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Newsline 7 April 2017

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Much of the news cycle on Tuesday was dominated with the traditional nonsense story about Easter eggs. This time the Prime Minister decided to wade in, and it fell to us to point out how ludicrous the whole story was. The Church put out an overblown statement complaining that religion was being "airbrushed" out of the National Trust-Cadbury Easter egg hunt - when in fact both websites used the word Easter countless times (including in the Cadbury's website address...)

Most shocking of all was the fact that the Prime Minister was on a trip to Saudi Arabia when she decided to make a statement on the story. Cadbury doesn't persecute Christians, Saudi Arabia most certainly does. Guess which one she criticised.

Newsline will return on Friday 28th April.

Prime Minister and CofE promote fake ‘war on Easter’

Prime Minister and CofE promote fake ‘war on Easter’

Opinion | Tue, 04 Apr 2017

After several media outlets falsely claimed that the National Trust and Cadbury were 'airbrushing' Easter out of their Easter egg hunt, Terry Sanderson argues that the Prime Minister's involvement in this trumped-up propaganda exercise was the real disgrace.

Theresa May took time out from negotiating the future of our nation to become embroiled in a trumped-up publicity stunt contrived by the Church of England.

The Church threw a hissy fit, claiming that Cadbury had failed to include the word Easter in the promotional material for the egg hunts it organises at National Trust properties. In fact, the website address itself even contains the word Easter, and both the National Trust and Cadbury websites mention Easter numerous times. It is quite clear that, like previous similar episodes (the Lord's Prayer advert in cinemas for instance), this stunt has been carefully planned by the CofE to get itself on the front pages of the papers.

Leaving aside the manipulative elements, and ignoring the fact that the media was such a willing accomplice, we were also given the Prime Minister's two pennies worth.

"I'm not just a vicar's daughter, I'm a member of the National Trust as well," she told ITV during a visit to Amman, Jordan. "I think the stance they have taken is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what they are thinking about frankly." The CofE's propaganda machine must have thought all its birthdays had come at once.

With the country standing on a cliff edge with no guarantees about its future, I would have thought that Mrs May would have more important things to concern herself with. Getting embroiled in what is so clearly a publicity stunt does her no favours.

The CofE has recently employed in its press departments two of the leading newspaper religious affairs correspondents to add to its already burgeoning PR department. They know how to angle stories for maximum effect, they know how to create a controversy out of nothing.

Perhaps in employing them, the CofE has made one its best investments ever. But underneath the hype we have a non-story – fake news, indeed.

Religious programming isn’t popular, and no amount of hounding from the Church will change that

Religious programming isn’t popular, and no amount of hounding from the Church will change that

Opinion | Tue, 04 Apr 2017

The BBC still produces a considerable amount of religious programmes – but the numbers who watch it are so small they barely register in viewing figures. More religion on TV isn't what the public want, and it won't be good for the BBC, writes Terry Sanderson.

The Sunday Times reported this week that the BBC has "decided to shut down its in-house religious affairs television production department."

The story was based on a leaked email from a BBC executive, Lisa Opie, who said that the loss of Songs of Praise to an independent producer had forced a "rethink of its business model" and "means we will no longer have a permanent religion and ethics department in Salford." The Sunday Times understands that there are something like 40 or 50 people working producing religious programmes for the BBC.

To those of us who think the BBC already devotes far too much of its fast-dwindling resources to religious programming, something that has audiences so small they barely register in viewing figures, this is good news.

Naturally for the Church of England's spokespeople on media matters, this is a terrible blow to the platform for evangelism they have taken for granted since the days of Lord Reith.

The Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, is quoted in the paper as saying "It is a failure of the BBC as a public broadcaster." He said he found it "strange" that the BBC had reached the decision when Ofcom, the watchdog that started to regulate the corporation from this week, has told it to boost religious programming.

The Church is, of course, putting the BBC under enormous pressure not only to stop it reducing the time it devotes to religion but to actually increase it.

The Bishop waves the "religious literacy" flag as a warning that the nation will be deprived of this apparently essential knowledge if the BBC doesn't force it down unwilling throats.

But what precisely is "religious literacy"? One can't help feeling that in this context it is just another cover for proselytising.

Those who want to explore religion, and think it has some kind of relevance, have thousands of churches to choose from where the knowledge is imparted with vigour. Those who couldn't give a damn about religion or are even hostile to it will nevertheless have to pay to have it piped into their living rooms via our national broadcaster.

But the corporation is also under severe financial constraint with thousands of jobs at risk and constant threats from the Government to cut the licence fee. Some Tory backbenchers even want to abolish the Beeb entirely.

