BBC Editorial Guidelines and Christian Values

Last week I made a complaint to the BBC about the language used on one of their programmes. Not on the news, or in a drama, or from a member of the public sounding off on camera. No. It was a complaint about Strictly Come Dancing (that’s Dancing With The Stars for US readers). Yes, you did read that correctly. I complained about an example of offensive language used on Strictly.

So what was I getting my knickers in a knot about? Well, one of the judges decided to use the name of Jesus as an expletive in her comments about a dance. Much as another person may say, in the same situation, ‘Bloody hell, mate, you nailed it there.’ Only she didn’t say it that way. She chose to use a name that is important and valuable to Christian believers – to give the same effect.

At first, I could not believe my ears, so I ran the programme back to re-listen. Yes, there it was. So I jumped to it, fetched my laptop and found the BBC’s online complaints form. I simply said, Please don’t use the name of Jesus as an expletive…you would not allow names special to other religions to be used on air in the same way…please respect the views of Christians (that’s a summary – it was a very short complaint).

Yesterday, I received my reply from the complaints team. Ready? The bottom line is, it’s fine to use ‘Jesus’ in the judges’ comments because:

Words or names associated with religion, such as ‘Jesus’ are generally used as expressions of surprise and disbelief and not as a form of blasphemy as is commonplace in the English language. This was the case here, as [the judge] reacted to the performances, and while the use of these names may cause offence to some they are unlikely to cause widespread offence as they are used in everyday life.

So there we are. Never mind the fact that I did not mention ‘blasphemy’ in my complaint (I don’t agree with having blasphemy laws) – my complaint was deemed to be based on a claim of blasphemy, when it was not.

According to the BBC, the use of the name ‘Jesus’ in conversation now constitutes an expression of surprise or disbelief. Really? In which case, why don’t we hear other ‘expressions of surprise or disbelief’ regularly on the TV in such contexts? I can think of quite a few local expressions of surprise and disbelief from the Yorkshire area (my home) that could be employed, but which we are unlikely to hear on TV entertainment programmes. Try using the F-word or the C-word on Strictly as an ‘expression of surprise or disbelief’ and see what happens.

“Oh, but I wasn’t using those words as expletives – they were just expressions of my surprise or disbelief!” How come it is accepted that racist, Islamophobic or homophobic crimes are identified as such solely by the person who is offended by them, but I as a Christian have to accept that the offensive use of this holy name was not an expletive, but an expression of surprise? Why can’t I identify it as an anti-Christian act? Heck, let’s go the whole hog – let’s ask why I can’t choose to identify it as hate speech against Christians? (I am not claiming that it is, I’m merely making a point). The hate crime/speech argument is swallowed whole by the media and the government when anyone offends other religions.

And while we’re at it, what’s this about ‘unlikely to cause widespread offence’ being a reason to knock back my complaint? If the BBC wants to avoid causing widespread offence, I suggest it starts limiting the air time given to folks who say that being in possession of a cervix is not just for women, and all the rest of it. Where is the BBC’s concern for the millions who are offended by that? What about the offence caused to women over the promotion of ideas that push women’s rights out of the picture? Double standards, anyone?

…neither the BBC nor Ofcom require programme-makers to avoid material which might cause offence to some members of the audience. We feel it is important to allow our Judges [on Strictly] to express themselves freely and authentically when reacting to the performances they’ve just witnessed.

Fine – let’s hear a few more ‘authentic’ expressions from everyday British conversation and see what happens. I could supply a list of many Yorkshire-isms that daily pepper the streets around here with ‘authenticity’ as my neighbours express their surprise or disbelief.

In relation to other holy names such as ‘Muhammad’ not being used in a similar way, this is because those names are simply not used in the same way in everyday speech.

Ah, right. That explains it. If it is used in everyday speech, it’s acceptable.

Given that I am apparently mistaken in my view of the use of the name of Jesus as an expletive – it is, after all, simply an expression of surprise or disbelief – I decided to look up the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines to see where I have gone wrong.

Any content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs must be editorially justified as judged against audience expectations and generally accepted standards…..However, religious beliefs are central to many people’s lives and arouse strong views and emotions. We should take care to avoid unjustified offence.

