Since the story came out of the BBC's "impartiality summit" at which some of its poster boys and girls owned up to their institution's inbuilt bias, quite a few commentators have followed up with astringent critiques.
The BBC's coverage of the government's last minute U-turn away from forcing new faith schools to take 25% of their pupils either from other faiths or none was another example of its bias in action. It was clear enough from news programme after news programme what the inbuilt line was. There were questions like,"Do you really believe faith schools aren't a threat to community cohesion?"
One of the shout lines on today's BBC News website reads:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has insisted faith schools are not harmful to the cohesion of society
As far as I'm aware, there's never been any empirical evidence of any kind that faith schools in England are in any way harmful to social cohesion.
Which brings me to the BBC's role in promoting the idea that they are.
On Friday, after Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, had reversed his previous decision to impose quotas on new faith schools, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme ran an extensive discussion with Lord Baker and the Roman Catholic Archbishop Nichols, who led the opposition to the quotas.
As Kenneth Baker, Lord Baker was Margaret Thatcher's first Secretary of State for Education, and he introduced the revolution of the imposed-by-law National Curriculum and test system, as well as compulsory training days for teachers.
That's the positive side of his contribution. The less known side is that he has a marked aversion to the extension of faith schools, particularly Muslim faith schools. In July he started off the whole campaign for quotas on faith schools by using his House of Lords position to try to insert an amendment to the Education Act currently going through Parliament. In his proposal speech, he proudly proclaimed his willingness when Secretary of State to turn down legitimate applications from non-Christian groups to found schools on spurious grounds:
In my time, I had no applications from Christian bodies but I had applications from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh bodies. I always found good reasons why one could not give permission, and I believed that that was the right policy to follow. The Government changed that policy, which was a grievous and huge mistake, and successive generations in our country will suffer from it.
Lord Baker was allowed to dominate the discussion on the Today Programme, and he used that opportunity to claim that the Catholic-led campaign was based on deception and lies, because it had suggested that the quotas might be imposed on all faith schools, not just new ones.
But that's where I suggest he was Lord Pot calling the kettle black. He monopolised airtime with claims that the Northern Ireland conflicts were rooted in the universal division into Catholic and Protestant schools there, ignoring the over 6,600 Catholic and Protestant schools happily operating in England without any resultant sectarian divisions. To say nothing of the fact that both Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland schools have always been profoundly opposed to sectarian division and run programmes designed to persuade their pupils towards community harmony and reconciliation.
Then he claimed that "many Jewish communal leaders" were strongly in favour of the quotas being established in Jewish schools. Pot. Kettle. Black. This is the first time the entire Jewish community, including the strictly Orthodox, the Orthodox and the Reform synagogue groups, plus all the groups who sponsor and run schools, have united to run a campaign against a proposed piece of education legislation.
Pot-Kettle-Black Baker did to support his claims that Jewish leaders support the restriction of Jewish schools was to quote Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who is a fervent campaigner against faith schools. The BBC itself also repeatedly chose Rabbi Romain to interview throughout the week leading up to the final decision about the quotas. Neither they nor the BBC gave listeners any clue that Romain does not speak for the Reform Jewish movement-- whose movement is currently expanding its provision of Jewish schools---or any other group of Jews.
BBC News bulletins throughout last Friday continued to replay or report in detail Lord Baker's claims and comments as headline news. Only later in the day did they briefly feature a Conservative front bench spokesperson who confirmed that Lord Baker's views are not in line with current Conservative policy which opposes mandatory faith school quotas. On the Radio 4 lunchtime and five pm news programmes, the BBC also featured a brief interview with Rabbi James Kennard, the headteacher of one of the largest Jewish comprehensive schools, who made a strong and well reasoned case why the life of Jewish schools doesn't fit into the Church of England-originated idea of a student body who may or may not share the official faith of the school. In contrast to the way it treated Lord Baker, Rabbi Kennard's views were not explored or reported further when they were broadcast or on subsequent news bulletins.
