BBC denies that its new religion guidelines will change coverage

Mike Riggs Contributor
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The Washington Post found itself in a tight spot last week when one of the paper’s editors canned a comic strip for fear of inciting Muslim backlash. In defending his decision to keep “Non Sequitor” out of that week’s Style section, editor Ned Martel told Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander that the strip “seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message,” and, “the point of the joke was not immediately clear.”

The joke: Cartoonist “Wiley” had drawn a colorful park scene and captioned it, “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher…’Where’s Muhammad?’”

According to the Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog, Martel concluded “that readers might think that Muhammad was somewhere in the drawing.”

The decision sent ripples of indignation through the newspapering community and earned a stern rebuke from Wiley. “All I can do is surmise that the irony of their being afraid to run a cartoon that satirizes media’s knee-jerk reaction to anything involving Islam bounced right off their foreheads. So what they’ve actually accomplished is, sadly, [to] validate the point,” the cartoonist told the Comic Riffs blog.

Incidentally, the British Broadcasting Corporation, known affectionately stateside as “the Beeb,” made a similarly contentious decision regarding its general editorial policy around the same time. The following sentence can be found in the new editorial guidelines the BBC unveiled last Tuesday:

“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 generally accepted standards and must be referred to a senior editorial figure.”

Is the addition an innocuous clarification, or a sign that the BBC is moving in the direction as the Washington Post — namely a safer, less journalistically courageous one?

“The updated Guidelines would not have made any difference to our decision to show programmes like ‘Jerry Springer The Opera’ and will definitely not be an impediment to creative and challenging content dealing with religion in the future,” BBC press officer Gill Munro told The Daily Caller.

“It will make no difference to current best practice: it simply seeks to ensure that best practice is followed by all BBC content makers.”

The BBC has faced attacks on its religion coverage from all sides. In September, the UK’s most senior Catholic official Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland criticized the corporation for giving more airtime to atheists like Richard Dawkins, mocking the pope, and practicing decades of bias against the Roman Catholic Church. In July, British Muslims accused the network of causing much ado about nothing after a handful of Islamic parents withdrew their children from music classes, citing an orthodox Islam ban on playing musical instruments. And in June, supporters of the Palestinian cause accused the network of giving undue credence to Israel’s record of events after an “aid flotilla” manned by so-called peace activists was raided in international waters by Israeli commandos, resulting in the deaths of several flotilla members.
None of these occasions, Munro said, provoked a change to the corporations editorial guidelines.

“There haven’t been specific incidents that led to the change, it’s simply a case of the wording being updated in this latest edition of the Guidelines to be more consistent with the wording in the document in general and to be clearer about the standards we apply to religious content,” he said.

Terry Sanderson, president of the UK’s National Secular Society, told the Telegraph that the new guidelines did not bode well for the BBC’s coverage. ”This is an entirely retrograde step that will put severe restrictions on comedians, documentary makers, satirists and commentators who want to be critical of religion,” Sanderson said. “Almost anything that isn’t wholly reverential towards religious beliefs can be perceived as offensive by some believers.”