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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Response to OFCOM consultation on broadcasting

5th October 2004

WHO WE ARE

Founded in 1866 by radical MP Charles Bradlaugh, the National Secular Society is the most prominent organisation in Britain supporting the rights of the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and the separation of church and state.

OUR INTEREST IN THIS CONSULTATION

The NSS has, since its foundation, been in the forefront of the battle to protect the right of free speech and expression. This concern was originally prompted by the existence of blasphemy laws but has since been directed at wider protection of free speech from threats by growing religious pressure. We are concerned to help ensure that Ofcom’s proposed new code will not be unduly influenced by religious considerations that work against the wishes of the population as a whole, as revealed by independent research.

Given that these are our main concerns, we will only be responding to those elements of the consultation that are relevant to these issues.

Our question responses and recommendations are underlined in our response, which starts below.

OUR RESPONSE

SECTION 2

In paragraph 2.6 Ofcom proposes that "Demonstrations of exorcism, the occult, the paranormal, divination and related practices must be treated with due objectivity."

This is a considerable weakening of the approach taken by the ITC in its Code, which reads: "Actual demonstrations of exorcisms and occult practices, such as those involving the purported invocation of unknown spirits of the dead or negative forces, are not acceptable in non-fictional programming except in the context of a legitimate investigation. They should not, in any case, be shown before the watershed".

We feel strongly that the ITC’s approach was preferable and formally recommend the replacement of the current OFCOM wording with the ITC’s wording shown above. ‘Exorcism’ as a concept is grossly offensive and dangerous. There have been several reported incidents whereby misguided people have tried to ‘exorcise evil spirits’ from others (particularly children) and ended up injuring or killing them. We think that it is particularly dangerous for TV to give credence to this practice. Those now recognised to be mentally ill were often thought in the past to be possessed by demons and this ignorant link persists in some people’s minds. People who are prone to suggestion that exorcism is ‘real’ may be adversely affected.

SECTION 4

Question 4f:

Which of the options described in the Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) on the scheduling of programmes regarding the paranormal is the best option and why?

We are recommending Option 2, to bring all television services under one rule concerning restrictions on demonstrations of the paranormal.

It is clear that as digital television becomes more established and more widely enjoyed, there seems little sense in claiming that its influence on children is any less than that of Pubic Service Broadcasting. More and more families are gaining access to non-PSB channels, so the same standards must therefore be applied across the board.

Although magic and the paranormal play a big part in children’s fantasy fiction (as in Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings for example), children are never led to believe that the events in these works are anything other than imaginary. It is clear from this that children have little problem separating fact from fantasy in entertainment, so long as it is honestly presented as such.

Programmes purporting to be "reality TV" or documentaries making claims about the existence of the supernatural or paranormal abilities, become exploitation rather than entertainment. This violates the special trust between the viewer and the makers of TV and radio programmes that, in Britain, has been built up over many decades of responsible - and regulated - programme-making. Viewers in this country do not expect to be deliberately exploited, hoodwinked or lied to and generally they aren’t. This valuable trust should not be put at risk, as would occur were magic and the paranormal programmes to be presented as if they were factual.

Young children are particularly suggestible and are often anxious to believe that magic really exists and if they are told by adults, in a medium that they implicitly trust (whether justifiably or not), that magic is real, then this constitutes an ever greater betrayal of trust and is totally unacceptable.

Those who claim to have paranormal powers, whether these be spoon-bending, mind-reading or talking to the dead, have not yet been able to prove in any scientifically controlled situation that their claims are genuine. Centuries of investigation have not given credence to any of the claims of paranormal powers that the unscrupulous find so easy to make. In September 2004, psychologists Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire and Ciaran O'Keeffe of Liverpool Hope University put five self-proclaimed ‘mediums’ to the test while ensuring they did not cheat or use psychological tricks. (Reference http://www.religionnewsblog.com/8793-.html). They found that none were able to produce accurate readings for people who were isolated in a separate room.

