Media outlets tiptoeing around Islam are a dime a dozen, but the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stands apart for the egregiousness of its self-censorship and bias. Even more striking than the number of controversies involving suppression of Islam-critical speech on its channels are the frank acknowledgements that BBC policy is shaped by fear.
During a recent interview (full transcript) for a University of Oxford project, BBC director general Mark Thompson provided the most in-depth admission yet of the BBC's double standards with respect to faith. Christianity, he explained, receives less sensitive treatment because it is "a broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities." Specifically, Islam in Britain is "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." Thus, when asked whether the BBC would run a Muhammad-mocking program on a par with the Jesus-ridiculing Jerry Springer: The Opera, which it aired over Christian protests in 2005, Thompson answered that it would not. Depictions of Islam's prophet, he maintained, could have "the emotional force" of "grotesque child pornography" for Muslims.
Concern about Islamist violence undergirds BBC self-censorship, as evidenced by Thompson's citations of the Salman Rushdie affair, which he described as "an absolute watershed," and 9/11. "A threat to murder … massively raises the stakes," Thompson pronounced. "'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.'" Jonathan Neumann of Commentary observes, "The lesson the BBC appears to be teaching — a lesson we always knew and apparently is also policy — is that complaints get more credence if they are backed up by force."
Thompson's publicly enunciated views have evolved and serve as a microcosm of creeping dhimmitude, which refers to the subjugated status of non-Muslims under Islamic law. Four years ago, Thompson bemoaned the "growing nervousness about discussion about Islam and its relationship to the traditions and values of British and Western society as a whole." Seeing the BBC as a defender "of freedom of speech and of impartiality," he contended that it and other media outlets "have a special responsibility" to make certain that debate on any religion "should not be foreclosed or censored."
Just six months later, Thompson introduced his argument that Islam, as a minority belief system, must be dealt with carefully. "There's no reason why any religion should be immune from discussion, but I don't want to say that all religions are the same," he opined. In the BBC's defense, however, he boasted that it had not shied from displaying the Danish Muhammad cartoons — which seemingly had yet to reach the level of "grotesque child pornography" that they would in 2012. A BBC spokesman attempted to soften his words further: "What Mark Thompson said is that all religions are not the same — he did not say Islam, or indeed any faith, should be treated more sensitively than Christianity."
But now the mask has dropped for good, with double standards being confessed and visions of firearms elbowing out high-minded expressions of tolerance. Though his candor is refreshing, it does not begin to offset the lengthy and damaging record of cowardice that has defined Thompson's eight-year reign.
The BBC's asymmetrical approach to Islam and Christianity was palpable long before Thompson admitted to it. An internal memo leaked in 2006 provided an important glimpse of the prevailing worldview by revealing that BBC officials had deemed it acceptable to show a Bible, but not a Koran, being tossed into the garbage. Numerous insiders have gone public since then to confirm and criticize such policies. In 2008, comedian Ben Elton deplored how "the BBC will let vicar gags pass but they would not let imam gags pass," which he attributed to "genuine fear … about provoking the radical elements of Islam." Former BBC radio host Don Maclean lamented in 2009 that programs "seem to take the negative angle every time" regarding Christianity, even as they are "keen on Islam." News anchor Peter Sissons, who left the BBC several years ago, echoed him in a book published in 2011: "Islam must not be offended at any price, although Christians are fair game because they do nothing about it if they are offended."
At its most obnoxious, this mindset is manifested in bizarre inversions of reality, such as the infamous scene of a fanatical British Christian decapitating a peaceful Muslim in a 2008 episode of the BBC archaeology drama Bonekickers. One reviewer slammed "the BBC's paint-by-numbers version of political correctness," adding that "a Martian watching TV drama of late would probably conclude that the country is crawling with homicidal Islamophobes." Christians accused the BBC of smearing evangelicals by attempting to "transfer the practice of terrorist beheadings from Islamist radicals" to them, but the BBC Trust exonerated the network. The BBC spy series Spooks ignited a similar storm in 2006 when it showed Christians carrying out grenade attacks against Muslims and a bishop organizing the assassination of an Islamic cleric.
Even as it concocts Christian terrorists, the BBC balks at depicting Islamic ones. Editorial staffers nixed the Islamic suicide bombers in a planned episode of the BBC medical drama Casualty in 2007, so as not to "perpetuate stereotypes." They were replaced with animal rights extremists. A year later, executives reportedly canceled a film on the 2005 London transit bombings because they found the script "Islamophobic" — discounting the opinions of the jihadists' own families who had backed the portrayal of their kin. Journalist Nick Cohen put it best: the BBC actually was advancing "the belief that all Muslims are potential terrorists … by arguing that a dramatic examination of terrorism would be offensive to all Muslims."
