Monday, 23 November 2015

'Banned' Church of England #JustPray Advert.

So the news has been doing the rounds today about a Church of England cinema advert that has allegedly (according to some commentators and newspaper headlines) been 'banned' from cinemas, because it might 'offend' people. That is quite clearly not the case at all.

It hasn't been 'banned' at all, for a start - a company that deals with the advertising for many cinemas (reportedly about 80% of them) has rejected the advert, on the grounds that they have a standing policy against taking advertising about religion and politics. That is no more of a 'ban from cinemas' than a particular ale is 'banned from pubs' because it isn't sold in my local, or than suggesting that I have 'banned' Take That from Twitter on the grounds that they don't appear in my Twitter feed, because I don't happen to like them very much. If we want to go down the road of suggesting that it's an issue because they control 80% of the market (whereas I don't control 80% of Twitter, obviously!), then we are suggesting that they are running a virtual monopoly, or at least have too great a dominance, in their marketplace - that's an entirely separate issue of whether some kind of intervention or regulation is required to open up the market of UK cinema advertising to greater competition. That question is nothing to do with this particular advert at all - it's a complete red herring.

So on to the question of people being 'offended' by the Lord's Prayer advert. The main point to note is that is not what the company has said in terms of this specific advert at all. It is something that they applied to all such advertising in a general way. They haven't said that this advert would 'offend', merely that adverts about personal beliefs in general might potentially offend some people, based on previous customer feedback (there's no 'off' button in the cinema, of course, and it would seem that people don't like politics and religion thrown at them on a trip out to the flicks). The stuff coming from people suggesting that the company have deemed the Church of England's advert to be something that would specifically offend people is sheer nonsense. It isn't true, despite the outrage that some are expressing over it.

There's clearly no discrimination involved here, since it applies equally to all religion and politics, and has apparently resulted from feedback that they have received suggesting that their cinema audiences don't like having such things shown in cinemas. Now unless we want to pass a ludicrous law that all companies who receive advertising must take absolutely any advert for anything and from any source, companies must be able to decide on such policies for themselves, as long as their are not discriminatory in rules or their application. One suggestion brought up to counter this was about whether I would be happy if they 'banned' (see above!) 'same sex couples' advertisements because some people found them 'offensive' - the obvious answer is that that would actually be discriminatory unless they banned ALL 'couples' adverts, which is obviously ridiculous. If a company wanted to ban all 'couples' adverts altogether then that would be up to them - personally I think it's a fairly unlikely scenario, though!

Indeed, there is not even a distinction or discrimination between 'religious' and 'secular', since it applies to all 'personal beliefs' including 'secular' politics (and presumably would also cover adverts from Humanist groups). In effect, they will show adverts selling products or services, but they won't show adverts selling 'personal beliefs'. That's a pretty clear distinction, and I can't see how it could be described as 'discriminatory' against any group in any way, since it applies equally to all. I can also understand why a company might decide that it doesn't want to be seen to be supporting any particular organisation of that kind, since, although they might theoretically be able to show any if it weren't for this policy, only certain groups would have the money to pay for the advertising time. I'm sure they wouldn't want to be accused of 'supporting' or 'promoting' a particular political party on the grounds that they always showed their adverts and didn't show anybody else's - that accusation would be inevitable even if the cause were simply a financial matter for the parties themselves. The same applies to 'promoting religion' of a certain kind, of course. It's a can of worms - I can understand why they would rather avoid opening it.

Others have been saying things along the lines of 'How can the Lord's Prayer' offend anyone? It only could if you were actively looking to be offended'. That might well be true to a large extent, but the reality is that some people are, and we should, perhaps, consider the potential effects of that with regard to the way the advert itself has been put together. Let's take a look at the advert itself - it shows various people in various situations reciting the Lord's Prayer (a slightly odd version of it from what I remember, but that's not relevant), and then finishes with the tagline 'Prayer is for everyone', with the 'everyone' highlighted in red. Well, first off, that blatantly isn't true - it might be for all Christians (or all people of faith, even), but to suggest it's for everyone potentially implies that we should all be, or regards ourselves as, Christians (or people of faith). The prayer itself shouldn't really offend anyone, of course, since in a free society there is no right to never see or hear other people's religious beliefs.

