If, like me, you were watching BBC Question Time on Thursday evening then you will have undoubtedly noticed that the venerable Dimbers dropped something of a bombshell during the opening debate on the Charlie Hebdo murders by referring to BBC editorial guidance which explicitly prohibited the use of images depicting Mohammed in very clear and unequivocal terms:
Due care and consideration must be made regarding the use of religious symbols in images which may cause offence. The Prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.
As John Plunkett of The Guardian’s Media section noted on Friday evening, by the time that Question Time went to air on Thursday evening, BBC News had already broken this apparent injunction during its flagship 10pm news bulletin by using archive footage of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier during the programme:
The news bulletin featured library footage of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was shot and killed in Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine’s Paris offices, holding up a special edition of the magazine four years ago featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its front page threatening readers with “a hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing”.
But as the Question Time programme that aired directly after this news bulletin was recorded several hours earlier, Dimbers had no way of knowing at the time that this footage would be used on that evening’s main news broadcast and was clearly drawing his audience’s attention to the existence of editorial guidance that he still believed to be in full effect; guidance with which he presumably disagreed with given the events that had taken place in Paris earlier that day.
So, we can perhaps view Dimbers’ remarks during the programme as a small but telling act of professional sedition on the part of the programme and it’s editorial staff, one that appears to have had the desired effect because, by Friday afternoon, the guidance page (on the use of still images) containing the injunction against the use of depictions of Mohammed “in any shape or form” had been removed from BBC’s Editorial Guidance website and the corporation had issued the following statement:
“This guidance is old, out of date and does not reflect the BBC’s long-standing position that programme makers have freedom to exercise their editorial judgement with the editorial policy team available to provide advice around sensitive issues on a case-by-case basis.
“The guidance is currently being revised.”
And that, as they say, is that… or is it?
Others may be content to accept that statement at face value but for me it raises several questions.
When, for example, was this guidance introduced? According to The Guardian, the guidance that Dimbers quoted during the programme “are believed to date from 2010”.
Can we not at least do a little better than that, particular as BBC admits, in its own statement, that it “does not reflect the BBC’s long-standing position that programme makers have freedom to exercise their editorial judgement”?
And, of course, if that injunction was indeed old and out-of-date, why were Dimbers and the production team at Question Time not made aware of this? Why was it not removed from the BBC’s Editorial Guidance website at the point at which it was decided that it was, in fact, old and out-of-date and when was this decision taken, if it was actually taken before Dimbers blew the lid on the issue and brought it to the viewing public’s attention?
So, I started doing a bit of poking around in various places to see if I could trace the history of this particular piece of hitherto publicly unknown and unregarded piece of guidance, if only to see what – if anything – might shake loose in the process.
So where to begin?
Well, the earliest set of guidelines I could track down are a set of “Producer’s Guidelines” dating back to 2000 in which there’s a section that dealt with of “Religious Sensibilities” under the broad heading of “Taste and Decency”. In addition to a paragraph covering the UK’s blasphemy law, which need not concern us as they applied only to Christianity and were repealed in England and Wales in 2008, the guidelines offered BBC producers the following guidance:
Programme makers dealing with religious themes should be aware of what may cause offence. Programme makers and schedulers of international services should consider carefully the varying sensitivities of audiences in different parts of the world. What may be unexceptional in a U.K. programme may raise strong feelings elsewhere. Advice can often be given by the departments dealing with religious programmes in both domestic and international services, or by the relevant World Service language sections.
Deep offence will also be caused by profane references or disrespect, whether verbal or visual, directed at deities, scriptures, holy days and rituals which are at the heart of various religions – for example, the Crucifixion, the Gospels, the Koran and the Jewish Sabbath. It is against the Muslim religion to represent the Prophet Mohammed in any shape or form. Language must be used sensitively and accurately and be consistent in our description of different religions. Use of a term such as “Islamic Fundamentalist” has to pass the test of whether we would talk about Christian or Hindu Fundamentalism.
Particular care should be taken with programmes to be broadcast on the principal holy days of the main religions to ensure that unnecessary offence is not caused by material that might be more acceptable at other times.
So, going all the way back to 2000, BBC producers were advised not only that “profane references” and disrespect towards deities, etc. could cause “deep offence” but also that it is “against the Muslim religion to represent the Prophet Mohammed in any shape or form”.