The vested media interests – particularly those of Rupert Murdoch (who, of course, owns the Sunday Times) – means that there is an unending propaganda war being waged against the BBC in the press. This latest religion story is just one example of the way the Murdoch papers constantly portray the BBC as an institution that is failing its audience and the country.

But why does the Church (and religion generally) imagine that it has an automatic right to the airwaves that nobody else has? Religion in Britain is a minority interest. Research has shown that, where people have a choice, they switch channels in their droves when religious programmes start. Anglers might say that there are far more of them than there are churchgoers (which is true), but they get hardly any time at all devoted to their sport.

Yes, the BBC is a public broadcaster. It is bound by its charter to be inclusive of the whole nation and to reflect the interests of the country. So, religion has a place, along with sport and news and music and whatever else interests people. But it needs to accept that its place in the nation's affections has fallen way, way behind Eastenders and Holby City.

When programmes attract audiences so small that they don't register, what justification can there be for continuing with them? Opera also attracts tiny audiences and the BBC reacts accordingly – when was the last time you saw an opera on the BBC?

This week the BBC published its plans for religious broadcasting over Easter. It seems like a defensive response to the attacks on its supposed neglect of religion – who is going to watch all this stuff? Surely the real enthusiasts will be at church anyway.

So, does the Church have a point?

The last time it was measured, in the 2016 annual report, the amount of time devoted to religious broadcasting was: BBC1 92 hours; BBC2 50 hours; BBC4 24 hours; BBC Radio 573 hours.

How much more time do they want?

There is a certain arrogance among the bishops and others who are bullying the BBC into producing programmes that may be important to the Church but appeal to few other people. These churchmen get a lot of press for their demands, but viewers remain indifferent.

The corporation's bigwigs should stand firm against the constant episcopal heckling and get religion in proportion.

Ireland sees 73% increase in number of non-believers

Ireland sees 73% increase in number of non-believers

News | Thu, 06 Apr 2017

Census figures released by the Irish Central Statistics Office show a huge increase in the number of non-believers, as the number of self-identified Catholics continued to drop.

The Catholic Church in Scotland is still playing the victim card to stifle criticism

The Catholic Church in Scotland is still playing the victim card to stifle criticism

Opinion | Thu, 06 Apr 2017

There is some lingering anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland, writes NSS vice president Alistair McBay, but the Church is playing victim while supporting a segregated education system which can only worsen prejudice.

"As one brought up a Catholic, I know only too well of Scottish Catholicism's lovingly nurtured persecution complex - part masochism, part self-justification for its own pet bigotries."

So wrote a cradle Catholic to the Daily Express in May 2011. I'm reminded of it every time I see a new report published on sectarianism in Scotland which almost inevitably concludes that Catholics are enduring victims of discrimination and prejudice, it's everybody's fault but theirs and something must be done.

Of course Scotland has a history of anti-Catholic bigotry, frequently confused as it might be with simple objections to Vatican doctrine and dogma - the Catholic Church in Scotland has long played the sectarian victim card to close down criticism and debate. There is no better example of how religious division has been stoked in Scotland than the Church of Scotland's infamous 1922 report 'On the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality'. It was not an anti-Catholic crusade as such, as Professor Tom Devine (a Catholic) eloquently explained at the Glasgow Newman Association talk he gave in 2013. Nevertheless, Catholics did pay a price as a result. Aside from the more obvious examples of attacks on Catholics during the 1930s, notably the anti-Catholic riots at the Eucharistic Congress in Edinburgh in 1935, Devine believes with its campaign the Kirk inaugurated a period of discrimination in the labour market. He concludes this was only abandoned between the 1960s and 1980s, and can still be seen today in indices of mortality, low income and health. Professor Devine pointed to the Church of Scotland apology in 2002 for this contribution to sectarianism but alleges the Scottish nation has not apologised for the impact this discrimination has had on life chances, illness and mortality. The absence of full acknowledgement and transparency, he argued, still produces among some Catholics (perhaps the Church hierarchy?) a sense of victimhood which is based not on evidence but on rhetoric.

Fast forward to a research report published this week by, among others, Scotland's sectarianism tsar Duncan Morrow. This research alleges an equality gap in Scotland compared to Northern Ireland, which has had specific legislation to tackle religious inequality in an attempt to heal the wounds caused by 35 years of sectarian conflict. The research plots this inequality gap along the lines Devine identified, in terms of a poorer set of statistics for Catholics than Protestants on the basis of health, longevity, deprivation, home ownership etc. The research is evidence-based, using a sample of 156,448 Scots and 248,255 people from Northern Ireland aged between 25 and 74 during the 2001 census. They were observed during a follow-up period of nearly seven years.

