In last Sunday’s round-up we indicated the potential for a major row over the refusal of leading cinemas to show a 60-second advertisement based on The Lord’s Prayer; this was due to be shown from December 18 2015 as part of the ad reel before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And verily as prophesied, there was a media storm both supportive and critical, including the comments of the Prime Minister who viewed the ban as “ridiculous”, according to his spokesperson although s/he declined to expand on the PM’s views.
In due course, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued its own statement:
“Freedom to hold a religion and freedom to express ideas are essential British values. We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups. Digital Cinema Media have said an advert could cause offence to those of differing faiths or without belief. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and lies in the eye of the beholder. This does not mean groups or individuals are free to express themselves without restriction. Freedom of expression can be and is restricted but only in order to prevent violence, abuse or discrimination for example. There is nothing in law that prevents Christian organisations promoting their faith through adverts.”
It is undoubtedly correct of the EHRC to deny that there is any kind of “right not to be offended”. However, we rather doubt that the ban falls foul of the law, at least as we understand it. If the British Board of Film Classification had refused to give the advert a certificate or if one or more local authorities had banned its showing locally, then presumably those decisions would have been reviewable by the courts. But for a private organisation – as opposed to a public one – to refuse to accept political or religious advertising across the board, without any degree of discrimination between particular religious or political groups, seems to us to be rather a different matter. But whatever one’s view of the law, last week’s events are unlikely to be the end of the controversy.
Today The Times reported that social media sites, including Facebook and YouTube, had recorded 493,000 views of the 57-second film, while an estimated 100,000 people had watched it on media and other websites in Britain and abroad – so the impact may have been greater than if it were to be shown in cinemas and audiences “just munched on their popcorn and ignore it”, to paraphrase Giles Fraser’s comments.
Since the objective of the advertisement was to raise the awareness of prayer and the Church’s justpray.uk initiative, this appears to have been achieved – albeit through unexpected means. Perhaps the Church of England should now just move on and capitalize on its undoubted success: otherwise, there is the danger of it “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.
The afternoon, churchstate tweeted that tomorrow, 25th November, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, will ask a question in the House of Lords on the Lord’s Prayer, JustPray cinema advert.
“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”.