Friday, September 22, 2006

BBC was right to interview militant Islamist

Each time I enter a Church, the first thing I do is kneel and say a prayer of thanks for my freedom to be there.

Whether or not you hold a religious belief, I hope you agree that to be able to attend places of worship when we want to in this country (whether to worship or simply admire the art and architecture) is a state of affairs we should never take for granted. Sadly, there are those who would strip us of this freedom.

John Humphries’ interview with Islamic militant Abu Izzadeen on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning made grim listening. You will recall he was the militant Muslim who heckled John Reid earlier this week. Putting aside the one moment I laughed aloud – when John Humphries was for a change the one forced to say ‘please let me get a word in edgeways’ - I was quaking with fear. Every one of Abu Izzadeen’s words was filled with hate.

He made it quite clear he would like to see Sharia law imposed in the UK. Given his extreme views, what could that mean for someone like me?

Under Abu Izzadeen’s law, I suspect I would be forced to do more than just clothe myself head to foot in sweltering black cloth, or risk being beaten if I refused. As a woman, there is a possibility I would be expected to give up my job, my livelihood and therefore the only means I have of supporting myself and my daughter. I might be confined to my home, having no male relatives to accompany me outside it. The (male) religious police, however, may have few qualms about entering my home to destroy my precious religious library, my Bibles and prayer books, my treasured Christian icons and my inspiring Buddha statue. I may well not be allowed to drive my car (in Saudi Arabia there is a belief that a woman's female hormones make her unstable and therefore a danger on the road). Might I be forced to attend a mosque? Forced to watch brutal executions in my town square or on my local football pitch? Perhaps the news on our state-sponsored TV screens would be of the deliberate and ‘glorious’ destruction of Stonehenge.

This is what Sharia law, very rigidly interpreted, could mean. It is what happened in Afghanistan under the Taleban.

Many people emailed the Today programme to say they were appalled the BBC had given time to this man. While I found the interview distressing listening, I believe they were absolutely right to broadcast his rage and hatred. We need to hear these voices. We need to know what is going on out there and know there are people like him who would trash our freedoms. Two particular groups of people in particular need to start thinking hard:

1. Women, increasingly young women, who fail to recognise how hard women have fought for the equality we enjoy in this country and believe feminism is no longer necessary. It is.

2, Muslims who do not agree with Azadeen. I do feel they should state their disagreement more clearly, rather than just dismissing comments like Abu Izzadeen's as 'unrepresentative.’

I so badly want to live in peace and harmony with my Muslim neighbours. I so badly want everyone to accept Islam and all faiths as offering immense wisdom, truth and joy, to recognise their great potential for good. But no one should stay silent about the abuses that take place in the name of religion.

There will be those who feel we should just take no notice of these extremists, that they are in the minority and they will eventually go away and that we give them more publicity by challenging them. I don't agree. It seems sometimes to me as if apathy has gripped our nation and we can’t afford to let it. As we all know, when good people do nothing, evil triumphs. It did in Afghanistan, in Zimbabwe, in the Sudan – in many places – and, if we let it, it will rear its ugly head again.

Listen to the Today programme interview here:

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bishop of Bolton -v- Halloween

Holy Halloween! The Bishop of Bolton has written to the five major supermarkets suggesting they re-think the way they market the old Celtic festival known originally as ‘Samhein.’

He is concerned that by selling scary masks and costumes, supermarkets are focusing on the ‘dark, negative’ side of the celebrations and urges them to consider selling bright balloons and hair braids and other more colourful costumes alongside the more traditional Halloween stuff. Doing otherwise contributes to ‘trivialising the realities of evil in the world’ and encourages anti-social behaviour, he claims.

I thinnk the Bishop should lighten up. Is he really doing himself or the Church any favours by getting so worked up about all this?

Halloween is about death, like it or not, and that’s the way it should stay. We are far too willing in this country to sweep the harsh reality of our mortality under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t happen until it hits us or someone we love smack in the face. Halloween is one festival when it comes out into the open, giving children a way to face the reality of death – and the presence of evil in the world – in a non threatening, symbolic way.

