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The cross and the veil

Helen Boaden | 15:09 UK time, Sunday, 24 December 2006

If you asked me what words described the most challenging news theme of 2007, I would answer “the cross and the veil”. For me, that little phrase has become a shorthand for the divisions around identity, religion and politics which have galvanised fury and passion in many of our audiences and given us more than a few editorial headaches – many of which have been reflected through this Editors’ blog.

For an organisation committed to impartiality – which means we don’t take sides – we try to reflect all and every opinion in an argument. In practical terms, that meant that early in the year we showed enough of the Danish cartoons to give audiences an idea of what infuriated some Muslims. But we did not show them fully. We felt that would have caused gratuitous offence. Consequently we got it in the neck from both sides. Some called us cowardly for failing to defend free speech; others said we were offensively provocative in showing anything at all. Five Live was targeted by a systematic lobby campaign against the cartoons being shown and there was a small demonstration outside Television Centre. Being impartial, we reflected both sides attacking us on our own airwaves and quietly braced ourselves for the next such row.

It came in the form of an entirely inaccurate newspaper report that I had banned Fiona Bruce from wearing her cross on air. As I am generally not in favour of banning things and issuing edicts, the allegation that I had done so in this case came as something of a surprise to me.

The real story is much more mundane. At a seminar on impartiality run by the BBC’s Governors, I was asked what I might do if a Muslim news reader asked to wear a headscarf on air. I honestly replied that although I wouldn’t be very happy if it distracted audiences from what she was saying, I had recently noticed Fiona wearing a cross on air. Since I had no intention of banning that, I didn’t feel I could ban the headscarf. To do either would have been a sign of partiality.

Many disagree with me on this. Some think the cross is part of British culture and therefore acceptable while the headscarf is definitely not. Others think we should ban the lot – thus fostering a secular view of the world which many would regard as taking sides against religion. You can see how tricky this may become for us.

I don’t see any sign of the passion about identity and Britishness diminishing soon. Indeed, with a certain combination of circumstances, it could all become much more heated and divisive. For BBC News, that means yet more fine judgments and challenging decisions lie ahead as we try to serve all our audiences fairly and impartially.

Roll on 2007!


  • 1.
  • At 03:15 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • name wrote:

It has been well documented time and again that the BBC is biased towards Islam.

No such proof has ever been offered by the BBC is biased against Islam crowd.

When is Helen Boaden going to admit that the BBC can be wrong? I say never.

  • 2.
  • At 04:01 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • Alex Swanson wrote:

"we try to serve all our audiences fairly and impartially."

How many times do people like me have to point out that this is not true?

  • 3.
  • At 04:22 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • rahul jaywant wrote:

As a concerned global citizen who has lived in India, Singapore and Great Britain for much of my professional life, I am quite alarmed by the growth of religious parochialism in the last few years. It is the responsibility nay duty of all great institutions like the BBC to ensure the triumph of the humane spirit over fanatical tendencies which are diverting attention of the world from issues like Poverty, Education, Health, Development and above all equal opportunity. The BBC along with other great institutions should take the lead in zero tolerance towards such distractions. In fact BA needs to be congratulated for its recent stance on displaying of religious symbols by its staff. Similarly, Politicians and Statesman must refrain from getting into the quagmire of religious bigotry. In fact the state must consistently follow a policy of religious neutrality without exception.

  • 4.
  • At 06:03 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

The whole issue can be defused with secular impartiality! In much the same way as recent events in Suffolk latterly involved "women" rather than "prostitutes" as the proximate descriptive common factor, so should multi-doctrine audience News deliveries be simnilarly uncommitted to religious affiliation! As an agnostic, I have no problem with folk making known to others which brand of belief they demonstrably align with, but equally - as an independent - I do appreciate why one faction may feel upset by unilateral weighting of the right to demonstrate their affinities - however subtly.

Perhaps the BBC should apply similar techniques as they have to-date, by considering religious 'branding' in a similar light to that of product advertising?

