BBC Apology - 4. Doves and Hawks

Tuesday, 30 December 2008 15:11

Jill Tweedie once wrote an article for the Guardian about her encounter with some evangelical Christians. Jill noted their smiling, joyous certainty about their salvation, and called them doves, in contrast to the dour, punitive Christian fundamentalists whom she called the hawks. She related that, as her encounter with this group of doves ended, she saw in their eyes the cold, steely glint of the hawk.

I've been encountering quite a few doves and hawks at the talks and interviews I've been giving about my new book What Should I Believe? I find that they fall into three groups, namely, the vulnerable doves, the hawks masquerading as doves, and the proud, vigilante hawks. The proud, vigilante hawks examine me and dismiss me coldly. In another time and place, they would have sent me to the stake with a wave of their hand. The hawks masquerading as doves wait until the event is ending and then they advance on me to patronise me. If being patronised were fatal, I'd have died weeks ago.

The poor, vulnerable doves cannot contain their distress at my suggestion that their most dearly held belief might be a fantasy. Life is difficult, and we all need a fantasy or two to get us through the day. If we are reasonably self-confident, we don't have to tell ourselves that these fantasies are true. We know that they are our comfort blankets. But, if we feel that there is nothing about us that is valuable and that no one cares about us, then, in an effort to save ourselves, we create a precious belief that protects us from the full horror of our life. This belief, whatever it is, assures us that we are special and that we are loved. At one of my talks, a young woman interrupted me to say, 'I've met Jesus. He gave me a hug.' I knew a little of this young woman's background and could surmise that she had had few loving hugs in her life. I said, 'You're very lucky,' and so she was to have been able to create such a fantasy and believe it to be true. At another lecture, I had barely finished speaking when a middle-aged woman rushed to me and with tears in her eyes begged me not to tell her that what had happened when her father died was just her fantasy. She said, 'I was with him when he died. Right at the end, when he died, I saw a golden halo around his head.' I said something like, 'He must have been a very good man,' and wished I had more time to talk to her. Why had she needed to make her father a saint? But other people were around us and she went away.

Not all vulnerable doves refer to their precious belief in such an emotional way. They can mention it in what seems to be an ordinary voice, but there is a quaver in their voice, a stray high note. When I was working in the NHS I'd hear this in statements like, 'My husband doesn't say much but I know he loves me,' or, 'My parents treated all us children equally', or, 'I always thought I'd have a family but I think it was for the best that I didn't.' When I was told that I would be debating with the formidable Christian broadcaster Anne Atkins on the World Service programme Reporting Religion I went along expecting to have a very lively discussion. However, when she was telling me that her religious beliefs were not fantasies about life and death but absolutely true, I heard that quaver, that high note. She needed her beliefs to protect her from I know not what. I could no more tell her that her physical make-up did not allow her to know anything that was absolutely true [link to What It Is to Be Human] than I could have told the young woman that her belief that Jesus had hugged her was a fantasy.

The hawks masquerading as doves have a particular tone of voice, a patient I-understand-where-you're-coming-from unctuous, patronising tone, derived from a brief encounter with psychotherapy training, and aimed at putting me in my place. If there is an audience, the hawk in the guise of a dove seeks to heighten his status while decreasing mine. With an audience of counsellors and social workers one man began with, 'I can see that you're angry with religion . . .' I retaliated with, 'I'm not angry with an abstract noun but with people who inflict suffering on others' and listed some of the recent atrocities. Hawks in the guise of a dove can always inflict a small atrocity of their own by waiting until the very end of the proceedings when it is obvious I am getting ready to leave. When I have been on my feet and talking for two hours I begin to look and sound quite tired. After my lecture at the Ways with Words Literary Festival in Southwold, I signed books and chatted with readers and was signing some books for the bookshop when a substantially built woman, with black wavy hair flowing over her shoulders in the manner of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, loomed over me and said, 'The Christianity you were talking about isn't the Christianity I know.' I replied, 'That's what you all say.' I was thinking of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had told Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian, "In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin says, 'When I hear atheists talk about Christianity, I don't recognise what they're talking about.' I often feel when I read Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens that this isn't quite it. I thought it might not do any harm to put down a marker about that and say: 'Here is a form of Christian engagement with the world and with the complexities of human experience that may be radically wrong but is not cheap or glib and any critique has to deal with this just as much as it has to deal with a southern baptist.'"

I couldn't quote Rowan Williams to her because remembering Rowan-Williams-speak is quite difficult, and at least she had said what he had said but much more simply. She sat down beside me and told me that she was a Methodist Minister and so she was in a position to point out to me that all of that about being born in sin and hell had disappeared from the Church. Now they talked about loving oneself and loving Jesus. I growled, 'If you're not intrinsically bad you don't need salvation.' She then told me that being born in sin is not in the Bible and quoted some early Church doctrine. Here I should have quoted Guy Consolmagno SJ who wrote in The Tablet, 'Our theology of original sin has serious difficulties, but anyone who denies the reality of original sin hasn't been reading the news lately.' (September 27, 2008) Perhaps Catholics suffer from original sin but Methodists don't.

Then there are the proud hawks like Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet. The article she wrote about me, and my article about this article, The Curious Case of The Tablet, are elsewhere on this website.

And then there was my encounter with the BBC Religion and Ethics Department.

