Something of a furore has broken out over a broadcaster’s interview of November last year, on a local BBC UK radio station. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: the furore broke out last November, but it has recently been reignited, following the BBC Trust’s publishing of its ruling on the incident, earlier this week.
It’s not often that local scandals make the national news headlines, but this particular scandal features the perennially combustible duo of sex and religion, or, more specifically, of sexual orientation and religion. Discussion around these invariably involves various degrees of offence and outrage from the concerned parties, and commensurately good ratings for the news corporations. So what happened?
In early November, British broadcaster and comedian, Iain Lee, had on his radio show a former prison worker turned reverend, Barry Trayhorn, and his Christian Concern1 legal representative, case worker Libby Powell. In May of the preceding year during a prison chapel service, Reverend Trayhorn had quoted a mid-1st century CE Bible passage2, attributed to Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle). The passage in question caused offence among certain of the prison population, a complaint was lodged, and the reverend summarily barred from chapel service, and subjected to a prison disciplinary hearing (don’t laugh). Trayhorn later left his post, citing stress-related illness, and is claiming constructive dismissal.
So far, so underwhelming, you might think. Anyone attending a Christian religious service can expect to hear a fair amount of antiquated moralising. According to Christian canon, various demographics today would be enslaved, stoned or suppressed, all with explicit biblical backing (and let’s face it, it’s not characteristic of the religious to question their beliefs and traditions logically and dispassionately), so strictly within that slightly disagreeable context, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, the good reverend did wrong.
This whole episode could have died a quiet death beneath the national radar, but it resurfaced following a slightly rambunctious exchange on BBC radio. In order to bring the case to wider attention, Trayhorn and his representative, Libby Powell, appeared on Iain Lee’s radio show, during the course of which they were accused by the broadcaster of bigotry and homophobia, and told that they were ‘obnoxious’. In the wake of this exchange, Lee was dismissed from his show and subsequently found by the BBC’s governing body to be in ‘serious breach’ of the BBC’s editorial guidelines for impartiality. A written apology to the Pink News for ‘any offence caused’ followed shortly thereafter. At time of writing, it is not yet clear what the further consequences of Lee’s dismissal will be. Social media opinion on the events is split, broadly, unsurprisingly, between those who think he was wrongly dismissed, and those who think he was and is a confrontational and incendiary loudmouth, whose temporary gagging is something of a public service.
Knee-jerks and viscera aside, the kerfuffle does raise a couple of interesting points, mainly around the limits of freedom of expression, and of journalistic integrity. As mentioned before, the reverend’s use of ‘clobber passages’ in his sermon may have been ill-advised and offensive, but was it contextually inappropriate? The BBC Trust’s findings (that the interviewees ‘were not treated with respect’ and ‘faced significant personal criticism and challenge’, and that the tone of the interview risked alienating their audience) strike an interesting note: as a broadcaster, is it your role, effectively, to be an umpire? If you have a view, or even an agenda, are you entitled to express it?
During the interview, Lee descended into ad hominem on a couple of occasions, which is never acceptable. In sanctioning Lee, however, this observer’s view is that the BBC has come dangerously close to sending the message that they are institutionally soft on bigotry. The apology to the Pink News is also baffling, in that Lee was defending LGBT interests, albeit in quite an aggressive way. In the absence of robust opposing views, say, from intrepid non-religious or LGBT audience members, should the broadcaster be prevented from providing a robust opposition? Is it more important to be impartial than truthful, at the risk of becoming an accessory to injustice through omission or absence?
Ultimately, we’re led to conclude that the BBC considers it more important to pander to the divisiveness and bigotry inherent in some Christian teachings, to the detriment of those at whom such divisiveness and bigotry are aimed, while censoring those who challenge it. What does this say about the type of audience the BBC Trust is afraid of alienating? What does it say about the BBC in general? If the radio station were averse to potential fall-out from what was likely to be a contentious debate, why did they organise it in the first place?
It’s a thorny issue in general, and this one in particular is no exception. This observer considers it one of many knots on the rope towards an entente cordiale between secular humanism, and religious belief.
1 A Christian organisation that, according to Wikipedia, ‘seeks to introduce a “Christian voice” into law, the media, and Government’.
2 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, one of several biblical excerpts sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘clobber passages’ due to their content, perceived as condemning of homosexuality (among other examples of behaviour deemed inappropriate), and their use by conservative Christians to ‘clobber’ their opponents, using Bronze Age Middle Eastern justification.