  • 5.
  • At 06:13 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • James Rigby wrote:

I think the BBC needs to redefine impartiality. It seems to be define currently as having no opinions broadcast at all. But perhaps a better definition, and one that would make the news more interesting, is if the news contained opinions - but opinions from all "reasonable" sides of the debate. There is no reason why two BBC journalists could not each express their own opinion - provided, as I said, they were opposing.

  • 6.
  • At 06:48 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • Joe Dixon wrote:

I am so tired of the BBC cow-towing to the tiny minority of muslims in this country. Remember we have been attacked by "home grown" terrorists. It seems to a lot of us out there that the BBC is almost protheletising for them. The number of times that you are oh so sensitive about them. Its's time you got the priorities sorted.

The BBC used to be impartial. By the very nature of the way you treat Muslims compared to the way you treat Christians you continue to show bias against the Christian heritage of this country. I accept it is not just the news stories that you will not report because of your sensitivity. It spreads to the whole of the BBC output. You have become the "PC"C.

  • 7.
  • At 08:49 PM on 24 Dec 2006,
  • Jeremy wrote:

Yes I do feel sorry for you, it must be terribly difficult being the lone voice of sanity with views unmatched by any other organisations, that seem to ensure that you remain alone, with your own unique viewpoint on the world.

My idea for 2007, how about you simply report the facts of events that take place, using words that exist in the english language. Words which mean what the dictionary defines them as. Try treating your audience as intelligent, without worrying whether they are going to think that some words are a barrier to understanding when that is not in fact what you are there to do. Use words in the dictionary.
If a person blows up innocent civilians for an ideological or religious reason, this man is a terrorist. Don't call him a militant when this is not what the word means. Stop changing the definition of these words when they don't mean what you're trying to make them mean.

If a person is taken against his will,by a group of peeople who are not a sovereign army, this person is kidnapped. he is NOT captured.

Stop revealing your own prejudice through your "impartial" reporting.

Never mind crosses and veils. It would serve the licence payer well if you would stop dressing your reporters in clothes displaying advertising logos. I've lost count of the number of "Berghaus" and "North Face" badges your people wear. Any and all of those garments can be obtained free of buckshee advertising. And cheaper too.

I regularly text in these sightings, but your staff clearly feel no obligation to reply or even read them.

We don't pay our licence fees to provide free advertising to clothing manufacturers. (Or are we talking brown paper bags?)

It is great to keep that way,but we should be judges on what information we have at hand,and this need our esteem to serve our audience.I apreciat the way you handle the editorial policy,the interviwee, and audience too.

  • 10.
  • At 10:35 AM on 25 Dec 2006,
  • kris wrote:

Be tolerant. Accept, adapt and adjust for the beliefs of others. We in Malaysia meet each other in public in all our gears and outward symbols of our own multi-faceted faiths anywhere in the streets,malls,homes,etc. To each his own. I put a dot on my forehead, my Muslim friend wears a scarf, my Chinese relation ties a red string on his wrist, my Iban neighbour has tattoos but they are all accepted by all of us. We meet at open houses during Christmas,Krishna Jayanthi,Chinese New Year,Hari Raya Aidil Fitri.
Don't Freak out just because they are differnt in their looks. We are all the same in our heads. Only needs understanding.

  • 11.
  • At 03:18 PM on 25 Dec 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

In the course of reporting the news of the conflict in the horn of Africa in the last few days, BBC's interviews with representatives of Somalia's transitional government and Ethopia's government reveals its obvious bias. These discussions more closely resembled debates than interviews, BBC challenging every statement they made including their governments' legitimacy in their actions, even the transitional government's legitimacy in its right to rule. BBC clearly leaves no doubt that it takes the position that the Islamic Courts Union with their imposition of an Islamic state, Sharia law, and possible hosting of Al Qaeda is preferable to the anarchical rule of war lords which has prevailed up to now and possible continuance if the transitional government wins the military conflict and takes power. This is what BBC means when it talks about impartiality and objectivity in reporting the news. It's inability to separate its editorial opininos from its reporting of the news is a hallmark of its degeneration to a propagandistic mouthpiece for its own political views.