It wouldn't be too difficult to draw an inference that the advert, with its tagline, is trying to suggest that we should all be praying in their way, though. While it would be reasonable enough to say that that would be 'over-sensitive', we do have to remember that the Church of England is 'Established', and therefore in effect the 'state approved' religious institution peddling the 'state approved' religion. In some places in the world, a message like that from the 'state church' could have rather different implications from what it has in reality here, and that's a message that some might easily seek to use to spread division by promoting the idea that the 'state religion' is trying to 'make' everyone follow its path through forcing 'propaganda' down people's throats as they take their families to see a film. A bit of a stretch? Certainly, but that doesn't mean that it isn't something that some might seek to use as 'proof' to further their own agenda, and that isn't helpful in promoting the idea of the UK being a tolerant place where all religions are equally respected.

Let's look at it another way - if that same advert featured images of Islamic prayer, how many people would be 'actively looking to be offended' by it in the UK at the moment? They shouldn't, of course, but the fact that they would be means that it wouldn't exactly be helpful for social cohesion and religious tolerance in the UK. Some people would react very badly, and start wanting such things actually banned. They shouldn't want that, but they would. Once you consider that, although I can see no justification for actually banning the advert despite its potential weaknesses, it's not hard to see why a particular company might feel that it's better to steer clear of all such issues altogether, no matter which religion it comes from. In other words, I think that the advert itself, while not actually being 'offensive', is pretty poorly thought out, in my opinion - it doesn't seem to have been put together with particular sensitivity to the fact that it comes from an Established Church to which we don't all belong (and don't all have to belong) in mind. I've no doubt that it wasn't intentional, but I really don't think it's the best way for the Church of England to try to be increasing active participation, particularly in the current climate of threats and counter-threats to harmonious religious relations and tolerance in the world.

As for why they have brought this situation about in this way, and created this particular controversy, that is something that only the Church of England can answer. Did they really not have the sense to check whether their advert would be accepted for showing by this company before they decided to go down this road? Cynics might suggest that they knew full well this would happen, and wanted to publicity from it to promote themselves. I couldn't possibly comment on that, of course, but I think it would be a pretty shabby kind of behaviour by the Church if that were to be the case. The idea that the decision has 'chilling consequences for free speech', as has been suggested, is complete nonsense. It has no such implications at all - it is a simple matter of company policy, not legal restriction. If the Church is genuinely 'bewildered' by the decision, as has also been suggested, then it needs to look a little harder at the way it researches into the possible openings for its own advertising potential.

To summarise, I think the outcry over the banning of this advert is a load of tosh, and the whole situation is one that never should have been created - it was very easily avoidable. It's an advert that hasn't itself been thought through properly, in my opinion, but far more importantly merely a matter of a company deciding its own entirely legal and non-discriminatory policy for itself, which it has every right to do. I sincerely hope that the pressure of the outcry doesn't force them to back down, since the can of worms that would open might just prove that they were right to take the line that they have on advertising and promoting 'personal beliefs' including religion and politics. In a land of free speech, everyone must be able to express their own opinions and hold their own beliefs, of course - nothing should be 'banned' that isn't discriminatory hate speech promoting violence, or whatever. That doesn't mean that every company should be compelled to to promote whatever beliefs that people pay them to promote - as long as they are not discriminating against any particular groups in their rules (which they clearly aren't in this case), that should be a matter for them to decide.

1 comment:

  1. It seems they were originally told they could show the advert and were even offered a discount and emails exist to prove it. Only subsequently did DCM invent its policy banning all adverts relating to religion and politics . (They showed political adverts related to Scottish independence so their policy must be quite recent.