Behind the headlines

In Six days shalt thou labour: conscientious objection to Sunday working, we noted that Adam Wagner at UKHRB duly hauled the Daily Telegraph over the coals from some extremely sloppy, shock-horror reporting in the case of Mba v London Borough of Merton (Religion or Belief Discrimination) [2012] UKEAT 0332 12 1312 (13 December 2012)Below are further examples of reporting in which the headline does not reflect the content, or statements made in the text do not bear close scrutiny.


In its article “Oxford losing its religion”, the Oxford Student begins with the statement

“Figures released from the 2011 Census revealed that Oxford has the highest percentage of people without a religion of any city in the UK.”[Emphasis added]

As with the 2001 Census, that undertaken in 2011 covered only England and Wales, not the United Kingdom.  Whilst the Oxford Mail failed to make this distinction, most of the media reported this correctly.  However, the assertion that Oxford is the most ungodly city in England and Wales contradicts the data of the Office of National Statistics, (ONS), and its summary of the 2011 census, Religion in England and Wales 2011 states [at page 7] that

Norwich had the highest proportion of people reporting no religion with 42.5 per cent, closely followed by Brighton and Hove with 42.4 per cent.”

Nevertheless, Oxford Student states correctly that

“The number of self-described Christians is now at 48 per cent, and has fallen dramatically from the last census in 2001, when 60 per cent of the city’s residents said that they were Christian”,

which accords with the 2011 Census: Religion, local authorities in England and Wales, Table KS209EW.  This table also provides an interesting comparison between Oxford and other parts of Oxfordshire, Oxford having a lower percentage of Christians but higher numbers of Muslims and those of no religion.

Christian Buddhist Hindu Jewish Muslim Sikh Other No   religion Not stated
Oxfordshire 60.2 0.5 0.6 0.3 2.4 0.2 0.4 27.9 7.5
Cherwell 63.8 0.4 0.4 0.1 2.3 0.3 0.4 25.4 6.9
Oxford 48.0 0.9 1.3 0.7 6.8 0.3 0.5 33.1 8.3
South   Oxfordshire 63.5 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.5 0.1 0.4 27.1 7.5
Vale of   White Horse 63.3 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.9 0.1 0.4 26.9 7.4
West   Oxfordshire 65.4 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.4 0.0 0.4 25.9 7.2

The article states

“The drop in Christian believers is in contrast to the growth in the city’s Muslim population, which has almost doubled since 2001, rising from 5,309 to 10,320 believers, and is to become the second most popular religion”.


“This result was emphasised by the fact that the city, which has a total population of 151,906, has the third highest percentage of atheists in the country”.

Whilst Oxford’s ranking among E&W atheists is borne out by the more detailed ONS data in Table KS210EW, in terms of numbers the atheists are insignificant: the 327 atheists make up only a small fraction of those assigned to the category “no religion”, the majority having just ticked the “no religion” box, although those who were specific include: 243 agnostics, 91 Humanists and 709 Jedi Knights.

The ONS census data include some interesting features concerning religion in Oxford, but there are not fully captured in the article.

Legal status of a foetus

A number of lawyers will have blinked at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, (SPUC) Director’s blog of 31 Dec 2012 which was headed

“An unborn child has legal personality in English Law”

Although we would have added an interrogation mark to the title, the content of the blog was unambiguous, and related to a re-publication of an article by the pro-life blog ALDU – The Association of Lawyers for the Defence of the Unborn, relating to Paton v Trustees of the BPAS [1979] QB 276.  The case concerned an action by William Paton who in May 1979 “ … sought an injunction to restrain the BPAS Trustees, and his own wife, from aborting a child, his child, which his wife was then expecting.”

The article cites the judgement of George Baker, the President of the Court, that

“The foetus cannot in English law, in my view, have a right of its own at least until it is born and has a separate existence from its mother.”

although its author, the late Gerald Wright disagreed

“However despite this obiter dictum (for such it must be) it is submitted that a claim made on behalf of the unborn child, the “nasciturus” as it is sometimes called, would stand a very much better chance of success than did Mr. Paton’s personal claim as husband and father-to-be. The arguments in favour of a claim so framed are outlined”.

Nevertheless, the findings of Paton v Trustees of the BPAS have been affirmed in: Re F (in utero) [1988] Fam. 122; Burton v Islington HA [1993] QB 204; Attorney General’s Reference (No. 3 of 1994) [1998] AC 245l, and more recently at the European Court of Human Rights in Evans v The United Kingdom [2007] EctHR (GC)(No. 6339/05); and Vo v France [2004] ECtHR (GC) (No. 53924/00).

National Secular Society

The National Secular Society operates a very efficient media monitoring service, although the links to the articles highlighted often place their own spin on the actual headline.  Recent examples from 1st January include: the Daily Telegraph headline “Rowan Williams: faith is not an ’embarrassment’” becomes “Clapped out Archbishop says his faith is a “well spring of energy””; and the Irish Independent’s “Pope’s remarks have the link “Don’t let the pope’s hate-mongering drive you away from the church”.

Nevertheless, this does not detract from the site’s identification of a wide range of religious issues is the media, although one’s first option must remain the headlines section of the Strasbourg Consortium.

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