Point well made here. Impartiality should not be dabated in the terms of symbols alone, like the dress code etc. It must get reflected in substance too. And the audience should get achance to defend your impartiality.
Roll on 2007.

The BBC has always tried to be objective and has handled the issues round identity,religion and politics remarkably well. The fault does not lie with the BBC but with small-minded, bigoted people who like to blow everything out of proportion given the chance. Wearing a cross or a veil could be done discretely if one wants to without creating all the unnecessary furore! In Singapore, for example, multi-racial and multiculturalism thrives: no-one is really bothered if another wears a turban, a head-scarf or a cross as long as that behaviour does not encroach or impinge on the freedom of others. All cultures should learn to live in harmony and tolerance. The broadcasting media should uphold sensible dress codes but not go over-board with draconian policies. Let us be sensible and be practical at all times.

A scarf over one's head whilst delivering the news on national TV is daft.

Even British Airways cabin crew are restricted from wearing too much make up or jewellery.

Why on earth should someone be allowed to distract from the nationally broadcast news by insisting on wearing religious garb?

TV newsreaders need not apply for the job if they want to flounce about in robes, burquas and scarves.

Any more than a punk rocker newsreader would expect to be permitted to wear multiple face piercings, tattoos, outlandish hairstyles.

A cross or a star of david or some other small symbol? Sure. Why not? It's just a discreet piece of meaningful personal jewellery.

More than that and it's an overstatement.

  • 15.
  • At 01:31 PM on 27 Dec 2006,
  • Jim-UK wrote:

The BBC is Impartial? that's news to me. With multi channel TV and the internet people have access to news from a wide variety of sources and your pro islamic anti Israeli bias stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe you think people have not noticed, just google "BBC bias" and you'll see it's common knowledge.

The BBC has absolutely nothing in common with those poor souls who fund the thing, a situation that will with any luck bring about the end of public funding.

  • 16.
  • At 02:33 PM on 27 Dec 2006,
  • Chloe wrote:

To Mark #11,

Well said, I work in the Netherlands, I rely on the BBC World Service for my British news, listening yesterday to the BBC's interview with the Ethiopian and then the Islamic Courts spokesmen, I was struck by how aggressive the BBC were to the Ethiopian Spokesman and how docile they were when interviewing the Islamic Courts spokesmen. My Dutch friends who were also listening found this one sided reporting amazing.

The BBC also has a HYS on the World Service, this has to be listened to to be believed, everyone who calls with a perspective on anything which is different to that held by the BBC is shouted down, the BBC then compounds this by always giving the final word to whichever terrorist group is trying to justify the unjustifiable at that moment in time.

The BBC is not impartial, it is not even attempting to take a middle ground, instead it is only interested in those subjects which fit it's left wing agenda.

Would it be asking to much for the BBC to start questioning Islam?, after all it has spent the last 10 years abusing/ridiculing Christians/Jews/USA and even our own Armed Forces.

After all the BBC has totally bored everyone trying to ram it's PC agenda down our necks, How about returning the favour to all the Islamic extremists that seem to hijack our airwaves and start asking them real questions i.e. Human Rights, Woman's Rights, Education, Religion....? thought not after all that would mean that you would have to finally treat your audience as people with their own views.

  • 17.
  • At 03:41 PM on 27 Dec 2006,
  • G Meade wrote:

Recently in our area , over a five day period,the local BBC news covered assimilation of cultures into British society.
The only culture covered was Islam.
Please do not try to convince me that the BBC is not pro Muslim.
What about the Jewish faith, Sikhs, Buddists and Christians?
Today the BBC covered the annual gathering of Muslims in Saudi.
I do not recall this for other faiths, not even the Christian faith at Easter.
The BBC is not even handed and institutionally biased, that I believe is official.

  • 18.
  • At 05:21 PM on 27 Dec 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

It appears at this point that the Ethopian army will crush the Islamic Courts Union no matter what it takes and no matter how many people are killed in the process. I don't think this is going to be another Afghanistan or Iraq, I think they will stop at nothing to eliminate the threat of an Islamic state supported by and hosting terrorists on their border. The US is backing the Ethopian government and the transitional Somali government out of the public eye. Hopefully, it won't be necessary for the US to send in its own troops.