That said, it doesn’t actually state clearly and equivocally that this means that representations of Mohammed cannot be used at all and in view of the references in the preceding paragraph to the “varying sensitivities of audiences in different parts of the world” and the warning that content that “may be unexceptional in a U.K. programme may raise strong feelings elsewhere” this guidance – including the reference to Mohammed – could reasonable be read, as a whole, more as a reminder to producers to exercise caution when producing content that for international markets in which such sensitivities are particularly prevalent than as any kind of specific injunction against the use of particular type of programme content.
It’s not entirely clear, from this text, how these guidelines were intended to be interpreted nor, except in the case of the term “Islamic Fundamentalism”, is there anything here that even alludes to an overarching view on editorial justification, although such references are to be found in other sections of the same document, for example:
Violence against women should not be portrayed as an erotic experience. Where in rare cases, a link between violence and sexual gratification is explored as a serious theme in drama, any depiction must be justified by its context and not simply designed to arouse. [My emphasis]
The next set of guidelines date to June 2005, by which time they were referred to specifically as “Editorial Guidelines”. Much of the text of the 2005 document reflects changes in the wider regulatory environment in which the BBC operated as a result of the creation of Ofcom by the Communications Act 2003 and religion was one of several aspects of the BBC’s output that came under Ofcom regulation in July 2005 leading to a number of additions to its editorial guidelines that directly reflect the contents of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, e.g.
4.7 Religious programmes that contain claims that a living person (or group) has special powers or abilities must treat such claims with due objectivity and must not broadcast such claims when significant numbers of children may be expected to be watching (in the case of television), or when children are particularly likely to be listening (in the case of radio).
Ofcom Broadcasting Code (2005)
We should treat any claims made in our religious programmes for the special powers or abilities of a living person or group, with due objectivity. Such claims should not be made when significant numbers of children may be expected to be watching television or when children are particularly likely to be listening to the radio, or in online content likely to appeal to a high proportion of children.
BBC Editorial Guidelines (2005)
As for the text that appeared in the BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines 2000, much of this was carried forward into their 2005 Editorial guidelines, albeit in somewhat difference format as a set of broad editorial principles and with some interesting terminological alterations. By 2005 there is no longer any explicit mention of “offence” let alone “deep offence” but what had previously been referred to as religious “sensibilities” had now become religious “sensitivity”:
We will ensure that the beliefs and practices of the great world faiths are described accurately and impartially.
We will ensure the religious views and beliefs of an individual, a religion or religious denomination are not misrepresented, abused or discriminated against, as judged against generally accepted standards.
We will reflect an awareness of the religious sensitivity of references to, or uses of, names, images, the historic deities, rituals, scriptures and language at the heart of the different faiths and ensure that any use of, or verbal or visual reference to them are treated with care and editorially justified. Examples include the Crucifixion, Holy Communion, the Koran, and the Jewish Sabbath.
We will respect the religious sensitivity surrounding the observance of holy days and the principal festivals of the various faiths so that unnecessary offence is avoided by material that might be more acceptable at other times.
The notable difference here, compared to the 2000 guidelines, is that there is no longer any explicit reference to Muslim views on representations of Mohammed – and I can find nothing to indicate why it was dropped from the text – but there is at least an explicit reference to editorial justification.
That bring us on to the current editorial guidelines, which were introduced in 2010 – the BBC reviews its guidelines roughly every five year – and these were the first set of editorial guidelines to produced in conjunction with the BBC Trust (which was formed in 2007) following a semi-open consultation.
Again we have a number of additions to the guidelines on religious content which reflect changes in the legislative and regulatory environment under which the BBC operates:
There is no longer an offence of blasphemy or blasphemous libel in any part of the UK, but religious beliefs are central to many people’s lives and arouse strong views and emotions. We should take care to avoid unjustified offence. We aim to achieve this by ensuring our output is not used to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, while upholding the right to freedom of expression. Under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, “The religious views and beliefs of those belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination must not be subject to abusive treatment”1. In law, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which applies to England and Wales, forbids a person from using threatening words or behaviour or displaying written material that is threatening” if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred”.
And a potentially very significant addition to the BBC’s editorial policy on potentially contentious material relating to religion:
12.3 MANDATORY REFERRALS
(Mandatory Referrals are part of the BBC’s editorial management system. While they will not, in themselves, meet the Principles in the Editorial Guidelines, they are an essential part of the process to ensure compliance and must be observed.)
