This is a letter I wrote to David Robey, the managing editor of BBC London, about the Vanessa Feltz show last Monday, in which she recycled a story from the Daily Star about a swimming pool in London having sessions for Muslims. I faxed it to him, but have has yet had no reply or acknowledgement from him or anyone at BBC. Insha Allah I may send it again, possibly by email. Here is the content of the letter.
I am writing to express my dissatisfaction at the content and tone of this Monday morning’s Vanessa Feltz show, in which one of the main stories was one recycled from the morning’s tabloids: a petty complaint about a swimming pool in Thornton Heath having a reserved session for the local Muslim community, at which non-Muslims were not banned, but rather all who attended were required to wear more concealing swimwear than usual (it being assumed, no doubt, that only Muslims would attend). I have my own transcript of her introduction to the show, which I reproduce here:
You will remember, I’m sure, our list of current London crimes. Travelling on a bus or tube while Muslim we said was definitely a crime; walking in the street while Jewish was a crime; well, here’s the newest: swimming while non-Muslim. Thornton Heath Leisure Centre in Croydon has decreed that non-Muslims swimmers will not be allowed to attend the Saturday night session at the pool unless they cover their bodies from neck to ankle. Men must also cover up if they want to swim during the Muslim session on Sundays. They must wear shorts which hide the navel and come down below the knee. According to the council, “the facility was begun in response to public demand from the local Muslim community whose belief extends to the wearing of appropriate costumes. The sessions are not exclusively for members of any particular religion; the only restriction is that only appropriately dressed women can be present on the Saturday sessions, and only appropriately dressed men on the Sundays. Both weekend sessions are held at times when the pool would not normally be open to the general public; during the course of the last year, the single gender sessions have proved popular with users, and the only discontent has been that which has been deliberately stirred up by provocative reporting in national newspapers. Having a more responsible attitude towards community relations, Croydon’s local newspapers, while aware of the situation, concluded that the issue did not amount to a story. We will not be putting anyone forward for interview this morning.” Oh, OK. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. What do you make of it?”
What Feltz was saying is that the Croydon Advertiser – this being Croydon’s main local newspaper – refused to go down the route of sensational “journalism” at the expense of one of Croydon’s major religious communities. It does not need to resort to this kind of behaviour in order to sell copies, because it takes classified advertising from a large part of south London and Surrey. The BBC has the licence fee, so what need does it have to indulge in this kind of irresponsible pseudo-journalism?
This is typical of the behaviour of some of this country’s less reputable newspapers: the continual griping about accommodations being made to the Muslims, particularly about attempts to tone down Christmas in order to avoid offence which has never been expressed by us in any case. As Oliver Burkeman noted in the Guardian last Friday (8th December) , all of the stories about “banning Christmas” are gross exaggerations, including the oft-repeated story of “Winterval”, which was actually a promotional campaign which ran in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998 and has not done since, and did not exclude Christmas. Feltz has also repeated a number of similar stories about “Winterval”, “celebrity/winter lights” and so on. These newspapers have a long record of manufacturing “scandals” out of situations which are petty, exaggerated, or in fact rightful.
I believe that a swimming session for those adhering to Muslim dress codes is rightful, particularly if it is done as a booked event rather than such rules being imposed on a swimming session previously open to the general public. Even if the latter is true, swimming pools have had restricted sessions for decades, usually for women. Muslims make up a very substantial proportion of Croydon’s, and especially north Croydon’s, population and many of these are strict in their practice. It is a fact that Islam demands that its adherents cover up when in any human company other than that of their spouses (for women, the requirement in front of close family members is less than that when around others). It also insists that we not look at people in states of undress, which for us includes those in modern western swimwear, or deliberately go to places where most of the people are dressed in such a way. This is not to insult or make any insinuations against such people; it is simply a fact of our religion. And as Muslims pay Council Tax like everyone else, it is only fair that our needs be taken into consideration in areas where there are large numbers of Muslims. It is not as if the rules are being imposed across the board; it is only a few hours per week.
There are two major objections to such stories being given prominence on a BBC current affairs programme (which the London morning phone-in has traditionally been). The first is that such stories help to stoke public discontent against Muslims at a time when the outrageous actions of a small minority have given some commentators the excuse to repeatedly claim that Islam is an inherently violent religion. It is significant that one of the best-known proponents of this opinion, an American commentator by the name of Robert Spencer, runs both a website called Jihad Watch and another called Dhimmi Watch (dhimmi being the Arabic term for non-Muslims living in the historical Muslim empire, generally subject to certain restrictions but allowed to administer their religious affairs such as marriages and family law), cataloguing various incidents in which non-Muslim governments have “caved in” to accommodate Muslims in various ways. In some cases, such accommodations are by commercial organisations trying to please customers. Some British newspapers (I am sure I do not need to name them) have turned themselves into a conveyor belt of vituperation against various groups, including Muslims; it stokes the petty and false grievances which helps the likes of the BNP, which thrives on such resentment.
The second, however, is that the BBC is generally perceived as an authoritative news source, and those who attack it usually do so because it is not sufficiently biased in favour of their pet causes (usually Israel). Therefore, the BBC London morning phone-in should share this authority, and dispense with idiotic “journalism” which sensationalises trivial occurrences in order to “get people going”. It is depressing that on every occasion when the normal host is ill or otherwise unavailable, the replacement (Eddie Nestor, Simon Lederman, Jools Botfield) is fresher, calmer and more reasonable than whoever they replace, and leaves me wishing they were there all the time. It is significant that in the two weeks after Jon Gaunt left, temporary replacement Geoff Schumann remarked again and again on the flurry of new callers to the show; the simple reason was that nobody wanted to be on the wrong side of Jon Gaunt, who was an aggressive and often thoroughly rude host. Unfortunately, Feltz has taken the show in another unpleasant direction: trivial, gossipy, and sometimes intrusive (as with the unncessary discussion, also on Monday’s show, of some golfer’s decision to bring a new woman into his life some four months after his wife passed away from breast cancer – as if it’s the business of all London to pass judgement on him).
In my opinion, Vanessa Feltz is not suited to the morning show, which needs a host with a serious interest in the current affairs and news of the day. Her background is in agony columns and daytime TV, and if she cannot leave this behind when presenting a news-related phone-in show, she should not be presenting the show. The sort of tabloid nonsense (sourced from the Daily Star of all places) I heard on Monday was something I had hoped Jon Gaunt would take with him when he went; I urge you to find a replacement for Feltz, urgently.
Matthew J Smith
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