  • 19.
  • At 07:26 PM on 27 Dec 2006,
  • cairo wrote:

If you read lips in order to get your news then maybe a garb would get in the way.

The cross is just as foreign to the UK as is a muslim Garb. Both symbols are from religions that are of the middle east. Those who flaunt the cross are only converts and should be wary imposing their own dogma on others.

  • 20.
  • At 12:24 PM on 28 Dec 2006,
  • Mark S wrote:


Your claim to impartiality stands on shaky grounds. You showed enough of the Danish cartoons to give the audiences an idea of what infuriated some Muslims. However you did not show them fully. You felt that they would have caused gratuitous offense. Yet you had no problems offending Christians by showing Jerry Springer the opera?

After the 7/7 bombing’s you edited out the ‘T’ word (terror) from your reports. Why? Why can’t you use the ‘T’ word when & where it is appropriate? Why do you use so many Euphemisms to describe Islamic brutality, such as describing the 7/7 bombers as ‘misguided criminals’?

All, for a whole list of BBC PC sin’s and pro Muslim bias please have a look at Biased BBC giant archive.

The BBC coverage on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is so biased towards the Palestinians that ‘the BBC has spent thousands of pounds of licence payers' money trying to block the release of a report which is believed to be highly critical of its Middle East coverage.’

So if you are impartial Helen, prove it, show us the Balen report!

Now, it is obvious to anyone who watches or listens to the BBC that it is heavily biased towards political correctness, which essentially means it is left-wing, and the fact you suppress and censor uncomfortable information (unless it’s about America or Israel) is what you really do.

Kind regards


  • 21.
  • At 10:47 AM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • Ben wrote:

I understand that aspects of your job are difficult. Trying to please all the people all the time is not easy for an even handed organisation to achieve. This is the thrust of your argument and I do have some sympathy. Sadly, dispite your wishing it to be, the BBC is not impartial.

Put simply, if large numbers of your staff unthinkingly believe the Independant/Guardian worldveiw is sound and the rest of the print media is 'right wing' your output is going to be skewed isn't it?

You need to do something more proactive to convince people you are serious about impartiality.

You must know a 'BBC culture' exists that is very different from the rest of the country. You need to go out and challenge this. Good luck.

  • 22.
  • At 12:18 PM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • lester wrote:

This episode shows the mistrust that one religeon has for another. There will always be fundamentalists who follow every word their leader says. What has been shown through the arguments over dresses and crosses is that they have no place in this paranoid world as much as the terrorists who use their fundamentalism to create wars. The reason we in the west have short sharp wars is because insurance companies dont pay for war. So it should follow that where the apprpriate dress code is not used for war it should be acceptable(as long as we dont go to war).

  • 23.
  • At 01:31 PM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • Sam wrote:

[QUOTE]For an organisation committed to impartiality – which means we don’t take sides – we try to reflect all and every opinion in an argument[/QUOTE]

Your joking right? NOBODY believes the BBC is impartial even those who happen to generally take the same side as the BBC does ie: myself.

The BBC constantly supports anything islamic and critisizes anything jewish or American. Any oposing view is either censored (like this post may will be) or laughed off as somehow a non legitimate point of view.

And complaints? The BBC ignores them just look at the complaints page and see how many people who were 'guranteed a response' never got one, i certainly didn't.

I would report the BBC to offcom but i doubt it would make any difference becuase the BBC is government sanctioned.

Listen BBC say and do as you like but don't pretend your not biased and stop taking my money to pay for your propaganda, go commercial.

  • 24.
  • At 02:23 PM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • puzzled wrote:

Is it me or did the news reports about muslims happen as well before 9/11 or did it start after?

  • 25.
  • At 06:40 PM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • John wrote:

Dear Helen

I very much doubt if "the cross and the veil" is the most challenging news theme for 2007. My themes are:

* For the BBC, countering the erosion of trust in your impartiality over the last 18 months or so.

* For the UK, how to report Gordon Brown when he become PM without anyone having a chance to have a say.