Duncan Morrow hit the headlines with a previous report for the Scottish Government which concluded that Scotland's segregated Catholic schools were not in any way, shape or form responsible for Scotland's lingering sectarianism. This was a surprise, given that the Catholic Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell had opined in 2002 that of course they were a contributory factor and "divisive", but nevertheless a "price worth paying" for unchallenged access to innocent minds. It was also a surprise given that the fiercely Presbyterian Peter Robinson, first minister of Northern Ireland, put down much of the sectarian troubles in the province to the 'benign apartheid' of segregated schooling in a famous speech delivered in 2011 that promoted integrated schooling as the way ahead. But Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, anxious to secure the Catholic vote for an independent Scotland in 2014, had been praising Catholic schools to the hilt for some years alongside his good friend the now disgraced Cardinal O'Brien and had even urged the non-denominational sector to be more like them. The cynic in me says there was hardly likely to be a condemnation of sectarian schools in the long build-up to the Indyref vote. Recently an SNP MP, a member of the Humanist Society of Scotland, made some comments about Catholic schools and set out his preferred secular alternative that brought an accusation of 'chilling intolerance' from the bishops and a swift slap down from the Scottish Government itself. The nerve of some politicians, wanting to end segregation, indoctrination and discrimination in Scotland's education system!

Dr Morrow's latest research suggests Northern Ireland is now less of a sectarian place than Scotland, and that Catholics in Scotland suffer from a higher risk of death and are at greater economic disadvantage relative to Protestants, although there doesn't seem to be a comparison with people of other faiths or none. There is however some other empirical analysis from which we might draw a different conclusion on the inequality gap Dr Morrow has chosen to highlight.

In 2015 The Tablet newspaper published a list of the Top 100 lay Catholics in Britain, claiming to show how "a relatively small faith community has come to obtain a leadership presence in virtually every part of British society". The list includes some of the country's foremost public servants who occupy leading positions in business, academia, charities, the arts and entertainment and other spheres. The Tablet says "their rise is a tribute to the quality of Catholic education, both public and private. Many are the children of immigrants and come from modest or even impoverished backgrounds." In Scotland, leading Catholics include the afore-mentioned historian Tom Devine, the composer James McMillan and Lord Gill, most recently the head of our Judiciary and now a member of the Supreme Court. The article also features Dame Elish Angiolini whom it says "went from a crime-ridden council estate in Glasgow to become the Lord Advocate of Scotland, the country's most senior legal officer".

The Tablet goes on to say that the list "portrays individuals who are part of a vibrant faith community that has become fully integrated into British life." On that empirical evidence basis, then, there seems no compelling reason without further analysis to suggest that there is an inequality gap affecting Scotland's Catholics that needs greater effort to be closed. Does this Tablet report indicate that discrimination, impoverished background or indeed religious belief itself are key factors that hinder the life chances of Catholics in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK?

There are of course localised examples of lingering anti-Catholic bigotry that gnaw away under the radar at the fabric of Scottish life. In a village near my home, the local Kirk minister got somewhat sniffy that the new head of the local non-denominational primary school was a Catholic, and sniffy enough that one of his church elders resigned in protest at his stance. But the new head's faith was no barrier to her being appointed to a non-denominational school, although of course if she had no religious faith she would never be appointed to be head of a Catholic one. So much for an inequality gap!

Vacancy: Campaigns and Communications Officer

Vacancy: Campaigns and Communications Officer

We are looking for an enthusiastic and committed individual to support the organisation with a range of campaigns and communications tasks, based at our central London office. The successful candidate will be closely involved in every aspect of planning and running our campaigns and organisation.

NSS Speaks Out

Executive director Keith Porteous Wood appeared on ITV and BBC News 24 to discuss the Easter (non-)story. We also spoke to BBC 5 Live, BBC Essex, BBC Hereford and Worcester, BBC Radio London and Talk Radio on this and we were quoted in the Guardian.

On other topics we were quoted in the Guardian on who should fund hospital chaplaincy, and the Birmingham Mail, Metro, Daily Mail and Telegraph all quoted the Society on the revelation that an Islamic school had posted a job advert for a male-only science teacher. Campaigns director Stephen Evans spoke to BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey on religion in the workplace, and NSS vice president Alistair McBay had a letter in the Scotsman on sectarianism.

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