What these “they’re banning Christmas” scare stories really mean

Terry Sanderson tells of his brush with early morning TV

Last week I did two interviews on GMTV on the subject of nativity plays. The first one was at 7.10am and was conducted by Andrew Castle, one of GMTV’s regular presenters (see next story for more information). It was challenging, but proceeded without incident.

The second interview was just after 8am with Fiona Phillips (by this time the programme had shifted from “news” to “magazine” format). While waiting to start, Ms Phillips leaned over and said: “I’m a pretty secular person myself.” Well, I suppose a secular person can have a head full of fluff, which is what she seemed to have.

The interview was based on the survey from the Sunday Telegraph that had, apparently, revealed that only 20% of schools will be doing a nativity play this year. The assumption is that this is the fault of “political correctness” and perceived complaints from Muslims. Nobody asked whether it was because everybody was bored stiff with the same old thing year after year. Anyway, GMTV — along with the rest of the media — presented this poll, unquestioningly, as schools “banning” nativity plays.

I said that there was no question of nativity plays being banned. Indeed, there was nothing wrong with schools doing nativity plays if they wanted to. But equally there was nothing wrong with them not doing them if they didn’t want to. Why were schools that wanted to put on inclusive or non-religious plays being made to feel as though they’ve committed some kind of crime? It was all about choice, I said. But still Ms Phillips could not be deflected from presenting the survey as schools “banning” nativity plays.

On the following Saturday, Fiona Phillips wrote in her column in the Daily Mirror: “The National Secular Society thinks the nativity should be scrapped because ‘only seven per cent of the population are in church on any normal Sunday and that is projected to drop to two per cent by 2040’.

Scrapped? I never said any such thing, and neither did anyone else at the NSS. It seems Ms Phillips hears only what she wants to hear – or could it be that she deliberately distorted what had been said to fit her own need for a dramatic story with a villain? Whatever – the effect was that she colludes with the religious right in its campaign to convince the country that their “traditions” (which they normally never got a thought to) are under severe threat. Suddenly everyone is a Christian and terribly protective of “our” traditions.

But the underlying message here is not “We are Christians” but “We are not Muslims”. Most of the 3,000 emails received by GMTV after my appearance were outraged at the idea that “our” culture was being modified so as not to offend immigrants. The poor old panic-stricken Muslims and Hindus were also writing in saying “We don’t mind Christmas – we like it”. So then the spotlight fell on those villainous “fundamentalist secularists” who are, apparently, willy-nilly banning Christmas.

No-one ever thinks to question the motives of the groups that are putting out these surveys, or to look more closely at what they are actually saying. Some of the surveys are out and out lies (last year, for instance, some firm put out a survey that “revealed” 70% of firms had ‘banned’ Christmas decorations from their premises. It was an outright lie, completely fabricated, but the media picked it up and ran and are still repeating it this year.) An email that is circulating in evangelical circles that claims that post office staff have been advised only to serve people with the madonna and child stamps if they ask for them has caused further panic. But as this story shows it is a complete fabrication.

So what is really going on here? What is the true purpose of these surveys and their attendant panics? My own impression is that they are brought out each year to reinforce the idea that Christians (a cipher for white English people) and their culture are under attack by unnamed forces. Most people — as my experience on various radio phone-ins has shown me — think it is to placate Muslims. Whenever the topic is raised on these programmes the inevitable response is “If they don’t like the way we do things here, why don’t they go back where they came from?” Equally inevitably, some Muslim or Hindu will ring in and say “But we don’t mind!” By then it is too late.

In his parliamentary debate on Christianophobia last week, MP Mark Pritchard prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer saying that they were not racist. He said that the points he had been making were being taken up by the BNP and used as anti-immigrant propaganda, and we shouldn’t allow that to happen.

Trevor Phillips, the head of the new Equality Commission, said that immigrants and atheists should celebrate Christmas along with the rest of the population and that their leaders should make clear that they have no objection to the festival.

I think Mr Phillips is getting it the wrong way round. He should not be telling the leaders of minority religions to abase themselves for something they haven’t done. He should be challenging and questioning the motives of the vested interest groups that are producing this propaganda.

See also:
Hands off Christmas, say religious leaders
More they’re-destroying-Christmas crap here

Other interesting stuff from GMTV...
While I was at GMTV, I was able to have a quick word with Andrew Castle, the presenter, about his ancestral links with Annie Besant. Mr Castle is Annie’s great-great grandson. Besant was, of course, one of the leading lights of the National Secular Society during the time of Charles Bradlaugh in the nineteenth century. (Annie Besant’s later history was rather strange – read about her here).

Mr Castle seemed anxious (off camera) to talk about his great-great granny and said that he was going later that day to a commemoration of the match girls’ strike, which Annie Besant was instrumental in organising. (Read more about this family relationship here)

Also at the studio, I also saw Lord Adonis — architect of the expansion of “faith schools” — and as he was hanging about the corridor I collared him and said: “What do you think of the research that shows faith schools achieve their results by selection rather than because of their religious ethos?”
He replied: “Ofsted research shows that it’s all down to religious ethos.”

I said: “But this is independent research I am talking about – it shows categorically that the ethos that David Blunkett wanted to bottle was selection, not religion.”

“We aren’t going to agree on this,” said his Lordship.

“I guess not,” I said, “but we will continue to oppose you.”

He was completely expressionless and I felt waves of contempt coming from him. I hope he felt them coming the other way, too. (There was an account of this incident in The Guardian’s Education gossip column)

14 December 2007