Skilled stage illusionists such as Derren Brown and David Blaine have shown that extraordinary and baffling effects can be created on television that might easily be put down to special paranormal powers. Indeed, in many instances, mystified participants have immediately concluded that what Mr Brown and Mr Blaine perform must have some sort of "psychic" or "paranormal" explanation, such is the level of amazement. To their credit, both these entertainers make clear that all their effects are created by trickery and misdirection.

In these circumstances, we recommend that any programme - even an entertainment programme - that allows people to make claims that their effects are achieved by "real" paranormal powers should be scheduled well away from times when children might be watching or listening and should also be preceded and succeeded by a written and spoken disclaimer. Our suggestion for such a disclaimer would be: "Participants in the following programme will make claims to possess paranormal or psychic powers. There is no scientific evidence to support these claims and we cannot guarantee that trickery and misdirection are not used."

We feel that this would be in line with the TWF directive aimed at the protection of the development of minors which also recommends a warning when any programme that might endanger the mental welfare of minors is broadcast.

SECTION 7

Question 7a

Are the principles, rules and meanings necessary, consistent, proportionate and achievable? If not, can the wording be improved and if so how?

Overall, section 7 of the consultation seems to ignore those who have no belief in any deity, whilst certain phrases seem to allow interpretation in this way. This is inconsistent and requires clarification. We recommend that section 7 be amended to reduce the protection of religious beliefs to the minimum required by law, while including atheism agnosticism etc. among the belief systems so protected.

In the definition of religious programmes, ‘matters of religion or belief’ would clearly apply to a programme about atheism, but it is not clear whether atheism is included by the linked phrase ‘religion or religious denomination’ in the protection given by paragraph 4.2. If not, this leaves atheism as the only major belief system that can freely be criticised on air, and may leave the code susceptible to Judicial Review. If Ofcom’s intention is that paragraph 4.2 protects atheist beliefs, this needs to be more clearly expressed.

We recommend that paragraph 4.2 be re-written as follows:

"4.2 Programmes must not incite hatred of religions, religious denominations or belief systems."

This would comply with article 22(a) of the Television Without Frontiers directive, and clarifies the protection of those who believe there is no deity.

Question 7b

Are there any principles, rules or meaning we have not put here which would achieve the intentions of the Communications Act and other applicable legislation and be necessary, consistent, proportionate and achievable?

No, we do not.

Question 7c

Which of the options regarding appealing for funds for religious programmes and/or services described in the RIA section 14 of this consultation should Ofcom include in the Code and why?

We think that the present situation is fair and proportionate and therefore we recommend Option One (to have "one Code that will apply to both radio and television and will cover standards for programmes, sponsorship and fairness and privacy").

We recommend that fundraising for religious broadcasters themselves should not be permitted but we do not oppose religious charities appealing for funds to be used for the benefit of disadvantaged third parties, so long as these charities are of good repute.

Although at present religious services appealing for money are restricted to those being broadcast from Spain, we anticipate that if greater freedom to solicit money were to be granted this would soon escalate. The consultation document observes that there has been no significant complaint about those religious services being broadcast from abroad that solicit money, but accepts that this is probably because such services have a very small audience.

At the start of the 1990s, the ITC considered that television fundraising by religious bodies would improperly exploit the susceptibilities of the audience, and so it was prohibited by the ITC Programme Code. We believe that Ofcom cannot legitimately lift this prohibition without first providing evidence that the level of viewer susceptibility has decreased, or explaining in detail why it now considers that a decade of religious broadcasting regulation was based on a false premise.

The consequences of complete freedom for religious TV services to raise money from viewers and listeners can be seen in the United States. Anyone who has seen American television will have come across a plethora of televangelists using every trick and manipulation to extract money from audiences. They have become very slick and although no-one is forced to contribute, and active steps have to be taken to give them money, there is no doubt that they use hard-sell techniques on a vulnerable audience that is generally less well educated, and/or elderly. Pressure is applied such as implying money will provide forgiveness or an easier path to Heaven. This illustrates why Ofcom needs to exercise especial caution in this area.