* For the rest of the world, reporting impartially on Palestine / Israel in the face of the hostility of the lobbies for both sides.

  • 26.
  • At 06:49 PM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • Phil wrote:

Whether it is forced to or not I don't know, but the BBC seems to give an enormous amount of air time to religious groups to spread their 'messages'. Arch bishops and imams seem to get the most.

Frankly I'd rather hear as little as possible from these deluded people, and I absolutely do not want to see them shoving their religious symbols in my face when they're reading the news, working at a check in desk or anything else. They believe in the most absurd and ridiculously privative nonsense ever created, and I personally find them deeply unsettling. As a species we should have moved well beyond this type of thing centuries ago, but alas they still exist the BBC give them far, far too much time.

Somehow I doubt we will ever see another Jerry Springer the Opera type show broadcast, but Songs of Praise and the rest will continue unchecked forever. Balance? Not at the BBC.

  • 27.
  • At 01:36 AM on 30 Dec 2006,
  • Dave, Tokyo wrote:

I have two points. Firstly regarding your comment on representing all sides of a debate. I have often noticed that in an attempt to do this the BBC gives disproportionate airtime to tiny extremist groups. Purely because they are extreme. So for example in a question time debate about the cartoons a gentleman whom wishes to impose Sharia law in the UK has equal voice to the Labour representative as if therir opinions carry equal support amoungst the population at large.
Secondly you use the same story about cartoons to show how you took a "middle-ground" between showing them fully and not at all. You seem to feel the fact you were attacked from all sides shows this was correct. However, the middle-ground is not the same as impartiality or basing your practises on rational and logical arguments as to what is impartial. During the Newsnight story on the cartoons a full screen still of a rival Iranian cartoon poking fun at Anne Frank was shown. The middle-ground here was different so you could do it - but that is hardly brave reporting.

Helen, your judgment is probably spot on - a newsreader wearing a veil would likely cause distraction - and it's your job to cut that out.

But why would it be distracting? Not because of the veil itself - newsreading, and trust of the newsreader, is all in the eyes. Malaysian TV, for example, is full of veiled presenters. It's not a problem to watch, not even an issue.

So the distraction is purely the political debate which would arise from the first veiled newsreader on the BBC.

Sure some people are going to be unhappy; many of the comments here point that way - but does anyone care what a jingoistic racist thinks anymore?

  • 29.
  • At 08:45 PM on 30 Dec 2006,
  • Jack Hughes wrote:


You must be aware that a "BBC mindset" exists, with particular views and values.

When are you going to tackle this ?

  • 30.
  • At 09:06 PM on 30 Dec 2006,
  • Dele wrote:

the cross and the veil can both be viewed as fashion accessories if one were to remove their religious symbolisms. as fashion accessories therefore, the cross is less intrusive than the veil in normal social interactions.the veil reduces our access to the non verbal cues of the wearer in a way that the cross does not.the wearer of the veil in a paradoxical way has an advantange over the other person with whom she is interacting as body language acts as a compass that guides western social etiquette, hence the vulnerability that jack straw and others feel when in the presence of veiled women. the other case against wearing a veil in this culture is that it identifies the wearer as an outsider who does not belong to the majority culture.this can not be good for social integration as after all, when most of us go to other countries we show respect for the local culture by wearing local costume. i do not know any culture that does not value a stranger who makes an effort at integrating with local customs.

  • 31.
  • At 11:59 PM on 30 Dec 2006,
  • Paul Kominek wrote:

It does sadden me that the BBC is far from impartial. Many of the things allowed to be said and shown against Christianity would never be allowed to be said about Islam for fear of offending the latter; or perhaps by more direct retribution. The BBC doesn't report fairly and if they do want to be seen to be impartial they need to show more guts, frankly, in standing up to the hard issues - namely saying that terrorism or suppression of someone elses legitimate opinion is exactly what it is instead of their reporting methods of obsequiesness towards any Muslim point of view.

