3 Christianity, Secularism and Religious Diversity in the British Media (3/5) – Social Media and Religious Change

while the other is self-evident: Britains political establishment has in an unwit-
ting, collaborative effort of stupidity and democratic illiteracy presented itself as
an accomplice to extremisms and enemy of free speech.
However, there were
no significant appeals for freedom of speech in response to the Phelps church,
a virulently homophobic US Christian sect, which threatened to picket a play
about the murder of a gay man in the UK. Another liberal paper, The Independ-
ent, did acknowledge the limitations to free speech. Its editorial on 13/2/09 ar-
gued, There are, it must be accepted, limitations on those freedoms. The Govern-
ment has a responsibility to preserve the safety of minority groups in Britain.
However, it then went on to say that, in this case, the line had not been crossed.
Both these papers demonstrated greater inclusivity than others, with occa-
sional Muslim voices and counter discourse. For example, The Guardian includ-
ed an article from Lord (Nazir) Ahmed (a Muslim peer), Wilders ban is in Brit-
ains best interests, in which he defended his own position of support for the
ban and pointed out something largely ignored elsewhere in the press, tha t Mus-
lims too have been banned (13/2/09). However, this further reinforced a dichot-
omising discourse whereby Muslim illiberalism was presented as at odds with
liberal democracy, the core of British identity, again positioning Muslims as out-
siders. In emphasising the value of freedom of speech and locating this as both
British and secular, Britain was implicitly constructed as a secular country.
2.3 Diversity
In the case of the reporting of the Geert Wilders case, religious diversity is not
represented in a positive light. Whilst there are some acknowledgements of the
possibility of moderate Muslims in the conservative press (two references each
in The Sun and The Daily Mail), Muslims are mainly conceptualised in their ex-
treme form as preachers of hate. Lord Ahmed is named as the instigator who
alerted the Home Office to the film screening (thus implying that Muslims are
troublemakers); but he is also presented as having double standards in inviting
an al Qaeda fundraiser into Westminster (The Sun 13/2/09).
No Muslim voices featured at all in T he Times or The Daily Mail. However,
there is a distinction in The Times between ordinary Muslims and Islamists:
There is a world of difference between Islam the great religion and Islamism
 The Observer is The Guardians Sunday newspaper.
 This construction can be compared to sections of the American press (Newsweek, The New
York Times), where the case was interpreted as an attack on Muslims who should be defended
(Poole, 2012).
3 Christianity, Secularism and Religious Diversity in the British Media 47
the ideology of submission (in a commentary by Michael Gove, 16/2/09). The
Telegraph made a similar distinction in an article by Charles Moore (13/2/09).
However, the rest of this piece was then used to attack the negative features of
The unpleasant power of Fitna is that the atrocities it depicts and the preaching it shows
are real and recent, and they were all carried out or uttered by Muslims acting, explicitly,
in the name of their faith. You could not, in our age, compile any comparable clips of Jews
or Christians. As a matter of plain fact, Islamic terrorism exists. Another plain fact about
current Muslim culture is the use of the angry demonstration, the constant agitation to
ban a book or insist on the veil, the bristling search for offence. So it would be silly to pre-
tend that there is no problem about Muslim attitudes to a plural, free, democratic society.
(The Telegraph, 13/2/09)
The two liberal broadsheets provided more space for Muslim voices, with five
each, in The Guardian as writers and in The Independent as three writers and
two sources. Yet, in its extensive coverage of this story, The Guardian made sur-
prisingly little reference to Muslims. Is its way of dealing with promoting freedom
of speech without offending Muslims to cancel them out of the discussion?