Large fortunes are amassed by these religious organisations and the example of the Praise the Lord (PTL) ministry, which was raising millions of dollars a year before its founder, Jim Bakker, was convicted and jailed for fraud on a gigantic scale (as well as sexual impropriety), should be sufficient to illustrate the dangers of unfettered religious fund raising.

After several other scandals involving televangelists, a self-regulating code of practice was introduced in the United States in an effort to control the rampant greed being displayed by these unprincipled characters. It was generally agreed that the self-regulation lacked bite. This seems an obvious conclusion which we hope that OFCOM will heed, especially as the financial clout of the televangelists can be huge, indeed the more money they have the less desirable they are likely to be.

Yet these abuses continue. On 19 September 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported on The Trinity Broadcasting Network, the most successful evangelistic broadcaster in the world. The report revealed that the station’s founder, Pastor Paul Crouch, has paid $425,000 hush money to Enoch Lonnie Ford, who had a story of a sexual encounter in a cabin owned by the network in 1996. The agreement was confidential and TBN tried long and hard to keep it quiet. But this sum was small compared with what the TBN generates. It carries no advertising, but generates $170 million a year in revenue according to its tax records. Viewer contributions account for two-thirds of this. Lower-income, rural Americans are the biggest donors. Pastor Crouch collects a $403,700 salary. His wife Jan is paid $361,000. Their eldest son is paid $90,800. The Crouches travel the world in a $7.2 million, 19-seat Canadair Turbojet owned by TBN. They drive extravagantly luxurious cars. They have charged expensive dinn ers and furniture to TBN credit cards. They have thirty homes, including two mansions at Newport Beach, a mountain retreat and a ranch in Texas. One of their younger sons produces "Christian-themed" movies for which the network has paid him $32 million since 1999. Much of the money is made by selling air-time to other preachers, one of who, Bishop Clarence McClendon, told viewers that "God has asked him to deliver a message to those in financial difficulty: ‘They should sow a seed’ by using their credit card to make donations. In return the Lord would see to it that their balances were paid off within 30 days. ‘Get Jesus on that credit card!’ McClendon said.

While it is unlikely that a British audience would react to religious fundraising in the same way that an American one does, the principle of protecting the vulnerable must remain paramount. It is, after all, the vulnerable who are most likely to be targeted by religious fundraisers.

The National Secular Society has opposed religious privilege throughout its history and we see here a privilege being offered to religious groups that is not available to others. We feel that it will be difficult to police and the potential for exploitation is immense.

Ofcom’s consultation document suggests that giving religious broadcasters who want to fundraise "access to more viewers" would constitute a benefit. We do not see this as a benefit for viewers, which should matter more than benefits for broadcasters. It is opined that disallowing fundraising may put some UK based religious television services at risk of closure. This does not seem to us to be a valid reason to justify fundraising. If religious broadcasters provide programmes that appeal to substantial audiences they will be able to compete in a market environment and support themselves. If, on the other hand, their sole raison d’etre is to raise money in order to continue in business to raise further money, then we feel they deserve to close.

We also fear that undesirable religious broadcasters will see a lucrative market and move in. Human Rights legislation will not permit the denial of fundraising for one recognised religious group when it is granted to another. Such broadcasters are likely to be well-heeled and litigious in order to protect a potentially lucrative income stream. Regulators will feel hesitant to engage in an expensive legal battle. There are international groups that go under the religious umbrella that are anxious to exploit opportunities for money-raising and will enter this market quite ruthlessly. It will be impossible to separate the licit from the illicit until the damage is done. It is a risk that does not have to be taken. We would draw Ofcom’s attention to an article by Jay Rayner about the United Church of the Kingdom of God, which appeared in the Observer http://society.guardian.co.uk/fundraising/comment/0,,661521,00.html It contains the following passage: "In Brazil it is now a significant political force. It claims three million members, owns a major TV station, a couple of dozen radio stations, a mass circulation newspaper and has around 20 deputies of the Brazilian Congress affiliated to it. The church’s turnover is estimated at £700 million, all of it from its congregants who are told that the donations will help smooth the path to salvation."

