Sunday’s column – posted a little late due to onset of vomiting bug..uuuugh. Anyways, I am taking a little blog break and going to go cold turkey by getting a trusted friend to change the password so I can’t get into it! This addict needs a week or two of cold turkey! Happy Christmas all and hopefully the new year will find ye a little less antagonistic! xxx
THE sister rang last week wondering how to deal with complaints she’d received about the magnificent crib the staff had constructed in their office. I got all excited. It sounded like the secularist conspiracy to rid Christmas of cribs had reached our quiet midlands village.
Not quite. The cribbing about the crib in my sister’s office related to the premature arrival of baby Jesus in the manger (he’s not supposed to turn up until December 25), and the heresy of placing a Wise Man in adoration when he and his perceptive pals are not due until January 6.
The complainers are like most people in Ireland; when religion is done, they want it done right. I advised my sister to hand around some application forms for the Association of Pedants. Afterwards I wondered why, when cribs are so popular in Ireland, did Veritas roll over so easily?
The revelation that an ad for cribs placed by Veritas, suppliers of Catholic books and artefacts, had been banned from RTE Radio stirred up a good bout of moral outrage. An Irish Christmas without cribs is clearly a ludicrous exercise. I’m all for them myself, and in my wide and varied circle of acquaintances I can’t track down anyone against them. So I would have expected Catholic bishops to fight such ridiculous censorship by petty bureaucrats all the way to the Supreme Court.
The problem is that the “crib” ad wasn’t banned at all. Veritas submitted a script to RTE which included a list of items available for sale at its shop in Abbey Street. Someone fretted that the inclusion of “cribs” might be a problem and suggested that Veritas seek clearance or a “determination” from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI), which regulates ads.
The BCI duly received a phone call from Veritas during which there was a general chat about the intention behind the Broadcasting Act. It’s possible that the Veritas people read between the lines or interpreted the conversation to mean that “crib” might be a problem. The BCI is adamant that it was never asked for a determination and never expressed an opinion on the inclusion of the word “crib” in the list.
For whatever reason, Veritas chose not to seek a formal decision from the BCI and ran the ad without mentioning “crib”. Then Catholic bishops issued a statement claiming they were “concerned and disappointed” that the word “had to be omitted from the script of the advertisement before the station would broadcast it”. But it was only omitted because an informal and very general telephone conversation with a BCI official put them off. The Penal Laws would have finished off Catholicism if the hierarchy had been this lily-livered in the 19th century.
Veritas could easily have stood its ground and argued the toss – because it has an excellent case. Instead someone decided to cry “censorship” and must have known the outrage that would ensue. There’d be loads of free publicity and a debate heavily weighted against the secularist cabal at the BCI. Sure enough, the rest of us spent the next 24 hours aghast that such outrageously anti-religious elements exist within the establishment. In an overwhelming Christian society, how could anyone object to references at the heart of the Christmas story? Throw in rumours of a crÃ¨che cancelling a nativity play and before long we’re on the alert for anyone wishing us a Happy Holiday or a Merry Winterval.
It looks like an unnecessarily sneaky way to make a point. A similar outbreak of moral outrage happens in America every year when right-wing broadcasters such as Bill O’Reilly on Fox News hype up claims of cancelled nativity plays and other evidence of a war on Christmas. Some time in January it’s quietly discovered that the stories are either completely wrong or wildly exaggerated. By that stage it’s too late and Christian people have been radicalised over a slight which never existed.
The pity is this: there is a cabal at the BCI who have completely lost the run of themselves and should be taken in hand. Their decisions on religious and political advertising are consistently over the top and take no account of the spirit of the original legislation. We actually do need someone to challenge their strict interpretations in court, rather than settle for some cheap-shot publicity. A ban on religious advertising was included in the 1960 Broadcasting Act, and a look back at the parliamentary debate which led up to this is instructive. Legislators feared that evangelical Christian churches, or cults such as Scientology, would spend millions in Ireland on recruiting souls and would then relieve Irish people of their savings and force them all to live in compounds.
Michael Hilliard, the then minister for Post and Telegraphs, said he favoured banning religious advertising since otherwise RTE “would have to accept advertisements from any religious group, including advertisements which the majority of viewers might consider very objectionable and offensive”. By religious group he obviously didn’t mean the Catholic Church or the Church of Ireland, and by “offensive” he most certainly did not mean a mention of a crib. (Although keep in mind that not one Irish person has ever said that the term “crib” is offensive to them.) Hilliard also made clear that the ban on political advertising strictly related to political parties, because he didn’t want to place new parties or those with lesser means at a disadvantage.
For some years, the BCI and some elements in RTE have deliberately thwarted this clear and reasonable intention of the legislators by enforcing a blanket ban. The Irish Cancer Society was even prevented from urging the government to organise a free, nationwide cervical-screening service – that was too “political”.
The Dail has attempted to restrict this tendency by making clear that the religious ban refers only to proselytising and not benign announcements. A 2001 amendment stated that advertisements for religious events or publications are allowed provided they “do not address the issue of the merits or otherwise of adhering to any religious faith or belief or of becoming a member of any religion or religious organisation”.
Regardless of how fundamentalist the BCI has been, it is inconceivable that even it could argue successfully that an ad for cribs could be construed as conferring merit on religious faith. The bishops must have taken the same view and decided it would be safer not to ask the question at all. After all if the BCI had approved the ad they’d have lost the opportunity for some cheap publicity.
Some day, someone should challenge the BCI, but we can only condemn a stupid decision when it’s actually made.