Whilst these liberal newspapers are clearly not anti-Islamic, Muslims were prob-
lematised in their secular human rights stance (in which religious freedom was
opposed at the expense of other freedoms). This exclusive liberalism was more
evident in The Independent and was demonstrated in a strongly anti-religious,
pro-secularist, pro-freedom-of-speech piece written by regular commentator, Jo-
hann Hari. The purpose of the article was to defend an item he had written in
The New Statesman in India on a similar topic, which provoked four thousand
Islamic fundamentalists to riot outside their office (13/2/09). This article clearly
set up an opposition between the secular and rational who protect human rights
and the religious and fanatical who abuse them: If we leave the basic human
values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent
religious mobs many many more people will be hurt (The Independent,13/2/
09). Whilst it cannot be said that this piece necessarily represented the stance of
The Independent, it is an example of the kind of voice it provides space for.
In the reporting of this case, British values were clearly defined, and Mus-
lims were repeatedly constructed in opposition to these. The press polarised
the debate, choosing to ignore evidence that minorities may seek to be part of
it. The lack of integration of Muslim minorities was represented as the result
of incommensurable cultural and religious differences. For the press, the Wilders
case highlighted the problem of Muslims in British society as one of a clash of
cultures (The Daily Mail 12/2/09). What was represented then was an anti-multi-
culturalist stance, aligned with an anti-immigration discourse. There were some
Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira
explicit references to this. In The Mail on Sunday, John Laughland (15/2/09) de-
clared himself to be incredulous regarding multiculturalism, which he interpret-
ed as demanding [] Britain renounce all traditions in favour of those of new-
comers. He went on: Multiculturalists may say you cannot impose your views
on others but they are frighteningly good at imposing theirs on all of us.
This story shows that immigration and religious diversity are still construct-
ed as a problem for the UK. What is interesting is the convergence of views
amongst liberals and conservatives. The secular liberal hegemony cannot accom-
modate the public and assertive nature of popular religious (Muslim) political
agency within its conception of equality (which was previously based on
race). The mirroring of the political activism of equal rights groups by Muslims
has reopened questions about the place of religion in the public sphere, ques-
tions that were previously thought settled. In the reactions of these socio-polit-
ical elites, various political hegemonies are reinforced in terms of either an exclu-
sive nationalism or, amongst the secular elite, an exclusionary multiculturalism.
Neither position is helpful to the workings of a multicultural democracy, given
that they exclude Muslims from a conceptualisation of British citizenship. The
reaction by the New Labour government was to replace multiculturalism with
an assimilationist cohesion agenda witnessed in the citizenship policies in-
troduced in the years following the inner-city disturbances of 2001. The political
causes of the current situation at home and abroad were obscured as religio-cul-
tural differences were brought to the fore and blamed in the clas h of civilisa-
tions discourse.
3 The Papal visit, 2010
If Christianity, secularism/atheism and religious diversity are the three key
themes in the media coverage of religion generally, the media coverage of the
Papal visit was no exception.
In September 2010 Pope Benedict XVI flew to Britain for a four- day state visit
at the invitation of the government. This was the first Papal visit since 1982, when
the previous Pope, John Paul II, had undertaken a six-day pastoral tour (the sub-
ject of an earlier study; see Knott 1984). During the 2010 visit, the full r ange of
daily newspapers were collected systematically for six days starting one day
before the Popes arrival and finishing one day after his departure. The primary
material consisted of nearly 600 articles and more than 600 images. In addition,
television programmes almost 13 hours of live coverage by the BBC, four doc-
umentaries, and news and talk shows were examined before and during the
visit. Websites, particularly the official one for the Papal visit and the sites of in-
3 Christianity, Secularism and Religious Diversity in the British Media
terest groups such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist As-
sociation, were also monitored.
The papal visit turned into a celebratory media narrative as pre-visit uncer-
tainties and controversy melted away during the tour and finally transformed
into sympathy, relief and joy: from a tale of doubt to one of success. One of
the reasons for pre-visit reservations in 2010 was financial; many thought
that, at a time of huge cuts, public funding could have been spent more wisely.
Another reason for doubt was the Catholic child abuse controversy, which over-
shadowed the pre-visit coverage. It is telling that, of the six million British Cath-
olics, more than half were in favour of the visit, whereas only 14 % of the nation
at large supported the visit (The Daily Mirror 15/9/10).