Question 7d:

Should religious programmes on non-specialist television services be allowed to recruit?

The National Secular Society has argued in other forums that PSBs already devote far too much time to religious broadcasting. We understand why this is: religious broadcasting has become a kind of touchstone of proof that a broadcaster is providing a public service and is not just a commercial operator. In a recent speech to the Greenbelt Christian festival, Alan Bookbinder, the head of religion at the BBC said: "For us, religion will continue to be a key part of how we define public service. In a way it’s one of the litmus tests of our public purpose."

This may be true to an extent, but we believe much less religious programming is necessary to fill the quota required by the viewing public than is currently broadcast. It seems that the pressure for ever more air time being devoted to religious broadcasting comes almost exclusively from the insatiable demands of religious organisations, and these should be resisted as unrepresentative of the population’s wishes.

Research shows repeatedly that interest in religion in this country is very low. Recent statistics from the Home Office showed that the UK population rank religion as tenth in the issues that were most important to the way they lived their life.

It is clear from this that the bald statistic of 72% of people defining themselves as "Christian" in the 2001 Census is grossly misleading. Many of these are "cultural Christians" with no real interest in religion at all and do not even regard themselves as belonging to any denomination. The 60 year continuous decline in church attendance down to the current 7% of the population on an average Sunday (Per Christian Research) bear this indifference out.

Ofcom’s own research showed that the "personal and social importance of programme genres" put religious programmes at the very bottom.

We understand that ITV is asking to be relieved of its duty to broadcast religious programming as it restricts its ability to compete in the market. Ofcom’s own research has shown that when multi channel choice is available, audiences for religious programmes fall catastrophically. Audiences for My Favourite Hymns dropped by 76% in homes where a multi-channel alternative was available. The Heaven and Earth Show dropped 73%, Songs of Praise dropped 66%.This is proof positive that religious programmes are not popular and not desired by most of the audience. This does not however justify specialist religious channels being given carte blanche to exploit what audiences they can attract.

The BBC has a very substantial department (Religion and Ethics) devoted entirely to the production of religious programmes and it has a large budget and undeserved access to peak time slots for its productions. We feel this is entirely disproportionate to the amount of interest in its output, but we understand that the BBC, like Ofcom, is under constant pressure from religious sources to broadcast its propaganda. There is even an official religious body given privileged access and formally permitted to lobby in its own interests, the Central Religious Advisory Committee, but of course non-believers are denied access or their own equivalent. The BBC has a formal duty to reflect society but consistently fails to do so in this respect.

While we agree that religion deserves some time on radio and TV (particularly for those among disabled listeners/viewers who may want it), the air time currently afforded to it is excessive relative to audience needs and expectations.

In our view, for a non-specialist television service to recruit viewers to a particular religion would breach the separation between programmes and advertising. A programme containing an exhortation to join the religion under discussion would be little more than an extended advertisement for that belief system. Religions have local offices, websites and telephone numbers - if a viewer feels strongly enough to want to join, then he or she will find a way to do so.

Direct recruitment appeals can be manipulative, misleading and immune to criticism. We fear recruitment by cults, the dangers of which are self-evident and need no explanation here. As we indicated in a previous answer, it would be discriminatory for broadcasters to deny one religious group access to recruit if they have permitted others. Under this reasoning we will find highly undesirable organisations making direct appeals for membership to an audience in their own homes, some of whom will be suggestible and vulnerable.

Our experience is that religious groups can easily find ways round any restriction on recruitment. In 2001 ITV broadcast a ten week programme about the Alpha Course, a Christian recruitment organisation. The programme was entirely uncritical and showed the course in its entirety. This programme blatantly flouted the ITC code on recruitment, an opinion shared by many commentators and TV experts. You can read our complaint to the ITC at the time of this programme here http://www.secularism.org.uk/itcletter.htm

Our complaint was rejected, which we interpret as demonstrating that clever presentation can circumvent recruitment rules.