  • 32.
  • At 07:53 PM on 31 Dec 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Helen, I know you and the BBC takes a lot of stick. Quite rightly, as I'm afraid we hold you to higher standards than other news organisations. Harsh, but fair - since we want you to stay at the head of the pack, and not succumb to the populist, dumbed-down ratings-chasing alternatives.

This is incredibly tricky. I watched the coverage of the Hajj, where a reporter said something like, 'And over there is the mountain where Mohammed ascended to heaven'. Seemed reasonable with all the pilgrims around. But still noticeable.

Huw Edwards later said a similar thing, but used the wording 'the mountain where Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven'. Those subtleties simply don't exist on other channels. They are important, and the considerable effort to maintain that impartiality is a prize that you should continue to strive for.

Happy New Year.

  • 33.
  • At 01:28 AM on 01 Jan 2007,
  • Amitabh Thakur wrote:

You have rightly said that the greatest problem the world faces today is what you have succinctly called- "the cross and the sword". For whatever reasons, the religious dogmatism is increasing day by day instead of getting reduced which one would have expected considering the fact that the world is moving so fast and science and technology is advancing at an alarming rate opening newer vistas. But, instead of opening our minds and making ourselves broad-minded, our minds are getting chocked with the result that our intolerance level has increased accordingly.
It is great that even in such tough times, we have BBC before us, which can be credited with being value-neutral to a great extent in regards to religion, race and nationality- issues that have divided this world into so many smaller islands.

  • 34.
  • At 12:55 AM on 02 Jan 2007,
  • Anthony Colville wrote:

The very fact that the BBC news editor is able to openly express her views on how difficult this topic is to approach shows just how much lack of appreciation there is in this society. Britain is a multi-cultural society and as such the BBC does a very good job to represent this. I would urge the BBC to carry on provoking such arguments in 2007 to make people all all backgrounds talk about the issues that in 2006 have divided us. Whilst programmes such as the news serve the masses, programmes not so widely viewed such as Newsnight have provided the arguements from every angle, so lets not judge the work of the British Broadcasting Corporation as being anything other than constrained by what society has become!

  • 35.
  • At 04:29 PM on 02 Jan 2007,
  • Dany wrote:

Well Helen, Happy 2007, looks like you are getting a pasting here, and I have to agree. The BBC is not impartial. Many times if not all the time during the Israeli Hezzbulah conflict in the summer were you reporting on the plight of the Lebanese people. Admittedly the BBC did report a snipit about the rockets being launched by a terrorist organisation, but you skitted around the words nicely so as not to upset the militants (your words) terrorists (my words). try reporting the facts from all sides equally, try using the correct termanology - terrorist 'One who utilizes the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve political objectives, while disguised as a civilian non-combatant.' something Hezzbulah does?? I still think after all the pasting you have been given here, the BBC will not change.

  • 36.
  • At 02:35 PM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Some say that the BBC is impartial: some say that it is not.
I will settle for impartial, but subject to human frailties, unless I find evidence of censorship.
I do think that the massive news machine is getting out of control.

  • 37.
  • At 02:02 PM on 09 Jan 2007,
  • J Westerman wrote:

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the BBC is unable to examine this matter in the depth that would satisfactorily inform .
We need to know about the beliefs, objects and practices of the religious hierarchies and the facts on which they justify their beliefs and actions. We need to have completely open debate. When rational discussion by some is regarded (or treated) by others as “blasphemy” and/or justification for violence then freedom of speech is in peril.
At some date the Government and the nation as a whole will have to grasp this nettle. The sooner the better.

  • 38.
  • At 04:17 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Scooby wrote:

Moslem women surely cant wear veils out of modesty, more likely out of pride or vanity. Its not veiling its broadcasting. Its saying "I am Moslem and you're gonna know about it cos you cant avoid it." I would have a similar reaction if I saw Christians walking down the street wearing a huge cross from their neck and a crown of thorns on their head. In this day and age the only thing Moslems need to veil is their religion.

Dear Helen,

I have to say a job well done to you BBC. For the Somalis, the BBC has been the only Radio News to listen but some seem to the think that the TV BBC and Radio BBC are two differnt things! I did not seem to understand why? But, Keep on the good work you do.

David Mohamed Ali

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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