One additional doubt was the personality of the Pope himself. If Benedict
has been labelled as a Pope of content rather than image, it is partly because
his predecessor John Paul II was thought to be a charismatic celebrity. However,
all of the newspapers as well as the BBC deemed the 2010 visit to have been a
success; Gods Rottweiler was overturned by the image of a warmer, more
human and less rigid Pope (The Independent 20/9/10). The whole trip was a re-
sounding success (The Daily Telegraph 20/9/10), beyond all expectations (The
Times 20/9/10). Some weeks after the visit The Daily Telegraph columnist, Chris-
topher Howse, wondered what had changed and suggested it was the reputation
of the Pope from a conservative and rigid man to one who was a little shy and
thoughtful (23/10/10).
Even though the overall media coverage of the Papal visit was positive, there
were some visible differences between newspapers. Some of these will be ad-
dressed in the following sections on the three key themes, but the general pat-
tern was that the popular conservative British newspapers were also pro-Christi -
an and pro-Pope. The conservative tabloids (the Labour-supporting The Daily
Mirror being an exception) took a defensive stance towards critics of the Pope.
They were keen to highlight the Popes message on the marginalisation of Chris-
tianity in secular Britain. The most popular broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, cov-
ered the visit with interest and adopted an extremely posi tive approach. The
Times was mainly positive, though it dealt with some critical issues, too. Other
broadsheets, whose circulation is smaller and whose political support is liberal
or left wing, were more critical of the visit and of the Pope himself. The Guardian
gave some positive coverage, but balanced it with critical commentary. By giving
voice to the victims of child-abuse, The Independent was more directly critical
(but stopped short of siding with public atheists like Richard Dawkins, as will
be shown later).
We have noted that Christianity, secularism/atheism and religious diversity
(particularly in relation to Islam) are key themes in the media coverage of reli-
Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira
gion generally. However, in each case these themes are made meaningful in dif-
ferent ways. We will now explore how the media emphasized these three themes
during the Popes visit.
3.1 The marginalisation of Christianity
According to the newspapers, the marginalisation of Christianity was Benedicts
main message to Britain. The Pope said that he cannot but voice [his] concern at
the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, and con-
tinued that there are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be si-
lenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere (The Daily Express 18/9/
The main target of his complaint was understood to be aggressive secular-
ism, but religions other than Christianity were also presented as a cause for con-
cern. For instance, the Pope suggested that celebrating Christmas in a Christian
way was under threat because it was seen to offend those of other religions or
none (The Daily Express 18/9/10). Some newspapers took the Papal view as evi-
dence of diversity gone too far, but, in the tabloids particularly, his opinion was
used to bash the political correctness of atheist Left-wingers. For example, The
Daily Express (18/9/10) ran the headline, Popes plea to help save Christmas from
the PC brigade.
Even though marginalisation was sometimes printed with scare quotes,
suggesting that the paper did not necessarily condone the expression, the idea
gained surprising agreement in many papers. More secular-minded journalists
thought that the warnings were far-fetched, but there was nevertheless strong
support for the Popes message. Nick Ferrari, a columnist from The Sunday Ex-
press (19/9/10), concluded with support for a society which embraces all peoples
and allows them to celebrate their many religions and enjoy their Hanukkah,
Eid, Diwali or whatever else it might be, while all the time accepting that this
is a Christian country with Christian core beliefs and values. Furthermore,
The Daily Star (17/9/10) editorial suggested that we have a strong history for wel-
coming all cultures to our shores. But theres a growing sentiment across the
country that our traditions are being slowly lost. These views reinforced the dif-
ference and hierarchy between their cultures and our Christian tradition, the
latter being valued highly and seen to be in need of defence from marginalisa-
The Popes defence of Christianitys role in public life led some in the media
to desire equivalently authoritative Britis h voices. A comparison was made with
the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The Daily Mail (20/9/10) argued
3 Christianity, Secularism and Religious Diversity in the British Media