Queen’s Behaving Badly? Television: a Question of Trust.
When a TV trailer showed the Queen storming out of a photo-shoot it brought to light a whole can of worms, previously writhing unseen. In reality, Her Majesty had been going in to the photo-shoot, not flouncing out. Between the film-makers RDF, and the series commissioner the BBC, the truth was lost in the editing. Other problems emerged, such as bogus phone-in competitions, but were soon addressed. Reportedly, BBC personnel were to be sent on honesty courses; however, the need for such courses suggests a more serious malaise.
That malaise, according to former employee Robin Aitken, is bias. In Can we trust the BBC? he notes the Corporations schizophrenic attitude to the Monarchy, and its bias against those seen as right wing, including Euro sceptics and conservative Catholics. One could add Israel and our armed forces. Such bias may not be confined to the BBC, but it prides itself on its neutrality; moreover as a trusted British institution it influences opinions worldwide.
The biases of television personnel must affect their judgement, since those who misrepresented the Queen didnt stop to ask if bad behaviour was typical of her. Moreover, the consequent public storm suggests that such bias is not shared by the majority of viewers.
As Aitken reveals, BBC staff are recruited overwhelmingly from a left-liberal viewpoint, creating a collective mindset that is as much cultural as political. Accusations of bias are routinely dismissed by the BBC; typically, they claim that, because equal numbers of complaints are received for and against on contentious issues, theyre getting it about right. More and more licence fee-payers are dissenting from the BBC credo especially with the internet as an alternative information source but this appears to be an incentive not to acknowledge those views, but to try to change them. And television can do it.
Take Iraq. Opinions differ on the wisdom of the invasion and continuing conflict - but to what extent have they been influenced by television? Viewers expect reliable reporting from the BBC; however terrorist has given way to the vague insurgent, glossing over Irans stirring of inter-communal strife for its own ends. British casualties are relegated to the third or fourth item on the news, while friendly fire incidents are headlined. Truth is the first casualty of war, and Piers Morgan, former Daily Mirror editor responsible for faked photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqis, regularly appears on the BBC. While providing three or four commentators for one football match, the BBC no longer fields military tacticians to explain the life-and-death situations faced by those fighting whether we like it or not in our name.
Again, this does not solely affect the BBC, but it is the national broadcaster and it has failed to tell the whole story. It gives the impression that the public cannot be trusted to think the right thing if told the whole truth. And if television can influence public opinion on such an important issue, by selective presentation, how much more can it influence views on Catholics? In our compartmentalized society, public opinion will not leap so readily to defend Catholics from bias as it did to defend the Queen.
Negative news must be reported, but in some cases individual stories merge in an overarching narrative composed solely of negative material the truth, but not the whole truth. Television news often fails to mention that a good school is a Catholic school; that Catholics have been serving the poorest of the poor in countries whose existence is suddenly discovered by news reporters; that every year, Catholic clergy and religious suffer violence, kidnap and murder for their faith. And not content with accentuating the negative and eliminating the positive, the Churchs teachings have been deliberately distorted, as will be seen.
According to the rubric of the prevailing lib-Left orthodoxy, minorities should be protected. However Catholics also belong to a world-wide communion and historical prejudice against Catholics continues to be transmitted by a modern secular media. Televisions coverage of abortion, euthanasia, embryo research, and now cybrids (animal/human cytoplasmic hybrids) gives the impression that a male-dominated, authoritarian, antiquated Church stands alone in opposition; thus Catholicism serves as a proxy target for attacks on Christianity.
And Christianity, as the major religion, is also fair game for criticism, according to the lib-Left rubric; but no institution, however long-established, can survive a war of cultural attrition from a trusted news source. Christianitys timeless moral standpoint makes it an important bulwark against injustice, thus to undermine trust in Christianity is bad for society and for democracy.
However televisions attitude to Christianity, as with the Monarchy, is ambivalent: on one hand a threat, on the other, a dying force; hence the empty church as the backdrop to news stories on Christianity. Similarly television uses the royal factor to boost viewing figures, while allowing comedians to mock and denigrate the Queen. But in our modern democracy the Monarchy provides a stable cultural reference point; politicians, in contrast, seem obsessed with personal appearance, spin and the fabled centre ground of politics. Political parties increasingly scramble to appear green, and sceptical on Iraq (but not on Europe), while striving not to appear too conservative on the family. Why? Because these are the defining issues according to the gospel of television; and television is powerful enough, over time, to vanquish its cultural rivals.
But Christianity, like the Monarchy, retains public affection, and so television treads carefully. Indeed, the BBCs editorial guidelines state that it will not denigrate religious beliefs. However under cover of its diversity rubric, it undermines trust in Christianity. In a typical example, the Heaven and Earth Show invited three guests, none of them religious, to discuss cybrids. Germaine Greer, introduced as a Catholic Atheist - a contradiction in terms argued, to general amusement, that Catholic teaching on life issues was flawed because Catholics do not baptise sanitary napkins. Thus a purportedly religious programme distorted and denigrated Catholic teaching and also obscured non-Catholic Christian, and indeed, non-Christian religious views on a serious issue. Now, thanks to televisions one-sided presentation, public opinion has veered towards support for euthanasia, despite the appalling dangers.