In any case, if the Bishop really wanted to remove all things dark, negative and frightening from our festival year and from our worship, he might start by launching a campaign to ban Good Friday. And get every crucifix removed from every church in the land while he's at it. As a child, I found these infinitely more chilling than Halloween.

But no need, for I suspect what this argument is really all about is the growing popularity of what is essentially, still, a Pagan festival. The Medieval witch burnings may be over but, it seems, the Church is still slogging it out with its old arch enemy in any way it can.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

The religious leaders' guide to bad PR

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to quote a 14th Century Christian emperor labelling Islam as "evil and inhuman" must rank highly on the list of international PR disasters. In describing these 600 year old words as "brusque" without further qualification, the Pope set the world on tenterhooks and put his own and others’ lives at stake.

In the wake of the row over the Muhammad cartoons, an angry response could and should have been predicted. Speeches made by world leaders such as the Pope are checked for possible errors, contradictions and potentially inflammatory statements. Benedict’s advisors must have seen this speech in advance; one of them may have written it in consultation with him. It should have been run past his PR people. So what went wrong? Did they fall asleep instead of keeping watch in his hour of need?

They appeared equally slow to wake up and diffuse the situation; instead, a statement put out by chief Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombari, without an apology, exacerbated it. The Pope didn’t mean to cause offence he said, adding:

“It is clear that the Holy Father's intention is to cultivate a position of respect and dialogue towards other religions and cultures, and that clearly includes Islam."

In which case, Mr Lombari, the Holy Father committed the first sin of PR and went way ‘off message.’ If he seriously thinks quoting the words of a 14th century Christian emperor to critique 21st century Islam is a ‘clear’ sign of ‘respect,’ then Christian-Muslim relations are in deep trouble.

It was a first-class example of how not to do PR crisis management. Yes, the Holy See did eventually apologise but the move came four days too late, during which time a nun was shot in Somalia and two churches were burnt down in Palestine. And what was going on behind the scenes? As soon as it was clear a storm was brewing, senior staff could have made diplomatic contact with respected Muslims, assuring them the Pope had made an innocent mistake and expressing hopes the matter would not be allowed to escalate into an international crisis. Yet Muslim organisations worldwide expressed anger and began making demands, suggesting this did not happen. It remains to be seen whether the Vatican PR machine will be supplying a steady stream of stories highlighting more positive Papal views of Islam over the next few months.

Back to how the Vatican got itself into this mess in the first place. Part of the problem is that Benedict’s PR advisors are too like him. As practising Roman Catholics they are at a disadvantage, as are all faith groups who consult only within their own faith communities on external affairs. Internal PR officers who share the faith of their employers are inevitably going to be less confident in challenging their leaders and be less able to assess objectively how the outside world may respond to their views.

Benedict had every right to raise the issue of Islamic Jihad and violence committed in the name of Islam in his speech focussing on reconciling faith and reason. To go further and attempt to critique Islam was more risky, but legitimate if delivered sensitively and backed perhaps by Islamic sources. But by quoting a Christian Emperor, effectively using Christian thought to critique another faith, his speech became grossly insulting. An objective PR should have picked this up.

The same criticism applies to the Muslim response. While the US headline ‘Pope Implies Islam a Violent Religion: Muslims Bomb Churches’ just about sums the extremist’s idiot image management, moderates didn’t exactly do themselves any favours.

I am deeply saddened by the fact I have seen no quotes from Muslim organisations expressing regret that Islam is perceived increasing, worldwide, as a violent religion, and questioning what more they can do to promote peaceful manifestations of Islam.

Instead, most Muslims delivered the usual, stereotypical, Pantomime ‘oh no it’s not!’ response they nearly always deliver when anyone suggests Islam encourages violence. They seem to rejoice in a now familiar ‘them versus us’ victim mentality; the very mentality that lies at the root of the problem.

