Blasphemy @ the BBC

The BBC issues lengthy apology for “disgraceful” tweet which asked what the “right punishment for blasphemy” should be

Last week, the BBC Asian Network – which hosts the lively Big Debate radio programme – asked Twitter users to say what they thought was the “right punishment for blasphemy.”

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Maryam Namazie, a prominent ex-Muslim and civil rights campaigner, called the question “disgraceful,” and labelled the British broadcaster the “Ayatollah BBC.”

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On Saturday, I asked the BBC – which is funded by public money – if it believed that blasphemy should be punishable.

Today, I received this lengthy apology from the BBC Complaints Team:

From: bbc_complaints_website <bbc_complaints_website@bbc.co.uk>
To: Dean Jones <****@aol.com>
Subject: BBC Complaints – Case Number CAS­-4274202­-VR2YRX
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2017 12:07

Dear Mr. Jones

Thank you for contacting us regarding our programme, Asian Network’s Big Debate. We understand that you felt it was inappropriate to pose the question ‘What is the right punishment for blasphemy?’

Asian Network’s Big Debate is a live daily news and magazine programme. The first hour of the programme poses a question that the audience discusses on the phone, over emails and on social media. We regularly ask difficult and provocative questions on a wide range of issues that are relevant to a mainly British Asian audience usually on the basis of events in the news in the UK or South Asia.

The question was prompted by reports that Pakistan had asked Facebook to help investigate ‘blasphemous content’ posted by people in the country. Despite widespread condemnation, blasphemy is illegal in Pakistan, in some cases it is punishable with the death penalty.

We apologise for the poorly worded question and the way it was posted on social media, it was never our intention to imply that blasphemy should be punished. We agree that the question should have been better phrased and put properly into context.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Kind Regards

BBC Complaints Team
http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

Shortly after, I also received this separate response from the BBC Asian Network:

From: Asian Network Enquiries <asiannetwork.enquiries@bbc.co.uk>
To: **** <****@aol.com>
Subject: RE: Quick question regarding “clumsily worded” blasphemy tweet
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2017 13:05

Hi Dean,

The Asian Network’s Big Debate asks difficult and provocative questions every day. This programme was an engaging discussion on the subject of blasphemy, but we admit that the question could have been phrased better and have since made this clear.

Kind Regards,

The Asian Network Team

It isn’t the first time the BBC has apologised for asking “clickbait rhetorical questions” and “legitimizing an indefensible POV – as award-winning British author Joanne Harris (MBE) charged in response to this September 2016 tweet by BBC Newsbeat re: video of US reality television star Kim Kardashian being accosted by “vile” Ukrainian prankster Vitalii Sediuk.

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When I asked about the offending tweet, BBC Newsbeat said it had intended to “provoke conversation” but did not mean to legitimise Sediuk’s “prank.”

Last year, the BBC made over three billion pounds from publicly generated funding.

Preventing Prevent 2.0

Does Trump plan to implement a US version of highly controversial British counter-extremism strategy?

Via “Exclusive: Trump to focus counter-extremism program solely on Islam – sources” by Julia Edwards Ainsley, Dustin Volz and Kristina Cooke, Reuters, February 2, 2017:

The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

As covered on this blog, the unintended consequences from the British government’s own counter-extremism programme – the much-maligned Prevent strategy – have proven to be deeply troublesome, and the strategy is frequently criticised by students’ groups and free speech organisations as a threat to academic and religious freedoms.

Of particular concern is the government’s loose definition of “extremism,” which essentially provides legal remit for authorities and British institutions such as schools and universities to shut down political dissent (one Yorkshire council even used Prevent to target anti-fracking environmental protesters).

Yorkshire anti-fracking protesters (source)

According to Prevent duty guidance, the government defines “extremism” as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British Values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Metropolitan Police commander Mak Chishty expanded on the government’s definition to include subtle changes in behaviour, such as the shunning of certain shops, claiming there was a need for authorities to “move into the private space” of Muslims.

Asked to define “private space,” Chishty said: It’s anything from walking down the road, looking at a mobile, to someone in a bedroom surfing the net, to someone in a shisha cafe talking about things.”

Conservative MP Lucy Allen put it best: “Prevent…sounds positively Orwellian.

Metropolitan Police commander Mak Chishty (source)

The clincher is that much of the data used to support Downing Street’s premise that British institutions are “hotbeds of “extremist activity, was taken – without attribution – from a misleading report by “right-wing think tank the Henry Jackson Society.

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July 2015 report by Student Rights director Rupert Sutton (source)

Via my December 2015 public records request, Downing Street was still in the process of collecting case studies about extremism just five days before the updated strategy came into force, and appears to have ignored a request from an internal fact-checker to amend figures about the number of events featuring “hate speakers” held on university campuses in 2014.

The strategy is currently facing a legal challenge from British Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt, who claims the government breached his free speech rights when it branded him an “extremist” in a 2015 press release.

Educating Against Extremism

Why did the head teacher of a UK primary school threaten to report a Muslim parent to counter-terrorism authorities? I’ve asked the school for comment [Updated: Bevington Primary School has denied my request for comment – more after the jump]

Via the pro-civil liberties Coolness of Hind blog last month, the parent (name redacted) received a threatening letter from the head teacher of a London primary school after he requested that his child be removed from Christmas assembly.

The December 12, 2016 letter, via the Coolness of Hind blog (source)

As seen above, the letter claims the parent had “expressed views that do not match the vision and values of the school,and that unless he changed his “tone when speaking to members of staff, it would “have no other alternative but to refer the matter to the authorities.

From the logo on the letterhead, it appears that the letter is likely from Bevington Primary School, a multi-cultural school located in Ladbroke Grove, London.

I have e-mailed the school to confirm whether or not it sent the letter; if so, whether it has reported the parent to authorities; and to ask about the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, under which parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education lessons as well as acts of collective worship at all schools.

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Screenshot from website of Bevington Primary School (source)

Under the UK government’s controversial Prevent strategy, schools are legally required to “protect children from the risk of radicalisation” and from “the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism.”

The strategy has been strongly criticised by academics, students’ groups and free speech organisations as a threat to academic and religious freedoms.

According to recent figures, over 3,700 children (under the age of 18) were referred to authorities through Prevent in 2015-16.

Update, 12/01/17: Bevington Primary School today responded to my query, saying it is “unable to comment on individual cases” and that the matter “is confidential.”

See also: “The Tyranny of Values,” my October 23 item re: Downing Street’s unattributed use of data from “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers.