It’s become a seasonal cliché of British journalism. In the run-up to Christmas there is a flurry of stories about political correctness gone mad as the word Christmas is left to one side by local councils in particular as festive lights get switched on, celebrations run and greetings cards sent out. Following hard on the heels of the flurry of stories is a series of much less noticed debunking of many of them. But why let the facts get in the way of the annual season of such stories?
This year, in fairness to the media (and perhaps partly a reflection of the growing power of blogs to embarrass journalists who find their names and errors plastered over the internet for their colleagues and friends to find?*) there have been not very many such stories so far. Probably the highest profile one – over the Christmas cards sold by the Conservative Party – did have the journalistic justification of being about the Conservatives being willing to make money out of selling the sorts of cards that David Cameron had previously mocked.
But the big exception to this more positive media outlook has been the Christian media, where I’ve found a series of examples of stories about Christianity being under threat where accuracy has been missing and the outlet has been unresponsive to messages pointing out mistakes.
First example: LifeSiteNews.com which wrongly states, “Birmingham City Council has changed the name of this year’s light-switching-on event to the generic ‘Winterval.’” (no, that’s not a story about this year nor last year nor the year before; it’s essentially a limited incident from a decade ago which involved mentioning Christmas anyway). The story also claims that “Councils around Britain are removing all references to the name “Christmas” from their 2009 events” without any supporting evidence (perhaps not surprising, because it isn’t true that councils are doing things different from the past – even in the case of Dundee Council, on which see below).
Second example: Catholic Online which ran the same erroneous stories about Birmingham and Dundee as highlighted by Martin Belam, who expertly pulled about the Birmingham Winterval story.
Third example: Anglican-Mainstream.net [link now defunct] which wrongly claimed that, “Dundee City Council has come under fire for removing all references to Christmas from this year’s festive light switch-on ceremony.” The main evidence this story isn’t true? See the 175 references to Christmas I counted up, though Dundee Council’s response to the story was not as clear as it could have been. (This story was also run by The Times, which hasn’t responded to my email nor has it corrected its story.**)
Fourth example: Christian Today also ran the same erroneous story about Dundee.
Fifth example: the Christian Institute, who ran an inaccurate story about Dundee Council and also about Rochdale Council (a story that was thoroughly debunked several months earlier by The Guardian).
Martin Belam recounted counting Catholic Online, without getting a response (though the story was slightly changed, leaving the error remaining in the body of the story however). I’ve also tried contacting two of the other outlets mentioned above, in both cases without response and without the stories changing.
So is the story really about Winterval and the politically correct brigade? I think not. The story is about some Christian media outlets running wrong stories.
A cheery footnote mind you: only 37 people signed this myth inciting petition [on the now defunct Number 10 petitions website].
* I’ve been struck by the number of journalists, by no means all on publications with stunning records of accuracy and correction, I’ve spoken with in the last few months who do seem to be genuinely moved by such factors.
** Note for Baroness Buscombe: you see, this is the sort of thing that makes so many bloggers dismissive of the idea that they should have the same standards as the mainstream media.