In PR, when trying to improve the reputation of an individual or organisation, you start by assessing their current reputation and take that as a given - irrespective of your own or their personal opinion – before drawing up a strategy to enhance it. Simply denying the problem exists never works.

Yet Muslim groups seem determined to continue to adopt this useless strategy. Two weeks ago, PR Week magazine revealed 78% of Britons felt the best-known UK Muslim organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain, was not doing enough to prevent members of its community becoming radicalised. How did the MCB take the news?

“This is interesting. We have long suspected this might be the case and are grateful to PR Week for giving us the opportunity to assure British people we take the radicalisation of young Muslims very seriously. We are working extremely hard with the police and other authorities to do a better job in future.”

Er, no. The response of the MCB spokesman was to highlight the “very disturbing and frankly bigoted agenda” of some of the media and suggest “it is for the police alone to take actual action against extremists.” How much easier it is to point the finger of blame at others than take responsibility for getting your own act together.

In religion, as in any other subject area, nothing changes if nothing changes.

This blog entry was published in the Church of England Newspaper

Thursday, September 07, 2006

TV news presenters should learn to speak properly

Would you trust a doctor who had no medical training? Would you hire an accountant who couldn’t do maths? Or employ a nanny who didn’t like children?

So why is it okay for the BBC to hire a presenter who can’t speak properly?

The death of Jill Dando in 1999 was a huge shock. She and I both worked at the BBC at the same time and shared a hairdresser, so we bumped into each other occasionally. I was equally shocked, however, when Barry George was found guilty of her murder. It seemed to me that the evidence against him was in no way strong enough to secure a conviction, so I was eager to see last night’s Panorama questioning his guilt.

It was in many respects an excellent programme. The narration was strong (if a little repetitive at times) and presenter Raphael Rowe’s questions appeared probing and perceptive. Yet Rowe’s delivery made me feel almost physically sick. It was so outrageously bad that my initial instinct was to switch off after just thirty seconds. I had to force myself – literally - to watch to the end.

Although clearly an intelligent guy, Rowe came across as a moronic, lazy and ill-educated idiot, all because his powers of speech (or lack of them) let him down.

He couldn’t say his r’s and he dropped his h’s. He said ‘anythink’ instead of ‘anything.’ Unable to put a ‘g’ on the end of his words, viewers had to listen to his endless repetition of key words such as investigatin’, takin’ and meanin’ instead of what they clearly should have been. He had the same problem with t’s, so George’s coat was repeatedly called a ‘co’ and his appearances in Court were described as ‘cour’ appearances.

I was exasperated at his inability to talk of ‘news’ or ‘new’ evidence. We got ‘Noos’ and ‘Noo’ instead. His voice demonstrated almost no variation of tone, rendering his narrative mostly monotonous and dull. When he committed the ultimate sin of referring to a clergyman as ‘Reverend Howe,’ instead of either adding the obligatory first name or substituting ‘Mr’ for ‘Reverend,’ I was ready to slit my wrists. Did no one in the entire, supposedly top-notch production team notice this error?

Please don’t call me snobbish or prejudiced. These problems have nothing to do with any speech disability or regional accent on Mr Rowe’s part. I have absolutely no problem with regional accents and loathe elocution as I feel it can strip the personality. I don’t care if comedians such as Jonathan Ross speak like this. I just happen to feel strongly that presenters of flagship news programmes ought to be able to communicate with us without distracting us by their inability to speak properly. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be given such a job in the first place.

Of course Mr Rowe could, should he chose, learn to speak properly. In fact he doesn’t have any problems that couldn’t be completely sorted in less than an hour with a half-decent voice coach. So, either he’s too big-headed to take advice or no one has raised the issue with him.

Which latter case begs the question, why not? Could it possibly be something to do his violent criminal record? Are those around him just a tiny bit timorous in the face of his rather worrying past?

Whatever; Rowe should sort his speech problems. He would increase his credibility by 1000%.

If he can’t or won’t, then the BBC should give his job to someone else; someone who is capable of doing it properly; who would no doubt value the break and take pride in seeking to improve their performance.