12.3.1 Any content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs must be editorially justified as judged against generally accepted standards and must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, to the commissioning editor.
12.4.5 Any content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs must be editorially justified as judged against generally accepted standards and must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, to the commissioning editor.
But otherwise the guidance relating to religious “sensitivities” is much as it was in the 2005 guidelines and, again, there is no explicit reference to representations of Mohammed.
12.2.2 The religious views and beliefs of an individual, a religion or denomination must not be misrepresented or abused, as judged against generally accepted standards.
12.2.3 We must be aware of the religious sensitivity of references to, or uses of, names, images, deities, rituals, scriptures and language at the heart of the different faiths and ensure that any uses of, or verbal or visual references to, them are editorially justified within generally accepted standards. Examples include the Crucifixion, Holy Communion, the Qur’an, the Jewish Sabbath and similar.
12.2.4 We must consider the religious sensitivity surrounding the observance of holy days and the principal festivals of the great world faiths to avoid unnecessary offence from material that might be more acceptable at other times.
Okay, so after all that, where does the explicit ban on the representation of Mohammed “in any shape or form” enter the picture?
The answer to that lies in a set of “Guidance notes” dealing specifically with the use of stills photographs and images dated 1 October 2007 (with a creation date on the original PDF of 24 September 2007):
Political, Religious and topical sensitivities (Chapters 10 & 12)
Images should be mindful of the sensibilities of political, regional, ethnic, disabled and other minority groups. They must also protect the legal status of contributors and not endorse dangerous or antisocial behaviours. Care must be taken to ensure that:
Images do not reinforce prejudicial perspectives or depict groups in stereotypical ways. When possible we should ensure a diverse range of ethnic groups is depicted in any image.
Due care and consideration must be made regarding the use of religious symbols in images which may cause offence. The Prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.
There also should be an awareness of religious sensitivities about smoking, drinking and certain foods.
Choice of images must reflect awareness of political sensitivities in the Nations and Regions. In particular the choice of colours and symbols such as:
– Prominence of the colours Green and Orange (Northern Ireland/Scotland (West)).
– Combination of the following colours: Red/White/Blue, Green/White/Yellow and Green/White/Orange (Northern Ireland).
– Visibility of shamrocks, flags or political banners (Northern Ireland).
– Depiction of the four Nations in a map form must be geographically accurate.
So now at least we know exactly when a clear and unequivocal blanket prohibition on representations of Mohammed was imposed by the BBC but not why – although given the timing it’s a reasonable assumption that the events surrounding the publication of a number of cartoon depicting Mohammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postern from late 2005 into the first half of 2006 are likely to influenced the BBC’s thinking. It’s also interesting, if possibly no more than a coincidence, that these guidelines were issued on the exact same day that most* of the Religious and Racial Act 2006 came into force and although it’s highly unlikely that the BBC would ever find itself on the wrong end of prosecution under this Act you do have to wonder, given this express injunction against using representations of Mohammed, whether the BBC’s thinking might have been influence by a desire to avoid placing itself in the position of having to resort to this Act as a complainant given the trenchant opposition to the Act amongst comedians and satirists such as Rowan Atkinson. It certainly would have looked incongruous had the BBC found itself in the position of setting in train a prosecution under an act the introduction of which had been vehemently opposed by many of their own high profile performers and writers.
* There are still four sub-clauses of this Act that haven’t come into effect, notably one – 29B(3) – which confers powers of arrest for alleged offences committed under to ordinary police officers acting under their own recognisance. The other three all relate the use of the Act in Scotland and their commencement (or otherwise) is presumably a matter for Scottish Parliament to decide.
So that’s one key question answered but, of course, according to its own statement on Friday, when the web page that included was policy was removed from the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines website, this policy was not only “old and out-of-date” but also already in the process of being revised so when (and why) did this prohibition on representations of Mohammed “in any shape or form” become “out-of-date” and subject to revision and if that was indeed before Dimbers blew the lid on its existence then why was he not made aware of the fact that it was out-of-date and under review at the time that decision was taken?
There does appear to be a clear answer to that question and it can be found on the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines website in the “Meetings” section which notes that, on 25 February 2014, the BBC held one of its open monthly meetings for editorial staff in which one of the topics under discussion was:
And should the BBC be showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad? Maajid Nawaz said that he had tweeted the cartoon because the BBC did not show it on The Big Questions. The subsequent reaction to this tweet was covered by Newsnight but they too did not show the cartoon. Was the BBC right to not show the cartoon or were we putting religious sensitivity over the need to explain the story to our audiences?
