The National Secular Society has urged the BBC to treat free expression as a positive value as it raised concerns that new guidelines defer excessively to religious sensitivities.
In response to a consultation on the draft guidelines the NSS warned that the corporation risked curtailing free speech by placing an excessive focus on avoiding offence when handling religion.
The NSS said the BBC should defend and uphold the principle of free expression. The society warned that the BBC's current position risked exacerbating a climate of self-censorship and acquiescing to de facto blasphemy codes.
The NSS said in places the guidelines gave religions protections which were otherwise only afforded to people. The society also questioned a section which appeared to place a particular premium on depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Much of the NSS's criticism focused on the excessive deference given to religious sensitivities. In a statement of the BBC's values, the guidance says: In exercising freedom of expression, we must offer appropriate protection to vulnerable groups
and avoid causing unnecessary offence.
The guidance also says the BBC should take care to avoid unjustified offence because religious beliefs are central to many people's lives and arouse strong views and emotions. It says this despite suggesting there is no longer an offence of
blasphemy or blasphemous libel in any part of the UK.
The NSS said these lines risked acquiescing to de facto blasphemy codes and placed an unjustified focus on the feelings of the religious.
The society suggested a replacement section which would say the BBC should take care not to create a de facto blasphemy law. It also pointed out that the BBC's statement on blasphemy is factually incorrect, as Scotland and Northern Ireland both
have blasphemy laws.
Elsewhere the NSS said the guidelines risked creating a double standard concerning treatment of religion, with critics of religion facing additional and unjustified burdens and restrictions.
The BBC's guidance says content dealing with religion which is likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs must be referred to a senior editorial figure.
It also says producers of religious programmes and related content must ensure religious views and beliefs206 are not subject to abusive treatment, adding contributors should not be allowed to denigrate the beliefs of others.
The NSS said robust debate and exchanges of views should not be beyond the bounds of what is reasonable, provided such exchanges are measured and not abusive or insulting.
The NSS welcomed the fact that the guidance no longer contains a specific prohibition on depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad but questioned the inclusion of a section dedicated specifically to that subject.
The guidance says the BBC must have strong editorial justification for publishing any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. It adds that any proposal to do so must be referred to a senior editorial figure, who should normally consult Editorial
Policy. It says many Muslims regard any depiction of Muhammad as highly offensive.
The NSS described this as an improvement on previous guidance which forbade any depiction of Muhammad. But it added that the section suggested a particular taboo which added to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and
reactionary views of some religious extremists.
We have received complaints from some viewers who were unhappy with scenes of violence in the Mick Carter prison storyline.
We're aware that any scenes of violence and unpleasantness can sometimes be upsetting for some of our audience but occasionally it's necessary to the narrative. EastEnders has a long established relationship with its audience who have come to
expect big dramatic moments such as these and as our regular viewers will know, the scenes in question were part of an ongoing storyline which has seen Mick pushed to his limits after he was falsely imprisoned.
We are always extremely mindful of the content within an episode and the time slot in which it is shown. All of our content, including language must be editorially justified and we're always careful to film and edit scenes in such a way that they
do not exceed reasonable expectations for the programme -- with much of the violence being implied rather than explicit.
It's also important to note that EastEnders is a fictional drama but, like society, it's made up of many different character types. We feel the scenes in question are crucial aspects of the overall storyline of Mick's time in prison, and that
they were not included gratuitously.
Tony Hall, the BBC's director general, has repeated his call for global streaming companies, Netflix and Amazon to suffer the same censorship as the UK's traditional broadcasters -- or else risk killing off distinctive British content. He said to
the Royal Television Society's London conference:
It cannot be right that the UK's media industry is competing against global giants with one hand tied behind its back.
In so many ways -- prominence, competition rules, advertising, taxation, content regulation, terms of trade, production quotas -- one set of rules applies to UK companies, and barely any apply to the new giants. That needs rebalancing, too. We
stand ready to help, where we can.
Hall will use the speech to warn that young British audiences now spend almost as much time watching Netflix -- which only launched its UK streaming service in 2012 -- as watching BBC television and iPlayer combined.
Citing Ofcom figures, Hall warned that Britain's public service broadcasters have cut spending on content in real terms by around £1bn since 2004. He said that global streaming companies are not spending enough on British productions to make up
the difference, while their UK-based productions tend to focus on material which has a global appeal rather than a distinctly British flavour. Hall added:
This isn't just an issue for us economically, commercially or as institutions. There is an impact on society. The content we produce is not an ordinary consumer good. It helps shape our society. It brings people together, it helps us understand
each other and share a common national story.