Pope’s State visit. Attempts were even made for Ratzinger to interrupt the morning news for his own Thought for the Day. (It was reported that an otherwise media-hungry Ratzinger had ‘declined’ the invitation from Mark Damazer, the Catholic Head of BBC Radio 4). Never mind, by Christmas, the Pope took the microphone on Thought for the Day to express his opinion without any risk of being challenged. Last year, the man responsible for organising the Pope’s ‘State’ visit to the UK, former Conservative MP, Lord Patten, became Chairman of the BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC. Mark Damazer got a CBE, and my response to the BBC’s defence of religious privilege was now noticeable by its absence. Auntie was in ‘safe’ hands.
I wasn’t the only one who found Auntie’s piety irritating. Nick Cohen in The Spectator gasped: “If you want to hear a BBC discussion going hopelessly wrong, listen to the ‘debate’ between the Bishop of Lichfield, Jonathan Gledhill (brother of the better-known Ruth) and Alan Beith on the Today programme this morning. Radio 4 meant it to be about the established church, and set the Anglican bishop against the Methodist Beith. But a freemasonry of the faithful took over, and ‘balance’ went out of the window. Conformist and non-conformist united against their common enemy, ‘militant secularism’. Not just Anglicans and Methodists, Beith assured us, but Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Hindus were at one in their fear of the secularist menace. ‘It is bad enough having to put up with the platitudinous propaganda of Thought for the Day,’ I thought, ‘but this is too much’.”
In Scotland, Adam Cuerden, monitoring BBC news reports on same-sex marriage for his scientific and sceptical news blog, Twenty-First Floor noted: “…Events are merely reported on, without giving space to supporters’ views – in direct contrast to how they treat anti-equal rights commentators”.
‘Militant’ secularism – whatever that was – was now being attacked from all sides. The BBC was joined by the (Muslim) Chairman of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi, Daniel Finkelstein, the Archbishop of York, Giles Coren, the Queen and Eric Pickles.
The Guardian, now pandering to religion with renewed vigour, fawned: “Lady Warsi’s call to fight ‘intolerant secularism’ and ‘give faith a seat at the table’ in the UK was given a rapturous reception at the Vatican on Tuesday when she spoke to an audience of trainee Catholic diplomats. Warsi quoted from Benedict’s speech about putting religion back on the political agenda that he made at Westminster Hall during his UK visit in September 2010, adding that the pope had personally congratulated her after she said governments should ‘do God’. On Tuesday the Vatican said it was ‘really happy Warsi had come to speak.” I bet they were! Adrenalin racing, she was soon wailing in The Telegraph that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies”. Her reward was promotion to Minister of Faith and Communities, a new post that has no parallel in any other western nation.
Led by Warsi, six British Government ministers as well as the Archbishop of Westminster and a large delegation of clerics and civil servants went out to Europe’s last theocracy to let the Vatican meddle in our politics under the guise of celebrating the “success” of Ratzinger’s last visit. (Oh, and you don’t mind having to fork out for all this, do you?) Amongst the devoted throng was the Minister for International Development, Alan Duncan. (I presume the Holy Father knows he’s gay?) Cardinal Keith O’Brien wasn’t invited, which resulted in a lot of toys being thrown out of the pram, but that was another story.
In a speech at Lambeth palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, shortly before the Church of England announced it was using taxpayers’ money to expand to combat secularism, the Queen praised nine “historic faith communities”, emphasising how inclusive the Church of England was and how important its establishment was to the nation. (Catholics must’ve loved that, given they’re barred from the throne, of course. And Scots too since the established (and consequently privileged) Church is the Church of Scotland, not England). The Church of England and her Royal Highness were, of course, cherry-picking religions. Out of the nine, Baha’I had only 5,000 adherents in the 2001 census; Jains only 15,000 and Zoroastrians a dwindling 4,000. It seems these got the wave of the white glove, but not Spiritualists with 32,000 or Pagans with 31,000 or even the burgeoning Jedi Knights, a New Entry still on course to top the BBC Radio One religious charts!
Then along came the next scam. Cardinal O’Brien wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that same-sex marriages were “grotesque” and a form of “madness”. This nasty invective wasn’t news to anyone in Scotland. We hear it every day from the bishops and their cronies. But the BBC treated it like breaking news, headlining the story with feigned surprise that he was the “latest” of several senior clergy to kick up over same-sex marriage. The BBC just trampled over the Scottish understanding of the Catholic Church’s lengthy and obsessive campaign which, as O’Brien was keen to remind us once again in his privileged space, was all “at the behest of a small minority of activists”.
The BBC’s enthusiasm for all things Catholic – including the pious Jimmy Savile, but that’s another story – soon crawled back under its rock when news began to break of children, many gay kids, possibly hundreds, who had been physically castrated without their parents consent in Catholic institutions in Holland for telling on abusing priests, or simply for being gay. Worse: The allegations appeared to have been covered up at the very highest political levels.
Another scam soon followed when the fly bishops put out press releases saying their poll showed 53% did not think marriage should be redefined. Hardly a bristling majority, particular when the wording of the question was revealed to read on the lines of “since same-sex couples already have the same rights as married couples available to them under civil partnerships, should they be allowed to redefine marriage for everyone else?” (The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, carried out by the Scottish Government in 2010 simply stated: “Do you agree or disagree that gay or lesbian couples should be allowed to marry?” 61% agreed and 19% disagreed). Civil partnerships, of course, do not infer the same rights as married couples. For starters, a lot of countries wouldn’t recognise them even when they had something similar going on in their own countries.
As for the militant secularists – blink and you’d have missed the President of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson and executive director, Keith Porteous Wood – who were left to explain to outraged BBC audiences and newspaper readers, nobody would be stopped from praying. The Bideford ruling was a breach of a Local Government Act in England and didn’t affect the Edinburgh councillors who still insist on praying whilst everyone else has to work. It wouldn’t affect the Coronation Oath and make it illegal. It wouldn’t stop prayers at Westminster or Time for Reflection in Holyrood. It wouldn’t ban councillors from attending Remembrance Day Services or – as claimed by one prominent evangelical – outlaw saying ‘grace’ before meals. It simply meant that the council, which is not a church, can’t put prayers on any official agenda. In other words: Thy will be done before the shop’s open; not after. And when and if we do start making it legal to treat people fairly; the Catholic Church won’t even have to marry a gay. Special treatment will be reserved only for the BBC. Because when you switch on, the £10million or so they’ve get to spend on religious propaganda, despite the BBC insisting that in their ‘experience’ viewers weren’t interested in programmes that criticised religion, and surveys clearly showing we don’t want more religion on TV, they’ll still be churning out even more of the stuff. And if they find themselves a bit short, they’ll do what they did to tell the story of Jesus’s last days in The Passion: Just raid £4million from the Drama department’s budget to pay for it!
Don’t you think you might have had enough of that communal wine now, Auntie?
This article appeared in ScotsGay magazine. Garry Otton is author of ‘Sexual Fascism’ and forthcoming book ‘Badge of Shame: The Repeal of Section 28’.