What is especially interesting about the notice for that meeting are the description given of the four film clips that those attended the meeting were to view in order get the gist of the issues. Two of them (clips A & B) show:
– the segment of “The Big Question” in which producers chose not to show a close-up shot of a couple of Jesus & Mo t-shirts worn by two LSE students, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, who had been invited on to the programme to debate an incident that took place at the university’s 2013 Freshers’ Fair in which they were order to cover-up the t-shirts by representative of the LSE Student Union so as not to offend Muslim students [starts at 51:22]
– and the Newsnight report into the aftermath of this programme and the manufactured shitstorm that engulfed Maajid Nawaz after he tweeted an image from a Jesus & Mo cartoon while expressing his personal view that the cartoons were not in the least bit offensive, in which Newsnight showed both Maajid’s tweet (but not the image it contained) and a frame from a different J&M cartoon in which Mo is speaking from outside the frame, so there’s a speech bubble with his remarks in view but no actual image of Mo.
Against that there were two much older clips from Newsnight reports (C&D) dealing with the “Jyllands-Postern/Motoons” controversy, one which aired originally in February 2006 – in which the cartoons are both described and shown on screen and the other on 12 October 2007 – 12 days after the guidance which explicitly prohibits representations of Mohammed was issued – which the notice describes as follows:
The second section is part of a “Why Democracy?” season on Newsnight from 2007. In this report, Danish journalist and director Karstein Kjaer travels to Denmark and interviews the cartoonist – no anonymity is given and we see the cartoonist drawing one of the most controversial images.
Although I can’t find either of these two clips from the description of the second clip it appears likely to have included part of this trailer for the documentary “Bloody Cartoons” which the BBC aired as part of this season:
There are also a number of questions in the notice that those attending the meeting were invited to consider including (in relation to The Big Questions/Maajid Nawaz report, which also included an anonymous interview with the cartoonist who produces Jesus & Mo):
What are the considerations when deciding whether to show content likely to cause offence to those with religious views or beliefs?
Could the cartoon have been shown in detail? If so, why?
What are the considerations in deciding whether or not to accede to the cartoonist’s request for anonymity?
Was anonymity justified or not?
I guess we got a definitive answer to that last question on Thursday.
What isn’t at all clear from this notice is whether or not there was any discussion relating to the explicit prohibition on representations of Mohammed that was introduced in October 2007 or even whether it was still understood to be in effect at the time but it is nevertheless telling that in order to provide a point of comparison to the manner in which The Big Questions and Newsnight handled a story relating to a visual representation of Mohammed (or at least his “stunt double”) in January 2014, the BBC had to go all the way back to 2006 and 2007 – and although one of those two clips did go to air after the guidance prohibiting the use of visual representations of Mohammed had been issued, it did so as part of month-long season of multimedia events and factual programming under the banner “Why Democracy?” that had been heavily promoted by the BBC for a number of weeks prior to this guidance making its first appearance.
The Why Democracy? season is a huge multimedia event – exploring the state of democracy in the world today – with the BBC at its heart.
Beginning in October, the season will run globally on TV, radio and online, on over 40 broadcasters, in over 200 countries and territories – a potential audience of 300 million people.
In the UK, BBC Two, BBC Four, BBC World, BBC Parliament, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service will all run programming dedicated to the idea of democracy.
Central to the season are ten documentaries, made by filmmakers from around the world, taking a wide-ranging and in-depth look at the nature of democracy. Subjects include US torture in Afghanistan, the election of a class monitor in a Chinese primary school, Che Guevara and the Danish cartoons controversy.
Life and livelihood were at stake when a small Danish newspaper chose to print a selection of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Karsten Kjaer looks at the events that followed and travels the world to question the protesters and explore their motivations. Could the Muhammad cartoons have affected the future of free speech?
[BBC Press Release – 10 September 2007]
It seems to me that when you put all this information together it strongly supports the view that the blanket injunction against the use of any visual representations of Mohammed that was put in place in October 2007 as a matter of BBC editorial policy was still very much in effect at the time that Chris and Abhishek appeared on The Big Questions and when the Newsnight report on the aftermath of that incident and the interview with the author of Jesus & Mo aired and that it was only in the wake of these incidents and the public criticism that followed that this policy was came under “review”.