We therefore recommend that there is a total ban on direct recruitment on religious services and programmes across the board.

Question 7e:

Does the final rule in this section* provide sufficient protection for children and susceptible audience members or is it, conversely, too protective?

* ("4.7 Programmes that contain claims that a living person (or group) has special powers or abilities must be treated with due objectivity and may not be broadcast at a time when significant numbers of children may be watching or when children are particularly likely to be listening.")

This rule does not provide sufficient protection. It has two loopholes which will allow the broadcasting of all kinds of unproven claims.

Firstly, the phrase ‘due objectivity’ is insufficiently precise, and we would prefer a tougher wording. Secondly, although question 7e asks about protection for susceptible audience members, rule 4.7 only extends its protection to children and we would recommend that it be re-written to clarify this.

We recommend that rule 4.7 be re-written as follows: "Programmes that contain unproven assertions that a living person (or group) has special powers must be preceded by a clear statement that the assertions have not been proven, and may not be broadcast at a time when significant numbers of children may be watching or when children are particularly likely to be listening."

We further recommend that it should be forbidden for any individual to claim that they have special or supernatural powers on any programme, religious or otherwise.

Claims to be able to heal the sick or perform miracles have no scientific validity and have been used for centuries to dupe the vulnerable and desperate. The fact that many people believe that some miraculous events have occurred (such as in Lourdes) are legitimate subjects for discussion or debate, but presenting individuals who claim to be able to effect these miracles is dangerous in the extreme. We cite the recent TV programme looking at the cult of Sai Baba, an Indian mystic with millions of followers and a massive fortune who, to an objective observer, is an obvious fraud and charlatan. He should not be allowed on British television unchallenged to perform his rather simple conjuring tricks and claiming them to be miracles. There are many others in the same mould from all religious traditions.

We think that the special authority that television carries (a trust that has been built up through decades of responsible programme making) should be jealously guarded and not allowed to be undermined by charlatans and confidence tricksters.

We recommend a blanket ban on anyone claiming miraculous powers, divine or otherwise, even on religious programmes. We see this as the only way to avoid television becoming a platform for exploitation by such charlatans.

SECTION 13

Question 13g

Should the rule prohibiting television services appealing for funds to make programmes and fund services be removed, kept or altered? If altered, then how should it be altered?

Section 6 of the RIA considers whether all television services should be allowed to appeal for funds to fund services or make programmes. This question is outside our area of interest, apart from its interaction with section 7.

If religious broadcasters are permitted to appeal, and other broadcasters are not, this will create an unfair division in the growing niche channel sector. Non-religious channels which rely on the creation and development of a community of viewers (for example the "text-chat" type of channel, or local community-based services) will not be able directly to appeal to those viewers for funds to run the service. Religious versions of the same service will be able to so appeal, and this would lead to a proliferation of niche religious channels whilst non-religious niche channels lag behind.

The opposite situation would similarly distort the market, of course, but given the nature of our organisation we are not as concerned about a distortion away from religious channels!

We recommend that Ofcom does not allow religious broadcasters, just one part of the niche channel sector, to raise money through direct appeals to viewers. The number of currently broadcasting religious channels suggests that there is no need or justification to give religious services a competitive advantage by permitting them to raise money for the channels themselves.

With this in mind, and given that we believe religious programmes and services should continue to be prohibited from appealing to viewers for funds, our answer to the question in section 6 of the RIA* is Option 1 ("maintain the present rules for television and radio. Ofcom could maintain the present difference between television and radio.")

*(Whether rules prohibiting appeals on television services for funds to make programmes and fund services should be waived or not)

This will disappoint potential service owners, but new technology gives them many ways to raise money other than a bald appeal for donations. Text messages, premium rate phone lines, subscription websites and so on are all legitimate business additions for a television service. We believe that if a service is allowed simply to beg for donations, it may lead to a proliferation of low-quality offerings - religious or otherwise. A channel which is truly serving its audience, local or national, should be able to fund its expenditure by raising money through good programmes coupled with sound business policies.