For BBC czar, race always trumps religion

It's the question that gets asked whenever an alleged comedian on HBO goes a bit nuts on the subject of religious believers. It's the same question people asked when some NFL players mocked Tim Tebow's love of public prayer.

It's the same question conservative Catholics, and others, asked when the hierarchy at The New York Times made the decision to run a full-page anti-Catholic advertisement that urged liberal and nominal Catholics to pack up and quit their church.

It's the question that tends to draw mocking laughter in the GetReligion comments pages whenever a reader dares to ask it.

The question, of course, is this: Would the powers that be in mass media have dared to approve x, y or z if this particular advertisement, comedy routine, cartoon, Broadway show, movie, music video or whatever had focused its attack on Muslims?

It's a question that is not -- for me -- directly connected to the journalism work that we do here at GetReligion. Please hear me say that.

However, there was a headline the other day in The Daily Mail linked to this controversial topic that was just a bit too close for comfort, for me. I am referring to the one that, with its stacked sub-headlines, proclaimed:

Christianity gets less sensitive treatment than other religions admits BBC chief

* He suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities'

* But added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race

I don't know about you, but I had a simple reaction when I read all of that: The head of BBC said that near an open microphone?

Here's the top of that Mail report:

BBC director-general Mark Thompson has claimed Christianity is treated with far less sensitivity than other religions because it is "pretty broad shouldered."

He suggested other faiths have a "very close identity with ethnic minorities," and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters. But he also revealed that producers had to consider the possibilities of "violent threats" instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.

Mr. Thompson said: "Without question, 'I complain in the strongest possible terms,' is different from, 'I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write.' This definitely raises the stakes."

But he added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race.

Now the minute I read that -- especially all of those short, edited, punchy quotations -- I immediately assumed that Thompson had been quoted out of context. What kind of journalist could say things like that, especially one who is committed to accurate journalism, free speech, religious liberty and various other values and rights that tend to be cherished in free societies?

I told my GetReligion colleagues that I really wanted to see the whole interview, or a transcript, or both. As it turns out, that information was a few clicks away on a site linked to a rather authoritative educational brand name -- Oxford. Click here for the .pdf of the interview or watch the video that is attached to this post.

By all means, read it all. The give and take is rather complex, at times, but I think that the triple-decker Mail headline is accurate, if rather blunt (in the style of Fleet Street). I immediately asked my fellow GetReligionistas if we could hold off on this story long enough for me to write a Scripps Howard News Service column based on the full interview. My goal was to put some of those blunt snippets into a broader context, if I could.

So, here is a sample of what came out of that. I began with the New York Times decision to run the anti-Catholic advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but not the mirror-image anti-Muslim advertisement that was immediately cranked out by Stop Islamization of America.

Should Catholics have been shocked?

Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the BBC, another of the world's most influential news organizations.

For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a "very close identity with ethnic minorities" and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.

Meanwhile, he said it's acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion — even in an increasingly secular age.

"I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape," said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony's College, Oxford.

Christianity, he argued, is a "broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it's not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It's almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means."

The bottom line, said the BBC leader, is that Muslims tend to be literalists on matter of faith and they are much more likely to be offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus. At least, that is what Thompson thinks, as a self-identified moderate, practicing Catholic. Thus, he said:

"For a Muslim, a depiction -- particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the prophet Muhammad — might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief."

And that stunning AK47 quote?

Here's the context. You will not be surprised to know that it follows a reference to Salman Rushdie, his "The Satanic Verses" novel and a global fatwa calling for his death.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a "rather nasty ace" that can be played by those who are willing to say, "I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you."

Thompson responded: "Well, clearly it's a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. 'I complain in the strongest possible terms' is different from 'I complain in the strongest possible terms and I'm loading my AK47 as I write.' This definitely raises the stakes."

So there you go. How does this Thompson proclamation apply to the work of journalists who want to do accurate, balanced reporting on religion-news stories linked to blasphemy, heresy and sacrilege?

It seems to me that, much like that advocacy journalism sermon delivered last October by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, the BBC leader is essentially saying that there is one set of rules for news and then there is a different set of rules for religion news. In the end, race trumps religion.

And one more thing: Did Thompson actually say that it doesn't matter if Christianity is no longer, on a typical weekend, the majority religion in England in comparison with Islam? It still deserves harsher treatment?

Read it all. Please.

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