The prize indicator for the BBC's promotion of faith school quotas was its featuring of Moazzam Begg on the Radio 4 PM progamme. This was eagerly trailed by BBC continuity announcers through the afternoon as "the Muslim who went to a Jewish school", including a soundbite where he cheerfully described how he'd celebrated festivals like Chanukah and Passover, learned Hebrew and waved the Israeli flag. The interview was an extension of the soundbite, and came over as suggesting that his experiences had been beneficial and helped him in his understanding of the Jewish community.
Nowhere was it explained just who Moazzam Begg is and why he's anything but a recommendation for the benefits of encouraging members of one faith go to a school dedicated to the promotion of another faith.
Moazzam Begg was for two years a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, after he was captured in Kabul. The reasons for that given by the US authorities are these:
a. The detainee is a member of al Qaida and other affiliated terrorist organizations. The detainee recruited individuals to attend al Qauida run terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. The detainee provided money and material support to al Qaida terrorist training camps. The detainee has received extensive training at al Qaida run terrorist training camps since 1993. He has been trained on the AK-47, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), handgun, ambush theory, detection of land mines and he manufacture of improvised grenades. The detainee provided support to al Qaida terrorists by providing shelter for their families while the al Qaida members committed terrorist acts. b. The detainees engaged in hostile acts against the United States or its coalition Partners. The detainee was armed and prepared to fight on the frontlines against US and allied forces alongside Taliban and al Qaida fighters. The detainee retreated to the Tora Bora Afghanistan along with other Taliban and al Qaida fighters. The detainee engaged in these hostil actions while neither he nor his fellow fighters wore distinctive military emblems on their clothes, not followed a typical chain of command. The detainee provided support to Usama Bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network with full knowledge that Bin Laden had issued a declaration of war against the United States and that the al Qaida network had committed numerous terrorist attacks against the United States and its citizens.
Moazzam Begg vigorously denied those charges. He claimed he and his wife and children just went to Kabul because he wanted to teach there. Readers can take their own view of his claims in the light of his previous encounters with the UK authorities:
Moazzam Begg was first arrested in 1994 for alleged involvement in a benefit fraud case. His acquaintance, Shahid Akram Butt, pled guilty and served 18 months in jail. Charges against Begg were dropped, but a police search of his home found night vision goggles, a bulletproof vest, and extremist Islamic literature. His family insist that he was collecting such items is a hobby.
He had travelled to Afghanistan and Bosnia and attempted to travel to Chechnya, and fully acknowledges giving financial support for Muslim combatants, but insists that he never took a combat role for himself.
He was again arrested in 2000 under British anti-terrorism laws during a raid on the Maktabah Al Ansar bookshop in Birmingham, which he had founded. The government retrieved encrypted files from his computer and ordered Begg to open them, but Begg refused and a judge ruled in his favor. He was released without charge.
So what was the relevance of Begg's experience as a minority pupil at a Jewish faith school to this less than harmony-promoting career? Of course, none of this background was communicated to listeners, still less than Begg's own previous published comment on those experiences:
Looking back more than a year after leaving Guantanamo, Begg blames in part Sandy Gall. The legendary ITN presenter's exploits with the Afghan mujahideen - then fighting the Soviet occupation of their country - thrilled Middle England.
But they also inspired the Brummie teenager with a wish to join the struggle.
Born in Britain, the son of a Pakistani banker, he'd grown up in a middleclass family and had a model integrated education.
Although he spoke a lot of Urdu, the language of Pakistan, at home, Begg spent six years of his childhood at a Jewish school in Birmingham, learning Hebrew, wearing a yarmulke (skullcap) and making almost entirely Jewish friends. His secondary school was largely white, too. Perhaps that was the trouble.
"I was confused about my identity. I think I still am," he says.
Meanwhile, Mark Thompson, the Director General of the BBC, has put up a response to the original Daily Mail article which reported the BBC "impartiality summit". He claims the critics of the BBC are conspiracy theorists, who take the view that there's a conspiracy to promote these lines:
Judging by some of the headlines over the past week, there are people out there who think the BBC is dominated by trendy, Left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity and in favour of multiculturalism.
Dominated by trendy, left-leaning liberals? How could anyone but a conspiracy theorist possibly think that?