On 25th November 2015 the Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell asked a question of Government about the decision by Digital Cinema Media not to accept an advertisement from the Church of England featuring the reading of the Lord’s Prayer. The video can be seen on the website justpray.uk A full transcript of the exchange and those that followed, is below.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the freedom of religious and non-religious organisations to express their beliefs in the public sphere, in the light of the decision by Digital Cinema Media not to accept advertisements from the Church of England.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, is fundamental to democratic society. Open discussion of faith issues has the benefit of bringing communities together, thereby giving rise to greater understand among faith groups. In this case, the decision not to accept the advertisement was by an independent media organisation. The Government made clear that they do not agree with that decision and urged the cinema to look again.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: On these Benches, we very much welcome the support from the Minister and, indeed, from No. 10 and other Ministers—and, indeed, from Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, who are not usually people who support the Church of England. But perhaps I might press the Minister to go further. Does she agree that advertisements are about beliefs and lifestyles, and then they sell the product? Therefore, others should also be free to speak about ideas in the marketplace of ideas. Digital Cinema Media, by banning this advertisement, has narrowed the opportunities for beliefs and values to be spoken about in the public square, which risks undermining some of the values and freedoms that most of us spend the rest of our time seeking to promote—not least the freedom to be offended.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: I totally agree with the right reverend Prelate on that point, and the Government wholeheartedly support the freedom of expression and support faith and faith institutions in this country. The Government greatly value the vital role that religious individuals and organisations have in our society, and the part that they play in national life and public service. We also value the vital role that the Church of England and many Christian organisations and individual Christians have in our society, and the part that they play in national life, inspiring a great number of people to get involved in public service and providing help to those in need.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, I very much take the Minister’s point, but is her Answer specifically directed at the special position of the Church of England, as the established church, or is she saying that she thinks that any religion—say, the Church of Scientology—or any political party should be permitted to advertise in the way that the Church of England wants to do? It is very important that we understand about whether a precedent is being set here.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, I, and the Government, believe in the freedom of expression, and the freedom actually to not believe at all, as well as to believe in a variety of different religions.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch (UKIP): My Lords, does the Minister think that Digital Cinema Media, or any other media outlet in this country, would have dared to ban footage advancing the religion of Islam?
Baroness Williams of Trafford: I think that is a very good question. As I have said before, the freedom of religious expression should be apparent throughout society, and we should not be offended by religion.
Lord Farmer (Con): My Lords, I would just like to follow the right reverend Prelate’s Question. Perhaps like others in your Lordships’ House, I am often struck when I go to the cinema by the prevalence of advertisements, particularly at Christmas time, if you have been to see “Spectre” or anything like that, selling the idea that having stuff and giving each other stuff makes people happy. Does the Minister agree that secular materialism is now the dominant cultural influence in our society and is, more or less, a religion in its own right—and that young people should be made aware of this as part of the British values agenda in schools?
Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, we have made clear our expectation that all schools should actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs. Ofsted is embedding this with an inspection framework for all schools; it is right that all schools, including schools of a religious character, promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect. These are the bedrock of British values and, without them, we cannot expect any young person to play a full part in civic society in this country.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): Is the Minister aware that Christianity and other religions carry the potential to seriously destabilise society by talking about putting others before self, whereas the prevailing marketing culture says, “Me and mine”? It also does things like talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, which could seriously jeopardise jobs in the prison industry.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, if there is a choice, I think I would go with the former. It is often shown that giving to others makes you far happier than thinking about me, me, me.
Baroness Harris of Richmond (LD): My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether there were any representations from the Church of England to other faiths before it made the decision to launch this campaign?
Baroness Williams of Trafford: I have absolutely no idea. I will find out from my colleagues on the Bishops’ Benches and let the noble Baroness know.
Lord King of Bridgwater (Con): My Lords, at the risk of excommunication, perhaps I may say that I hope my noble friend has read the article in the Times today by Alice Thomson, which sets out very clearly indeed why there is some wisdom in the prohibition on religious or political advertising, particularly in the cinema. It is a rather better case than may have been made in your Lordships’ House. In spite of some of the voices that we have heard, every single Member of your Lordships’ House who I have talked to about it agrees with that article.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, I have not seen the article. Perhaps we should put the advert in the context of where we are at the moment: the atrocious events that happened in Paris last week and the run-up to Christmas. If anyone looks at the advert, the context is very much thinking about the world and how we can make it a better place.
Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve (CB): My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is not and cannot be a right not to be offended? Offence is in the eye of the beholder, and the right to freedom of expression and the right to manifest religion or belief cannot be curtailed by a supposed right not to be offended.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: The noble Baroness is absolutely right.