As for when that policy became “old” and “out-of-date”…
On 24 March 2014, almost one month on from the meeting at which the fallout from the Newsnight report was put up for discussion, Newsnight hosted a studio panel discussion on “Who represents British Muslims?” between Maajid Nawaz, Mehdi Hasan and Mo Ansar (who has since been shown to be far from being all he claims to be) which itself proved somewhat controversial when it emerged, a couple of hours before the programme went to air, that the Muslim journalist and academic, Myriam Francois-Cerrah, had been dropped from panel in order to accommodate Ansar and give (according to Ian Katz) a “wider range of views on the panel”.
That aside, what is also notable about this segment is that at beginning of the introductory film that leads into the panel discussion Newsnight did actually show an image of Maajid Nawaz’s supposedly offensive tweet with the image of Jesus & Mo in place.
So that could perhaps be taken as being the point at which the “no images of Mohammed” policy became “out-of-date” in the wake of whatever was discussed at the meeting at the end of February or it could equally indicate only the BBC chose to waive that particular policy on that one specific occasion with a view to programme avoiding the kind of public criticism it received a couple of months, which effectively made the programme part of the story. On that point we can’t be sure because whatever the actual position was back in March 2014, the one thing the BBC didn’t do at the time was amend its guidance to remove the section which referred to an outright prohibition on representations of Mohammed. It did that only after its existence was ‘outed’ on Thursday’s Question Time.
Now, is all that really okay?
Well no – it seems to be that – to borrow a line from Marsellus Wallace – its “pretty fucking far from okay”.
If we go back to the original incident that kicked things off in January 2014 – Chris and Abhishek’s appearance on The Big Questions – and take close look at this passage from an email they were sent by a researcher working for Mentorn, the production company that produces The Big Questions for the BBC, prior to their appearance on the show (as cited here by Ophelia Benson) then it seems entirely that something pretty screwy was going on in the run up to that programme:
If you wanted to wear your t-shirts on the show that is fine – however, we would ask that you wear a shirt over the top that could be unbuttoned. The reason why we’re asking this is merely because patterns or details (like cartoons) are distracting for the viewer at home and can appear fuzzy on camera (hence why we also ask that you don’t wear checked or striped clothing). Basically, if Nicky would like to see the t-shirts, he can ask you to unbutton your shirt to show it and we can do a close up and therefore promote discussion (does that make sense?).
Except – as we now know – at the time the programme went to air a close up shot of Chris and Abhishek’s t-shirts have been a clear breach of the BBC’s longstanding editorial policy of prohibiting the display of visual representations of Mohammed “in any shape of form” and that the researcher’s suggestion that “we can do a close up” would also have been more than sufficient to trigger the BBC’s mandatory referral policy on “content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs” forcing the programme to run its plans “upstairs” to a senior editorial figure or commissioning editor for approval before Chris and Abhishek appeared on the programme.
So why, that being the case, were the two of them not taken aside by the show producers prior to the programme and at least told something to the effect of “Sorry guys, can’t do the t-shirt thing… BBC policy…”?
It is, I suppose, possible that the researcher who sent that email was operating “off the ranch” and hadn’t told the show’s producers or it’s host, Nicky Campbell, what they’d been up tob ut then you have to ask why the show’s didn’t check exactly what had been arranged before they sat Chris and Abhishek in the front row and why they didn’t “call an audible” and tell Campbell to decline their offer to unzip their tops when it became apparent that that was where things were going.
Then there’s also the question of Ian Katz’s defence – on Twitter – of Newsnight’s decision not to show Maajid’s tweet in full, or any other image of a Jesus & Mo cartoon in which Mo actually appears.
As the programme’s editor you would assume that Ian would have been well aware of the existence of the 2007 guidance note prohibiting representations of Mohammed so why did he not just point to that policy and say “Sorry, no can do…” especially as, with hindsight, his arguments at the time appear even more hollow in light of the fact that only a couple of months later the programme did an editorial reverse ferret and decided that there was a “journalistic reason” to use the full image of Maajid’s tweet before he appeared on the panel discussion on “Who represents Muslims?” with Mo Ansar.
That’s thing in all this that, for me, leaves a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s not the fact that the BBC had a policy of not showing any kind of representations of Mohammed but that, even when they were pushed hard on the issue in the wake of the incidents that took place back in January 2014, no one would even openly admit to that policy’s existence…
…at least not until a bunch of cartoonists were actually murdered.