Only if it is offence taken by non-Christian faiths, apparently.

I looked for references to ‘religion’ in the Guidelines and found the following:

Many Muslims regard any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as highly offensive. We must have strong editorial justification for publishing any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Any proposal to include a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in our content must be referred to a senior editorial figure, who should normally consult Editorial Policy.

Here we are, of course, back to the typical response of public bodies to those who shout loudest. Because a vocal proportion of the Islamic faith don’t like depictions of the Prophet being shown anywhere, the BBC, other TV companies, schools, film-makers, writers, artists and all the rest of the ‘culturally sensitive’ among us, simply go along with it. By shouting loudly (at the very least), these vocal lobbyists have got themselves into the BBC Guidelines. Maybe Christians ought to start shouting too?

The BBC complaints team email went on to refer me to recent OFCOM (our UK communications regulator) research on offensive words in broadcasting, to which the BBC adheres. According to this source of wisdom, the use of the word ‘Jesus’ is ‘mild’ – along with the fuller version ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Jew’ (I kid you not). The scale of offensiveness for religious-related words in the research states that the use of these words is ‘Unlikely to concern in most circumstances and requiring limited context.’

At this point, I wondered who on earth had been consulted in this IPSOS poll for OFCOM. A quick look explained it. In the ‘research’ used to inform this OFCOM guidance document, the younger age group tended to be more heavily involved than the older (under-55s outnumbered over-55s in all categories, with 18-34s present in greater numbers proportionally to some other age groups); there was no identification criterion relating to religious identity of respondents; and only 300 responses were achieved. That’s supposed to be representative of the whole UK population, folks.

The category of ‘religious identity’ was left out all together (well, almost….it was accommodated via the back door, as we shall see). How convenient. Instead, the researchers went out of their way to show how they had ensured a fair spread of minority voices were included:

For the focus groups, we wanted to ensure we spoke with participants from the following communities: Black African, Black Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, Chinese, LGB and the Jewish community. The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi participants were split between first-generation women, first-generation men and mixed gender second-generation groups. The South Asian groups were split in this way to allow discussions around cultural perceptions and understandings that may not have been possible if first and second generations had been in the same group. Separating first generation men and women also helped to make participants feel able to share their opinions around potentially offensive language that may have been uncomfortable for them to do so in mixed groups. For the individual depths, we wanted to ensure we spoke with trans participants, non-binary participants, participants with a disability, those aged 66-85 who were offline and participants from the Traveller community.

See what they did there? Why bother to include the dangerous category of ‘religion’ when you can get the views of certain religions by simply identifying them as ‘minority communities’ or ‘ethnic groups’? Did you see the sensitivity shown to older minority respondents? This is good – but did older non-minority respondents receive similar sensitive treatment? Plus, in the focus groups used for the research, 75 ethnic minority respondents took part – of which 52 were from countries with large or majority Muslim populations. No particular emphasis was laid on the religious views of non-minority participants. For which read, the majority of the population in which Christians are to be found. Work it out, folks!

And these are the foundations with which the BBC claims to align its editorial guidelines on harm and offense on TV and radio.

I went back to the BBC guidelines again:

Across our output as a whole, we must be inclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion…. Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, webpage or item. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given similar prominence or weight to those with more support or to the prevailing consensus. 

Sorry, that noise is just me choking on my toast as I read this stuff. Hands up if you think that non-minority views are prioritized by the BBC? Based on what I see regularly on TV, you only get consideration of your cultural and religious sensitivities if you are from an ethnic minority. Why?

So there we are folks. The BBC is quite happy to let me be offended as a Christian, as my offence is apparently not shared by sufficient people to be taken seriously. Yet the same BBC will contort its own arguments to protect a tiny minority who may be offended over references to the biological realities of their bits and pieces. What happened to ‘Across our output as a whole, we must be inclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion‘? I, and many other Christians, don’t want to hear folks on TV using the most important name in our faith as an expletive – or as an ‘expression of surprise or disbelief’.

Hey ho. Brave new world. I suppose we must just get used to it. Or should we start shouting too?

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