Dispatches: Channel 4 and the Art of Biased Documentary

I wonder how many of you watched last night’s Channel 4 programme Dispatches: In God’s Name (Monday, 19th May, 8pm)? So shocking were the Christian views to be broadcast, that the programme (along with segments after each commercial break) was prefaced with a warning that ‘This programme contains extreme views which some viewers may find offensive.’ Actually, I did find some of the views rather offensive, though some were just silly. Some, I disagreed with, but even some of the views I agreed with were put in such a negative, confrontational and ‘unloving’ way that I felt like dissociating myself from them!

However, this said, the ‘documentary’ followed the usual format for the media when it addresses anything to do with Christianity in Britian these days. From the outset, it was pretty clear that those responsible for the programme – along with the presenter, David Modell – had already decided the ‘rights and wrongs’ of the issues under scrutiny. Consequently, anyone not going along with the received wisdom of our day that, for example, abortion is a good thing, children don’t need fathers, gay people should be allowed to adopt children and so on, are, by the very nature of the case, religious lunatics ‘who wish to force their ideas on our society’ as Mr Modell so eloquently informed us.

The makers of such documentaries love to get people with strong beliefs together, and then get them to come out with controversial (by the programme makers’ standards) comments which don’t fit in with the politically correct media view.  The programme is then cut and edited in such a way as to make those interviewed appear to be members of weird cults who are trying to take over the world. Take for example the programme’s embarrasing interview with a driving instructor, John.  John is a twenty nine year old who (shock horror!) lives alone! What is worse, John is…. wait for it….. a virgin!  He is to be married soon and feels it proper to keep himself pure for his future wife. So outrageously shocking was this idea to the interviewer, that after a moment’s strained silence, the best question he could come up with was to ask John whether he ever masturbated! The supposed relationship between this question and Christian fundamentalism, not to mention the other topics the programme was purporting to address – abortion, the embryology bill etc., eludes me. Not being content with belittling this man, the programme went on to suggest that the biggest threat which people like John pose is that they’re prepared to go out on the streets evangelising. After showing a clip of John handing out tracts, the commentator put on his best solemn voice: ‘I’ve been struck by John’s absolute devotion to his faith. With commitment like that, the potential of this movement is formidable.’ (Cue deep disturbing music and cut to commercial break).

Later in the programme, we were introduced to a lady called Andrea, a member of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship.  The presenter managed to get Andrea to admit that she believed Islam to be ‘a false religion’. Later in the programme, she was quoted by the presenter as having said that ‘Islam is Satanic’. (This view was in fact voiced by Stephen Green, the founder of Christian Voice). Andrea corrected the interviewer but the suggested slur on her character was already made. 

The programme moved onto the human fertilization bill. Andrea works closely with the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries. Andrea and Nadine have become so close says the presenter that Andrea has now become ‘part of the team.’ There was a sinister undertone in this part of the programme which may well come back to haunt Dorries; an unspoken suggestion that the Conservative Party is somehow mixed up with looney Christian fundamentalists.

Next, we were taken to a pro life meeting where the anti abortionist Lord Alton was speaking.  The meeting was drawing to a close and the gathered people were singing Amazing Grace. Whilst they were singing, a group of ‘pro-choice’ protesters were shown shouting and generally causing mayhem, to the point where they had to be forcibly ejected. Again, the presenter mustered his most solemn and doom-laden voice to do his voice-over: ‘Fundamentalists like Andrea are growing in number and influence, and are determind to force their beliefs on the rest of society.’

We then moved on in the same disparate and random style to Stephen Green, prophesying the possibility of civil war in thirty or forty years as Islam grows in power. The presenter challenged him: ‘Stephen, that’s a very provocative thing to say; that the increase in the Muslim population is going to cause civil war.’ Green defended himself by saying that he’d been asked for his opinion and given it. (The presenter may be equally shocked to find that where I live, only 16 miles from Burnley in Lancashire, this view is not uncommon).

We soon find ourselves back with Nadine Dorries and the issue of abortion.  Andrea ‘continues to be a driving force behind Nadine’ says the presenter. He then asks Dorries whether she’s aware of Andrea’s fundamentalism.  Nadine is aware. The presenter asks her if she’s aware that Andrea sees Islam as Satanic. Nadine looks shocked (and the sinister undertone is ramped up). This is the point, touched on above, where Andrea, who has never claimed this throughout the programme, repeats her belief that Islam is a ‘false religion’. The presenter can’t leave it at this and presses his line of questioning until she removes her microphone and withdraws from the discussion. The closing voice-over drones in again, with that same doom-laden voice: ‘MPs are now voting on the human fertilization bill. Whatever the outcome, Britain’s Christian fundamentalists could just be beginning to exercise their power.’ (Cue disturbing closing music).

These programmes, along with similarly motivated stuff in the media in general, are becoming more frequent. They seem to delight in showing Christians as posing a threat to the status quo or as being downright dangerous.  It is often the Christians who are shown as trying to impose their ideas on society. It is never mentioned (perish the thought) that minorities such as ‘Gay rights’ activists have already succeeded in imposing their rights to such an extent that to take any other point of view is now portrayed as being ‘at odds’ with the majority. The worldview of our society has been so totally changed over the past few decades, that it is now evangelical Christians who are ‘in the closet’ and have to dare to ‘come out’ at risk of being in trouble with the law of the land. But we should remember that all this is nothing new. 800 years BC, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.’ (Isaiah 5:20 NIV).  There is indeed ‘nothing new under the sun’ (Eccl 1:9).

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