Boris Johnson is right to raise suspicions about the BBC’s absurd use of BCE/CE

The BBC's website refers to BCE/CE rather than BC/AD as it is 'religiously neutral'

I don’t always agree with Boris Johnson. I find his writing style sometimes too florid and his carefully honed bumbling public persona a bit contrived. But I had to applaud his article in the Telegraph on Monday in which he scorned the BBC for apparently wanting to change the long-established division of world history from AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ) into the modern and secular CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era).

As Boris (who does not pretend to be a shining light of Christian faith and practice) puts it in his inimitable way: “It is all so darned nonsensical. There was no Mr Common Era preaching a ministry in Galilee in the first century AD. There was no Eran religion and no followers of Common.” I have always found the fashion these days to refer to a “Common Era” equally absurd and for the same reason. Whenever I have reviewed a book that insists on using it I draw attention to its meaningless nature.

Being a fan of Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, I was cast down when I once read an article by him, also referring to CE and BCE. Having read that the usage was pioneered by Jewish writers in the 19th century, I can see why the Chief Rabbi uses it – but he still goes down very slightly in my estimation for bowing to this pressure, either from his 19th-century forebears or for reasons of political correctness. Whether you are a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist or anything else, you have to accept that since the sixth century this division of time has been the accepted tradition, adopted universally. You can’t rewrite history.

Boris continues: “If the BBC is going to continue to put MMXI at the end of its programmes – as I think it does – then it should have the intellectual honesty to admit that this figure was not plucked from nowhere. We don’t call it 2011 because it is 2011 years since the Chinese emperor Ai was succeeded by the Chinese emperor Ping (though it is)… It is 2011 years since the (presumed) birth of Christ.” As he indicates, this historical division has been in usage for over 1,500 years and is accepted in “China, Japan and just about anywhere you care to mention…”

But is Johnson right to lambast the BBC for making such an absurd policy change? No, according to the Guardian journalist, Polly Curtis; she writes: “I asked the BBC whether it is true that the terms AD and BC had been dropped. They categorically denied it. A spokesperson said: “Whilst the BBC uses BC and AD like most people as standard terminology, it is also possible for individuals to use different terminology if they wish to, particularly as it is now commonly used in historical research.”

She goes on to say that the story “originated from the BBC’s religious website, where it states, ‘In line with modern practice, uses BCE/CE as a religiously neutral alternative to BC/AD. As the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians.’ ” Polly Curtis concludes with the comment: “The BBC hasn’t dropped the use of BC or AD, but one website editor has decided that BCE/CE was more appropriate.”

I don’t think this makes Boris entirely wrong. Even if the BBC hasn’t changed its official policy, the “spokesperson’s” remarks invite suspicion and raise all sorts of questions: is CE/BCE really so common in historical research? Who says so? What does “in line with modern practice” mean? How can CE/BCE be described as a “religiously neutral” alternative, when it is obviously hostile to the religious implications of AD/BC? Are non-Christians really offended? Knowing how the BBC treated the subject of euthanasia recently in its film about Terry Pratchett and the Dignitas clinic, I don’t think my suspicions are unreasonable. Johnson is right to raise his hackles.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens, author of A Short History of Time (2005), put Boris’s point more elegantly, writing in his scholarly and erudite book: “If [this timeline] does not commemorate the birth of Christ it has no business to exist at all, for no other event of world-historical significance took place in either 1 BC or AD 1… Although, as a date for the birth of Jesus Christ, the epoch is almost certainly wrong, it remains a commemoration of that event. Attractive, especially in a globalised age, as a purely secular era may appear, the Christian era cannot be made secular by denying its origin.”

Quite so.