The Spectator's Notes

‘Religious literacy’ rules risk gagging the press

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

There should be more ‘religious literacy’. So says the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media, chaired by Yasmin Qureshi MP. Amen to that. Religious ignorance is now virtually universal, so errors appear in news stories every day. But the APPG report seems less concerned with facts, more with attitudes. It wants news to concentrate more on ‘lived experience’, less on doctrine and ritual; it asserts that ‘religious literacy also incorporates respect for religion and belief as a valid source of guidance and knowledge to the majority of the world’s inhabitants’. The report’s remedies include ‘a formalised, coordinated approach to the education of journalists’, making ‘religious literacy training’ compulsory. Another is ‘around access to regulatory redress’: ‘In particular, groups should be able to make complaints on the grounds of discrimination.’ I am afraid these aims add up to gagging the press. ‘Lived experience’ is a buzz phrase in current debates about race, used to privilege the utterances of those who feel themselves hard done by. ‘Respect’ is the word decisively rejected by Cambridge dons recently when their leaders — notably the vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope — tried to include it in Cambridge’s formal definition of free speech. The objectors argued that free speech is compromised if you always have to show respect for beliefs with which you disagree. And the idea of conferring regulatory remedy rights on ‘groups’ is part of a constant, worldwide pressure by many Muslim organisations to police what is said about Islam — a secular simulacrum of blasphemy laws. The APPG report draws heavily on views put forward by pressure groups such as MEND and Miqdaad Versi’s Centre for Media Monitoring, which use claims of ‘Islamophobia’ to shut critics up. Once religious literacy training and the recommended monitoring of religious belief in the media become compulsory, we are on the way back to the Test Acts.

Here is the list of words the Centre for Media Monitoring furnished for the report as being ‘problematic’ in media coverage of Islam and Muslims: ‘Islamic terrorism’, ‘Islamist’, ‘Islamic State’, ‘Jihadi’, ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Sharia Law’, ‘Taqiyya’, ‘Da’wah’ and ‘Muslim grooming gangs’. No doubt some words are misapplied or used crudely. A ‘jihadi’, for example, does not necessarily mean a violent person, but one who struggles for the faith — rather as the word ‘crusader’ for Christians does not necessarily mean one who fights to conquer the Holy Land. But one cannot avoid noticing that the words complained of are frequently needed when describing the nature of terrorist attacks and extreme ideology associated with some current versions of Islam. If ‘religious literacy’ rules banned them from media use, it would be almost impossible to report one of the most serious problems in the world today.


Following last week’s Note about how selective burning of heather on grouse moors helps prevent wildfires, I have been dipping into Australia’s Royal Commission 2020 report on the devastating disasters there. It is interested in how the practices of ‘Indigenous communities’ can fill ‘knowledge gaps’. Reporting evidence given to the commission, The World public radio programme explained that ‘Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush’. This involved ‘numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burned and unburned patches’. Such burning ‘made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant…’. Then disaster struck: ‘Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen… more frequent and destructive bushfires.’ A comparable process is taking place on British moorland. Indigenous landowners find their ownership rights challenged by colonialist bodies such as the National Trust and the RSPB, and their gamekeepers’ ancestral, eco-friendly practices attacked. The Australian Royal Commission speaks of ‘partnering with Indigenous communities to undertake burns on public land’. It recognises that the physical impact of such burns ‘is complemented by a cultural and symbolic significance that is passed from generation to generation’. These could serve as excellent descriptions of how grouse moors are kept. I have argued before that the landed classes and their employees should hurry to rebrand themselves as a distinct cultural/tribal tradition. Then public bodies would be forced to treat their land management with due reverence.

Restore Trust, the new body seeking to return the National Trust to ‘its real mission’, carries an interesting article on its website by Andrew Loukes. He was the Trust’s House and Collections manager at Petworth since 2009, but last year was a victim of the Trust’s ‘Reset’ programme, on the stated grounds that he lacked ‘sufficient curatorial capability’. He appealed, pointing out the success of his exhibitions of great artists, such as Turner and Blake, at Petworth. He was allowed to reapply, but was turned down again. The Trust said he could not ‘attract new and different audiences’. The story has a happy ending for Mr Loukes since Lord and Lady Egremont, who live at Petworth, have hired him themselves to be curator of the large parts of the collection which remain in their family. I rang Max Egremont. He says he likes the National Trust people he deals with and so is ‘completely mystified’ by their decision to drop Mr Loukes: ‘Andy is the best thing that has ever happened here.’

A friend from Washington, DC, copies me the latest communication from the Department of Public Health there. Clearly there is a problem with take-up. ‘Vaxed for Mom’, it says, in a nod to America’s Mothers’ Day, which occurs this Sunday. ‘Take the shot, DC — get a beer’, it continues: the beer is ‘on us’. ‘No appointment is necessary.’

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