I love the BBC. I wake up and go to sleep with Radio 4 or the World Service. I watch and record the kind of programmes I like which are usually on BBC2 and BBC Four. Whenever I'm asked to be interviewed or take part in a discussion I hasten to accept because it is always good fun. When I went to Bush House to record a discussion with Anne Atkins who was in the Oxford studio, the presenter Dan Damon said to me, 'She [Jane, the producer] told me to keep my opinions to myself.' Dan has strong views about religion. He did what he had been told to do, and kept to Jane's script. Anne talked at length and kept repeating what she had said. Several times she told me, 'I agree with you', but what she said showed that she didn't. When I was leaving Jane said to me, 'I'll edit all that', and so she did, brilliantly. What was broadcast was an interesting discussion [link]. But much happened before that discussion was broadcast.

When Tom Williams of Aitken Alexander forwarded Charlotte Manchester-King's email inviting me to contribute to a programme for Radio 2 about religious belief I was delighted, and even more pleased when I found that my interviewer was to be John McCarthy. I had followed the story of his kidnapping and his five year's incarceration by Hizbollah in Lebanon, with Jill Morell doing all she could to make sure he was not forgotten by everyone and not least Margaret Thatcher who, as Prime Minister, refused to have any dealings with kidnappers. John and the other people who had been kidnapped would be left to perish before she relinquished any of her precious principles. However, John survived and returned home. He and I had a long talk [link] and decided to get together again to continue our conversation. However, domestic matters intervened and we weren't able to meet before I left for Australia.

A few days after my interview the producer of the programme, Dawn Bryan, got in touch with me and asked me to record my answers to some questions. As she was in Manchester I had to go to Western House where the BBC do their down-the-line interviews. It seemed to me that she was asking me to repeat much of what I had already told John, but, as our time was limited, I couldn't ask her why. A few weeks went by and then Charlotte emailed to tell me that the programme would be broadcast at 10.30pm on October 21. This was the evening of my book launch, so I didn't listen to the programme until the next day. I had to listen to it twice to make sure that I'd heard my two brief appearances, and then to listen to the second passage again to make sure I'd heard correctly. Yes, I was saying, or had been edited to say, the opposite of what I had said in the interview, and what I would always say if asked about the benefits or otherwise of religion. I could not believe that this was the BBC. I had been edited before, but never to change the meaning of what I had said.

The week following the broadcast was a very busy one for me and I did not have time to think through what I should do. I had heard from Reporting Religion that my discussion with Anne would be broadcast the following Sunday morning, too early for me to be awake to listen. That afternoon I went into the World Service website and found Reporting Religion. My discussion was listed, but when I clicked the play again button the following programme did not include it.

Was there a conspiracy at the BBC Religion and Ethics Department to keep me off air, in short, silence me? Was the Religion and Ethics Department infested with hawks?

When Natasha of Reporting Religion emailed me to ask for my address so she could send a CD of the programme, I phoned her and told her what had happened, not just to me on Reporting Religion but on What Do I Believe. She could tell me about what had happened to the Reporting Religion website. It was, she said, a typical BBC cock-up. The programme was broadcast on October 26, the day the clocks went back. The engineers who look after the text part of the World Service website remembered this and set their clock to go back, but the engineers who look after the audio part forgot. So the text was up-to-date but not the audio. It was probably something more technical than that, but the result was for the website to show the appropriate text but it was not accompanied by the appropriate sound. Natasha and I laughed about this, but she was very concerned about the editing of What I Believe. 'You must make a complaint,' she said, and insisted that I talk to her executive producer. She would speak to her right away, and the producer would phone me. I did not expect this call to come for a few days, but within minutes Eleanor Garland had phoned me. She impressed on me the absolute necessity of my contacting the Head of Compliance, David Barber, and gave me the necessary contact details. It was quite clear from the seriousness with which Eleanor treated what I had told her that any error, either accidental or deliberate, in the material that the BBC broadcast had to be corrected and amends made.

Christine Morgan treated the matter with the same seriousness. However, she made the mistake of using the form of apology that many women use without always realising that it is not an apology. She was saying she was sorry I was distressed, not that she was sorry that I had suffered an injury. I am not at all patient when someone makes this error in speaking to me.  Also, she thought, or had been told, that I was a novelist, and perhaps she did not realise that novelists can be as particular about the truth as psychologists are. She could not have known how weary I was becoming with the hawks and the pseudo-doves. I was not going to let them have any extra ammunition to fire at me, such as, 'We know you value religion because it gives structure to people's lives.'

Christine did not tell me anything about what had gone on in the making of the programme What I Believe. Perhaps the group making the programme had started out, as Charlotte had said in her first email, to ask where religious faith came from and 'why so many people want to believe in God and search for faith', but then they had to change their plans and make a very simple programme where people's voices describing their beliefs were interwoven with sentimental music. If Dawn had phoned me and said that their plans had changed and they wouldn't be using what they had recorded of me, but she would be sending me a copy of my interview, and thank you very much, I would have accepted this. She could have gilded the lily and paid me the usual BBC grand sum of fifty pounds for my work. I am used to producers phoning or emailing me to say that I have not been included in the broadcast programme. It is not just out of courtesy they do this. They know that they might need to ask me again to do something for them.

But my words were edited and their meaning changed. Was this the work of a hawk, or a pseudo-dove? Or was it that most curious of events, a BBC cock-up? I do not know.