Last fall a group of Christian businessmen in Ireland organized and funded an advertising campaign called the Power to Change.
Based on a Canadian campaign of the same name, it was evangelical in tone — it sold directly to people the person of Christ and told them, as the name implied, that Jesus has the power to change your life.
The campaign won the backing of all the main churches in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. After all, what theological objection could the Church raise against a campaign with such a simple message. And don't Catholics believe Jesus has to power to change lives?
The businessmen behind the campaign planned to spend well in excess of a million euros on it. In Irish terms that's big money, and nothing like this had ever before been spent on Christian advertising.
But the organizers failed to reckon on Irish broadcasting regulations and the extremely strict interpretation of those regulations by the broadcasting authorities.
Those authorities decided the ads as planned couldn't be aired because they directly pitched the Christian message. The campaign that ran into no obstacles in Canada ran into a brick wall in Ireland. In the end, a much blander version of the ad was allowed to run and as a result it failed to have the desired impact.
The newspaper I edit, The Irish Catholic, ran into a similar problem several years before. In 1999 we tried to advertise on local radio. We were blocked, and this time not because our ads contained a Christian message. It was enough that the newspaper itself was religious. It didn't matter what the ad actually said.
The argument used by broadcast regulators was that since the law banned from the airwaves any ad “directed toward a religious or political end,” we could not advertise under any circumstances. At the time, I objected that politically oriented papers were allowed to advertise with very few restrictions. But this cut no ice with the powers that be. And it came to pass that the religious press in Ireland, and religious organizations generally, found themselves operating under some of the most restrictive broadcasting regulations in the Western world.
Our ad opened with the line: ‘These are hard times for the Church, so hard it's easy to forget all the good the Church does.’ Ireland banned it.
How did this happen?
Uppermost in the minds of those who framed this law was fear of sectarianism. They were in dread of religious groups using the airwaves to attack one another. Secondly, they were worried that groups such as the Scientologists would use a liberal broadcasting law to their own advantage. Thirdly, the law ended up being interpreted in a manner that its framers never envisaged. Never did they imagine it could be used to ban a simple contents-based ad for the main Catholic paper in the country.
But that's what happened.
Happily, when news of the ban on The Irish Catholic got out, quite a number of politicians and even some of the main daily newspapers came to our assistance.
“Enough is enough” is the gist of what they had to say. This was secular, post-Catholic Ireland gone too far. Our cause was helped by the fact that broadcast regulators in Northern Ireland had no problem allowing our ads to go on air.
If authorities in religiously divided Northern Ireland had no fears of our ads fanning the flames of sectarian hatred, how could the broadcasting authorities in the Republic claim this was a real fear in the much more religiously homogeneous South?
They couldn't, and the result was that a year after the ban was imposed the offending legislation was amended and made less restrictive.'
But the story doesn's end there. This year we decided to try to advertise on the radio again. The Irish Catholic was running a series of articles reminding readers of the Church's important contributions to society. Our ad opened with the line: “These are hard times for the Church, so hard it's easy to forget all the good the Church does.”
Again, we found ourselves banned.
We were told the ad could not point out that the Church does good work. This was advertising the merits of belonging to the Catholic Church, officials claimed, and so was banned even by the revised legislation. The original Power to Change campaign was banned for this same reason. But once again, we had no problem running our ad in the North. Neither did the Power to Change campaign.
Encouragingly, the result of the ban was another fuss. Again, politicians and some columnists weighed in against the ban and said the legislation would have to be looked at one more time.
The upshot is that the minister for communications is considering how to change the legislation to prevent the broadcasting authorities from continually coming up with ludicrous interpretations that weigh far more heavily on religious publications than on secular ones.
If nothing else, the row did wonders for the profile of The Irish Catholic and illustrated that there are still people left in Ireland who believe in religious freedom properly understood.
So I guess in a perverse sort of way, we really ought to be thanking the broadcasting authorities for that.