Then there was Panoramas Sex and the Holy City, part of the BBCs appraisal of John Paul IIs 25 years as Pope. Researcher David Kerrs detailed study found that basic facts were misrepresented and that the programme was skewed against Catholic contributors. According to Robin Aitken, Kerr uncover[ed] a complex web of relationships between the BBC, IPPF and the Television Trust for the Environment Thus an apparently authoritative programme was deeply biased against the Church. Lets try substituting climate change or European Union for Church. Exactly.
Songs of Praise, though excellent, does not tackle serious ethical issues, which seemingly are the province of psychologists, comedians, Atheists anyone but priests. Thus seemingly, Christianity has been swept off the public square. But didnt the Queen fiasco demonstrate televisions accountability? Well, there was little danger of heads rolling, either literally or figuratively, but instead of showing repentance, television looks for taboos to break and lines to cross.
Hence BBC3s programme on the C-word (no, the C didnt stand for culture). The part-public-funded Channel 4s documentary about the last moments of an Alzheimers sufferer did cause a furore, not because the subject was deemed unsuitable, but because the film didnt show those last moments.
There are still many excellent programmes unmarred by the immature desire to shock, commercial constraints, or the heavy hand of the thought police, although this seldom applies in current affairs. Nevertheless religion itself is not blameless. Catholics abandoned the public square long before television tried to sweep us out of it; we have given up public processions and public apologetics; many clergy and religious have given up wearing distinctive attire.
If the public knows only what television tells them, they will have nothing to set against negative images. This is especially urgent now that Christians, under the new orthodoxy, have taken over the role of baddies, murdering and maiming their way through TV detective drama. Sadly, these caricatures are probably accepted uncritically by the same viewing public that baulked at the Queens tantrum. But televisions obsession with unmasking religious hypocrisy actually reveals an attempt to claim sacred ground for its secular self. In a telling scene, ITVs aged detective Frost delivered a thundering sermon to an errant priest in his own church. Since Frost, like all modern detectives, is deeply flawed, the scene could be a paradigm for televisions view of itself vis-à-vis the Church: We may live flawed and chaotic lives, but we are not hypocrites; hence we claim the moral high ground.
Television claims simply to reflect reality; but is the decline and fall of Christianity inevitable, or television-driven? Are conspiracies being hatched in smoke-free rooms somewhere in telly-land? Probably not, but an increasingly influential section sees religion, like the Monarchy and the armed forces, as a leftover from a more primitive age. Now the state has taken over the Churchs welfare role, it no longer appears to have a purpose; consequently many feel that the Catholic Church especially must be up to something. And there is an openly Atheist minority that exploits this atmosphere, making the anti-religious weather.
Indeed, a new hierarchy of minorities has emerged, neatly illustrated by Robin Hoods latest BBC reincarnation; apparently the diversity inspectorate (Sherwood Forest division) has excluded Friar Tuck from the greenwood but included a Muslim woman freedom fighter. Fortuitously this also encompasses modern obsessions with obesity and the binge-quaffing of ale. But there is a darker side to seeing the Catholic Church as a greater threat than terrorism, organised crime, or even the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the 1920s and 1930s the Jews were depicted as a powerful, anti-social world-force, an acceptable target for caricature and denigration, leading directly to the Holocaust.
However the Holocaust served as a solemn warning against attacking minorities; as Orwell noted, the intelligentsia swiftly curbed its anti-Semitism. Now anti-Zionism is taking its place. In 2004, the BBC commissioned an internal investigation into claims of biased reporting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Despite court battles, including a victory under the Freedom of Information Act, it has refused to publish the Balen Report. It must surely be in the public interest to know whether the public broadcaster can be trusted on this complex issue.
In the meantime, we undermine trust in religion at our peril. The BBC, by pushing a particular line will not succeed in winning hearts and minds to their check list of acceptable views but may succeed in creating a vacuum at the heart of society. And the vacuum will not be unfilled for long. The irreverent days of the 1920s were swiftly followed by the rise of totalitarianism. Hitler waged cultural war against Christianity before he could exterminate the Jews. He already knew the propaganda value of film; it is a chilling thought that with television, he might have won the War.
Possibly there is a lurking fear that Methodists will morph into Nazis or, given half a chance, use television to preach. Ironically, the BBC has cancelled Planet Relief, its own day-long global warming special, due to fears of preaching. When a pastor or priest climbs into the pulpit we know were in for a sermon whereas - unlike in 1984 - television is most dangerous when the message is unspoken but ubiquitous.
But now we know that the camera does lie, perhaps the Queen fiasco will lead to an examination of conscience; perhaps the BBC (in a further irony, now governed by the BBC Trust) will make a good confession, and do penance by making its self truly accountable to those who pick up the bill. However, unless it stops undermining the reputations of rival institutions, notably the Church - unless, in short, it starts to trust the public with the whole truth the public will find it difficult to trust the BBC. Truth is the first casualty of culture wars too; as a string of lost battles in defence of the most vulnerable shows, there is much more at stake than hurt feelings.
(September 2007. A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Times newspaper.)