'Sinister Ruling'? British Regulators Muzzle Christian Radio Station
LONDON—Britain's only Christian radio station has been publicly reprimanded by a state watch-dog for breaching official program rules, including criticism of other faiths.
One Church of England pastor has denounced the action as a “sinister” move to restrict legitimate religious comment.
Premier Radio, an interdenomi-national station broadcasting in London, was given a “Yellow Card” warning by the Radio Authority, a body whose chairman is appointed by the government but funded by the broadcast industry. The authority upheld seven complaints against the station filed by the Mysticism and Occultism Federation.
The regulatory authority, which will decide whether to renew Premier's license for eight more years in January, warned of “substantial sanctions” if more complaints are upheld.
David Heron, chairman of Premier Radio, said the station had not released a formal statement about the warning. “These tend to be an exercise in self-justification and the truth is we have broken the Broadcasting Act and had our knuckles rapped,” he said. “We have apologized and we are putting measures in place to prevent it ever happening again.”
But Church of England pastor David Holloway, who was involved in drafting the 1990 Broadcasting Act that legalized local Christian radio in Britain, said the station had to play ball with the authorities because its license was due for renewal in January.
Rev. Holloway called the ruling “sinister.”
The authority upheld, or partially upheld, seven complaints against the station for criticizing religions, while rejecting one complaint that a preacher had denigrated the Catholic Church's law on clerical celibacy.
Thou Shalt Not Denigrate
One upheld complaint was against U.S. -based evangelical preacher Michael Yusef, who commented on air, “Now I don't understand this crazy idea that is dished out in the liberal church that a person can be a good Christian and a practicing homosexual, that a person can be a very good Christian and living in sin.”
Regarding Yusef's remarks, the authority stated, “We agreed that the broadcast contained elements that denigrated the beliefs of other people.”
Another complaint the authority upheld was against the comments from a preacher who said, “Go to a country that has never worshipped the living God and has erected its idols, its shrines … Your heart as a child of God will break as you watch idolaters trying to gain relief from their idols, hoping to assuage their anger with their gifts or incense or their sacrifices.”
The authority said although the preacher did not refer to Hindus or Buddhists , they were the main overseas religious groups who used incense, and that the item broadcasted could give offense in that it made “assumptions that about religious beliefs which could be regarded as offensive.”
Heron pointed out that Premier Radio has never been subject to a complaint before, and that all the complaints came from a single source—an occult/pagan group that he said was looking for any items that might be found “offensive.”
The complaints did not come from the station's typical listener base, Heron noted, which is 99% Christian. It also has a number of Muslim listeners.
Said Heron, “We have a Muslim audience who tune in primarily because it is a station where there is no swearing, no obscenity or blasphemy, and this is very rare now.”
Heron declined to answer a question about the threat to Christian freedom of speech arising from the Radio Authority's ruling. But Catholic broadcaster and former Premier Radio host Mike Apichella was less diplomatic. Said Apichella, “I think it is ironic that the liberal secular mindset usually argues that if you are offended by something on the TV you can always switch it off, yet a different set of standards has been applied to Premier Radio.”
Premier's broadcasts include U.S. evangelical preachers, many of whom repeat common, unflattering Bible-belt clichÈs about Catholics. But the station also features mainstream British Christian representatives and a Vatican correspondent, Father James Cassidy of the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, a British priest based in Rome.
The Broadcasting Act makes it an offence to be abusive about another religion but stops short of saying it is illegal to “denigrate” another religion. Rev. Holloway and others campaigned successfully to exclude the term because it could be used to stifle any contentious religious discussion.
Said Rev. Holloway, “The authority … has gone beyond its powers.”
The Anglican pastor also said that the regulatory body had broken the European Convention on Human Rights, which acknowledges that religious debate may cause offence but should be protected.
Kerry Curtis, spokeswoman for the Radio Authority, denied the authority had overstepped its powers, saying it was merely exercising its statutory responsibilities.
Asked if Premier would have been spared censure if it had included other “balancing comments” to counter the criticisms it aired, Curtis replied, “That is a hypothetical question.”
Some supporters of Premier Radio, hoping that it has managed to avoid more than a warning, are now praying that it will get its license renewed next year.
In a statement Oct. 31 responding to the ruling by the Radio Authority, Premier Radio said, “The team at Premier Radio would greatly appreciate your prayers as we seek to retain the distinctive and exclusive nature of our Christian broadcasting in an environment that has become much less sympathetic to exclusively Christian answers to questions of faith and spirituality.”
Meanwhile, others are seeking to broaden British law to allow Christians to run a national radio station, which is currently banned.
Said Apichella, “I think it is odd that in the country which literally invented the concept of Christian broadcasting with the original BBC, it is illegal to have a national Christian broadcasting station. We are allowed Christian newspapers but not a radio station.”
Apichella added that the wider issue arising from the Premier Radio case is the need for working in the secular, mainstream media to be seen as a Christian vocation.
Said the Catholic broadcaster, “All churches should be encouraging their members to see the media as a mission territory.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.
- November 25-December 1, 2001