The BBC also constrains how real-world Islamists may be described. For example, the network prevented the Christian Choice alliance from characterizing Tablighi Jamaat, the organization that had been aiming to erect an enormous mosque by the site of the 2012 London Olympics, as "a separatist Islamic group" during a pre-election broadcast in 2008. The label fits: Tablighi Jamaat "preaches that non-Muslims are an evil and corrupting influence," according to a Times of London article, and one of its UK leaders urged Muslims to resist the culture of Christians and Jews by nurturing "such hatred for their ways as human beings have for urine and excreta." Nonetheless, the BBC demanded that "separatist" be changed to "controversial" and rejected the favorable mention of "moderate Muslims" opposed to the mosque project — because, in the words of the Times, "the phrase implied that Tablighi Jamaat was less than moderate."
Likewise, the BBC instructed its personnel this year not to refer to UK-based hate preacher Abu Qatada as an "extremist," despite his ties to al-Qaeda. Notes from a BBC editorial meeting indicate that he may be dubbed a "radical," but the "extremist" designation is unwelcome because it "implies a value judgment" — a throwback to the logic that limited general use of "terrorist" on BBC channels in 2005. For good measure, journalists also have been warned not to employ old photos in which Abu Qatada looks fat.
If undesired language does slip past the censors, the BBC grovels, as when it rushed to offer an apology and £30,000 to the Muslim Council of Britain in 2009 after a Question Time panelist accused the group of promoting attacks on British forces. Executives were unmoved by the fact that the UK government already had suspended links with the organization due to similar concerns. Hypersensitivity motivated another apology two years earlier when a BBC radio host, responding to the return of a British teacher jailed in Sudan for allowing students to give a teddy bear the same name as Islam's prophet, innocuously joked that "her dog, Muhammad, is very pleased to see her." The BBC called the remark "ill-judged and entirely inappropriate" — words better applied to the notion of imprisoning somebody over a stuffed animal.
Perhaps most ironic of all, a spokesman for the BBC director general effectively declined a recent challenge from the head of DV8 Physical Theatre to screen a performance of Can We Talk About This? The courageous and well-reviewed dance production (watch the trailer) explores how fear stifles speech about Islam.
The BBC also has been accused of positively emphasizing Islam to the extent that other faiths are "brushed aside." This phrase was used by a British Sikh leader in 2008 after an analysis found that the BBC's religion and ethics department had rolled out 41 programs on Islam since 2001, but only five on Hinduism and one on Sikhism. "The bias towards Islam at the expense of Hindus and particularly Sikhs is overwhelming," a second protested. Furthermore, the Biased BBC blog noted in January 2011 that BBC Radio 4 had featured numerous shows highlighting Islam that month, but not one on any other minority religion. As for the majority faith, when Church of England representatives complained to Aaqil Ahmed, the Muslim controversially named chief of religious programming in 2009, about the BBC's diminishing focus on Christianity, he dismissed them as wanting to "live in the past."
Of course, the BBC's pro-Islamic — even pro-Islamist — slant does not stop at British shores. It also shades coverage of Middle Eastern conflicts, a phenomenon well beyond the scope of this article but documented by Honest Reporting and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
Mark Thompson plans to step down as BBC director general later in the year, but free speech advocates should not celebrate just yet. The culture that he has fostered is deeply ingrained and will not simply leave with him. Indeed, the corporation's editorial guidelines were modified in 2010 to mandate special procedures for "content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs," a move that the National Secular Society's president condemned as "entirely retrograde" for legitimizing faith-inspired bounds on expression.
Those who muzzle themselves to appease Islamists have surrendered their freedom, but when a behemoth such as the BBC does so, it chips away at the liberty of all. Powerful media entities that succumb to fear do not only embolden jihadists and help keep the citizenry in the dark about key issues; they also set a precedent that the less powerful often follow, a kind of trickle-down self-censorship that infects public life. Adding insult to injury, Britons are forced to fund the BBC's dhimmitude — and ultimately their own — through the license fee on televisions.
In an apparent disconnect with many of his other comments, Thompson asserted during the interview that "the best advice you can give" a person who feels uncomfortable with something on TV is "don't watch it," a philosophy that informs his habits as a Christian. Until network officials demand the same civilized behavior from Muslims and stop capitulating to the specter of Islamist rage, fed-up media consumers should remember his advice and turn off the BBC.
David J. Rusin is a research fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.