Two bishops have strongly criticised the BBC after a presenter asked Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg whether his Catholic faith could be a bar to holding high office in Britain.
The bishops of Shrewsbury and Paisley accused the BBC of “bigotry” towards Catholicism following Rees-Mogg’s appearance on The Daily Politics, during which presenter Jo Coburn quizzed the MP on his religious and social views.
Rees-Mogg himself accused Coburn of “picking on the views of the Catholic Church” after she asked him whether his Catholic views meant he had a problem with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson being a lesbian and pregnant.
The Conservative MP said during the interview: “I make no criticism of any of my colleagues, but do you believe in religious tolerance?”
He continued: “So why do you pick on this view of the Catholic Church? I am asking you, why do you pick on the views of the Catholic Church?”
Coburn responded: “I am saying there are people who might have a problem with it,” to which Rees-Mogg answered: “You are saying that tolerance only goes so far and you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church, so isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?”
The presenter asked him if he thought his faith was a barrier to holding high office, prompting the Catholic politician to respond: “Ah, that is a different question and it is really important to get to the heart of this because this country believes in religious tolerance, we are a very tolerant nation.
“The act of tolerance is to tolerate things you do not agree with not just ones you do agree with and the problem with liberal tolerance is it has got to the point of only tolerating what it likes.”
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury condemned the way the interview was conducted. He told the Catholic Herald: “The hounding of a Member of Parliament like Jacob Rees-Mogg for simply sharing the faith of Catholic Church indicates that the BBC and its interviewers see Catholic teaching as being somehow beyond public tolerance. It is hard to see this treatment of Catholic politicians as being other than a new bigotry.”
Bishop John Keenan of Paisley also accused the presenter of trying to “hide behind the old red-herrings of ‘other people say’, and ‘members of your own party say’.”
He added: “When that particular trick wasn’t working, she had to lay her cards on the table and put to him the notion – as a serious question, can you believe! – that being a practicing Catholic should be a barrier to high public office.
“In short, that Catholics like Rees-Mogg simply can’t be Prime Minister because it’s just not British in this day and age. She openly wondered if it was a ‘problem’ to hold ordinary Catholic beliefs in high office, and seriously suggested that Catholics who were against the likes of abortion and same-sex marriage should be barred from decision-making in public life.
“Rees-Mogg was quite right to call this secular bigotry. What else is it?”
Bishop Keenan told the Herald that Rees-Mogg was right to “point out that this aggressive secularism has nothing liberal about it”.
The bishop added: “He was right to call out the BBC for picking on the Catholic Church particularly, and to signal that it would not treat Muslims or Jews in anything like the same prejudicial way in which it now routinely and casually treats Catholics.”
“Jo Coburn asked, in the end, if you can divorce your personal views from your politics,” the bishop said. “It is clear that there are elements in the BBC who find it quite impossible to make such a separation, and who find it quite acceptable to bring their own personal animus against the Catholic Church to the front and centre of their work, in an aggressive propaganda that runs ‘Pro-Choice-LGBT good, Catholics bad’.
“They peddle this idea without a care for its compromising effect on the best values of their own public service broadcasting mission. In that sense it is not just the Catholic Church that they offend but their own founding values of balance and fairness.”
He added: “I wonder, when the dust settles and this era moves on, if the BBC will be able to emerge with any reputation in tact from having so boldly pinned its colours to the mast of a present but surely time-limited ideology whose worrying and deleterious effects on tolerance and on the common good are becoming plainer to see by the day.”
Rees-Mogg’s Conservative colleague Sir Edward Leigh MP said: “BBC presenters often treat observant religious people in general and Catholics in particular as if they’re not of the modern world. It speaks to the strengths of the Conservative party that people as ostensibly different as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ruth Davidson get on well in the same party. Actually, I think all the people of this country get on much better than the BBC would really like them to.”
The BBC said: “Jacob Rees Mogg is viewed by many as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party and possible future prime minister. Jo Coburn did not question his right to be a practising Catholic in public life, and did not raise his Catholicism, but used the interview to explore whether Mr Rees Mogg’s views on gay marriage and abortion were out of step with the mainstream of his colleagues at Westminster.
“Both the current and last prime minister have backed gay marriage, and argued for the abortion laws in Great Britain to remain largely unchanged.
“Jo also referred directly to several Conservative MPs who have said they believe Mr Rees Mogg’s views on the issues of gay marriage and abortion to be incompatible with leading the party, and it was not unreasonable to ask him to respond to those claims.”