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‘So this is how liberty dies’

27 November 2015

U-turn: the Times report on Tuesday on the removal of the ad to have been shown before the Star Wars première

U-turn: the Times report on Tuesday on the removal of the ad to have been shown before the Star Wars première

EVERY once in a while, the central Church’s communications operation does something right.

I have had very limited internet connections over the past few days; so I haven’t actually seen the advertisement that was to be shown ahead of the Star Wars première. It might be dreadful — this depends on whether they managed to avoid any mention of Jesus — but the counter-attack, when the advertisement was turned down, was a splendid piece of publicity manipulation.

It shows an unwonted nimbleness to get David Cameron, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Fry all lining up to defend the promulgation of something in which they do not believe. They may not be entirely representative: all are elite, educated, middle-aged white males; for a balanced reflection of the Church’s core constituency, there should also have been at least an elite, educated, middle-aged white woman.

But the story dramatised the question of cultural establishment in a very clear way. Is the Church of England now so weird that cinemagoers must be protected from it? Would it disturb their simple childhood faith in the existence of Yoda? Might it confuse them about the story of Luke Skywalker, which has been the foundation of their cultural heritage as far back as they can remember?

Some people were in no doubt. The adman John Hegarty, quoted in Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian piece, said: “People pay money to go to the cinema, very diverse audiences, and they really don’t want religion dictating to them. . . The C of E is perfectly entitled to make its views known, but it should do so from the pulpit. But of course they can’t get many people to go to church so they want to take their message to the cinemas.”

This is interesting as being a slightly different phase of detachment from the Church. The idea that the natural verb that describes the activity of religion is “dictates” harks back to the belief — still popular among some Evangelicals — that the main purpose of Christianity is to tell people what they may do with their naughty bits.

The other point is that the idea of Christianity is to get across a message, which can be placed in different media. I’m not sure that that’s true, either.

The message of the advertisement was surely not the words of the prayer, but the idea that perfectly normal people might do it as part of their perfectly normal lives. This is almost by definition something that can’t be convincingly said from a pulpit, compared to a cinema.

John Bingham, writing in the Telegraph, got an excellent angle from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, picking up on the lecture that Baroness Onora O’Neill gave a couple of weeks ago: “Freedom to hold a religion and freedom to express ideas are essential British values. We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups. . .

“There is no right not to be offended in the UK.”

What the Communications unit did right was to release their earlier correspondence with the company responsible, which showed very clearly that there had been great enthusiasm (and a huge discount) for the deal when it was first mooted. There seems to have been no suggestion that the DCM agency had a policy about these things until the brakes were slammed on very late in the negotiations.


OTHER things did happen this week. There was a very interesting report on the background of French jihadis in Le Figaro, from which emerged a fascinating picture, quite at odds with the British: the typical French jihadist had been an adolescent atheist, radicalised over the internet, from an unobservant middle-class family which was well established in France.

The only really reliable indicator of trouble was that 40 per cent of them had been treated for depression. This seems very different from the English model, and different again from the idea that they are rebelling against injustices in their own lives.

What are we to make of The Sun’s front page, claiming that one in five British Muslims have sympathy for those who fight in Syria? You can pick all sorts of nits: it was a telephone poll of an unbalanced sample, the questions were ambiguous, and The Sun itself is constantly demanding that British fight in Syria — which must involve intervening on the side of one group of Muslims or another.

The subliminal message is clear enough, though: Muslims now constitute the enemy within.

Since that is such a very grave charge, I think this does constitute completely irresponsible journalism, for all the reasons above. By the same token, none of those nits will diminish its impact with the people who want to believe it.

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