Pious Misrepresentation of the Day – a complaint to the BBC

This is the unabridged version of the complaint I sent to the BBC concerning a Thought for the Day radio broadcast that stepped way over the line of religious contemplation into an outright attack on atheism and secularism.

“I wish to complain about the disgraceful misrepresentation of secular atheism as broadcast on BBC Ulster’s Thought For The Day on 28th May 2012. The recording begins at 25 minutes 45 seconds into this podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j8h3y/Good_Morning_Ulster_28_05_2012/

In it, the Rev Dr. Johnston McMaster asserted a number of human disasters were due to atheist secularism, in an attempt to promote his own religion.

Of the four examples of atheist secularism cited – the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, at most only one meets the criteria of secularism – i.e. the state is neutral on matters of belief. Communism actively discriminated against religion, and Nazi Germany discriminated against Jews and promoted Christianity, or at least used it to it’s own ends – it is certain that it had a treaty with the Vatican which they adhered to until the end. The French Revolution heralded the end of the feudal era in France, driven by principles of the Enlightenment. Modern secular Europe, possibly the most stable and peaceful region of human civilisation, has roots in this turbulent period. I think the French would take a dim view of the opinion that it was a disaster or a failure.

To summarise, the preacher was guilty of the following logical fallacies:

* Straw men – see above plus ‘God is consumerism, nationalism or consumerism’ – these are not in any way religions.

* Affirming the consequent – ‘Stalin was an atheist and evil, therefore all atheists are evil’ makes as much sense as ‘Hitler was a vegetarian and evil, therefore all vegetarians are evil.’

* Begging the question – ‘God is dead’/'God doesn’t go away’ – requirement being he ever ‘lived’.

* Lying – ‘we need God to be good/be humane/be dignified’. This is known to be false – see this scientific study as an example -  http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/04/30/religionandgenerosity/

* Special pleading – Karl Marx’s ‘opium of the masses’ true of ‘some forms of religion’ implication being ‘but not ours’. Why should Christianity be an exception?

That’s a lot of logical fallacies to squeeze in in only 3 minutes.

Oddly, given how disastrous secularism allegedly is, Norway has just disestablished their church and, weeks later, still haven’t had one decent massacre. The last one they had was because of a religious fanatic.

I believe the broadcast contravened the following BBC Editorial Guidelines due to the gross misrepresentation of secular atheism:

12.2.1 The beliefs and practices of religions and denominations must be described with due accuracy.

12.2.2 The religious views and beliefs of an individual, a religion or denomination must not be misrepresented or abused, as judged against generally accepted standards.

The subject matter of this broadcast was controversial, and was not impartial, nor clearly distinguished as opinion and not fact, contravening these two guidelines:

4.4.5 We must apply due impartiality to all our subject matter.  However, there are particular requirements for ‘controversial subjects’, whenever they occur in any output, including drama, entertainment and sport.

A ‘controversial subject’ may be a matter of public policy or political or industrial controversy.  It may also be a controversy within religion, science, finance, culture, ethics and other matters entirely.

4.4.7 When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.  Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.

In the interests of balance, the BBC should either apologise for this disgracefully biased broadcast, or allow an opposing view to be broadcast as Thought For The Day.”

 

7th June 2012, a response – I’ve reproduced the email from the BBC’s Senior Religious Programmes producer, Rev Dr Bert Tosh, apologising for the ‘over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”‘, agreeing that Thought for the Day ‘is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation’, and assuring that ‘corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.’

An adequate apology, and closure of the matter. Perhaps it would be too ask that a humanist be allowed to broadcast a Thought for the Day? ;)

7 June, 2012

Dear Colin

Editorial Complaint – Thought for the Day

I’m replying to your recent complaint about a Thought for the Day piece which was broadcast on 28.05.12.

Dr McMaster’s contribution was intended to describe the effects which a loss of religious faith and a “sense of the transcendent” might have on society. His comments were/are contestable, but they were not meant to suggest that religion is the only guarantor of “our humanity” or people’s ability to negotiate “the difference between good and evil”.  Dr McMaster acknowledged that religion itself “has done enormous harm and [that] God has frequently been recruited to bless wars and our Irish violence”. In affirming what he feels to be positive about religious belief however, there was, on reflection, over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”. We accept that Dr McMaster’s script should have been amended before broadcast, consistent with the established conventions around this slot, and apologise for any upset or offence caused.

We welcome all feedback, and take careful account when people feel that the BBC has got something wrong, or fallen short of their expectations. Diverse views and honest debate are important within our output, but we also need to take account of what is appropriate in different programme slots. Thought for the Day is meant to provide a religious/ethical and personal view on loosely topical issues. It is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation etc. We need to ensure that our guidance to contributors is clear in this regard and that what we broadcast is consistent with Thought for the Day’s editorial brief. Corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.

I hope this is useful and am grateful to you for taking the time to get in touch. Your concerns have been shared with senior editorial colleagues.

Yours sincerely

Rev Dr Bert Tosh

Senior Producer Religious Programmes – BBCNI

3 thoughts on “Pious Misrepresentation of the Day – a complaint to the BBC

  1. Josef Wolfe

    The apology should be broadcast before the next programme to be fair otherwise they basically have got away with it & can let this happen again thinking that they need only placate one individual whilst this kind of indoctrination carries on to an unaware public who will take such statements from the likes of Rev Dr. Johnston McMaster as being the absolute truth. Well done for challenging them tho.

  2. Pingback: BBC Northern Ireland apologises for Thought for the Day attack on secularism | HumanistLife

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