Anglosphere: Anti-disestablishmentarianism

By JAMES C. BENNETT, United Press International  |  July 14, 2003 at 10:27 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- One of the interesting differences within the Anglosphere is the variety of ways to run national broadcasting industries. Anglosphere newspapers are all alike, financially speaking -- they are all pretty much privately financed enterprises -- but each Anglosphere broadcasting system is structured in its own way.

The two principal models are the American one of privately owned networks supported by advertising revenues, and the British one of a tax-supported organization, the British Broadcasting Corp., governed by a politically appointed board, that is supposed to provide a "national" voice representative of the whole nation and its various viewpoints.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Anglosphere nations tend to fall somewhere in between these two models, although the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. resembles the BBC substantially.

What is interesting about the two competing models is the way they echo, in certain ways, the differing approaches to the organization of religion that have historically held sway in each country. Interestingly enough, this parallel continues to be instructive today, as both the Church of England and the BBC are increasingly subject to debate over whether they should be disestablished.

For many people today, particularly in long-disestablished America, the battle over the establishment of religion is lost in the mists of time. It's worth remembering that before the origins of the modern welfare state, many of the functions we now delegate to government -- schools, hospitals, orphanages, and unemployment relief -- were carried out by the church. Furthermore, the basic funding for the church, the tithe, was collected by force of law.

Beyond that, in times when most people were illiterate and immobile, the church provided a place of public gathering in which the sermon served both as news broadcast and editorial page. It was where people received both news of the world and an explanation of its significance.

At the time of the Reformation, however, people began to hold very differing views on church organization and government, and on important ethical questions, with real consequences in everyday life. The church in England, made independent of Rome by act of Parliament, soon suffered from strong dissent on many different matters.

Today we look at these struggles and ask: "Why couldn't they just let everyone do what they want?" Aside from the central fact, that each party thought that to do so would condemn their opponents' souls to eternal damnation, this would also mean disrupting the vast network of institutions though which the church delivered services to everyday life. And in doing so, it would mean that each sect would then educate and indoctrinate their members in their own viewpoints, which (they feared) would make the emergence of a political consensus forever beyond reach.

After much struggle, Britain ended up with a structure in which the Anglican Church remained the established (i.e., tax-supported) church in England, and the Presbyterian Church likewise in Scotland. James I commissioned a Bible and Book of Common Prayer designed to be acceptable to as many people as possible.

Most people in each kingdom belonged to the established church, but a minority belonged to other denominations. Many of the minority emigrated to American colonies founded by their fellow-congregants, where they would not be subject to tithes for a church to which they did not belong.

In America, most colonies established their majority denominations. However, changes in society and in opinion caused the idea of disestablishment, of having no one official tax-supported church, to become more attractive. By the time of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, many did not want an established church for the United States, while those who did could not agree on which church should be established. Thus England ended up with the model of a tax-supported national church trying to be acceptable to as many people as possible, while America ended up with the model of many competing, privately funded churches, each being exactly what its members wanted it to be.

It is interesting, then, to see how the broadcast model chosen in each country parallels its ecclesiastical model. The BBC has much of the air of an established church. Its lavish, visually rich historical dramas are the equivalent of the beautiful cathedrals and visually rich ceremonies. Its editorial and public opinion programming has the tone of a sermon from Westminster Abbey during the era of Anglican religious certainty: not so much argumentative as merely instructional, telling the people what they ought to believe.

America's public broadcasting network, in contrast, has the moral fervor of the early Puritans. Reading about the three-hour long Congregationalist sermons, incessantly hectoring congregants on some moral failing or other, during which ushers whacked napping miscreants on the head with poles, it occurred to me that the closest modern experience to match is surely being stuck in traffic while the only available channel is a National Public Radio station conducting a pledge drive. The commercial networks, in contrast, are more like a modern mainstream denomination, dedicated primarily to giving their parishioners what they want.

Today, both the Church of England and the BBC have lost their way. Not having to fight for the attention and donations of their congregants has permitted their worldviews to grow further and further apart from those who are required to support them. For a long time this disparity has been tolerated, partly because each institution had inherited a large store of moral credibility, which has gradually been squandered. Not surprisingly, the Church has seen growing discussion of the need to disestablish itself. Ironically, American churches, supported by voluntary donations, enjoy a far larger and more enthusiastic membership.

The discussion of BBC disestablishment, in contrast, has just begun. It is not quite yet a mainstream opinion or topic in Britain. However, it is a topic heard far more today than just, say, five years ago. Yet the case for disestablishment of the BBC is far more central to British life and politics than the question of the establishment of the Church of England, for it is the media, rather than the Church, that frames political and social questions for the mass of the British population today.

Now Tony Blair and the Labor government have been bitten by the BBC over Iraq. The Conservatives have felt the sharp end of the stick from the BBC for years. Anybody, from whatever party, who approaches the question of the European Union with anything but unqualified adoration has been treated by BBC opinion as barking mad.

The head of the network has said that being criticized from both sides of the political aisle must mean that they have got it about right. This misunderstands the sea change in opinion that has begun to happen. More and more the issue is no longer whether this or that person or action of the BBC may have been inappropriate. Rather, it is the model itself that is being called into question.

The multiplication of alternative media, and in particular the advent of political Web logs, who have the ability to track BBC coverage errors and attitudes pervasively and persistently, are changing the landscape. I have said before that the Internet and its creations may have a cumulative effect on society similar to that of printing and the Reformation. The disestablishment of established media, specifically the BBC, may become a case in point.

Disestablishmentarians are on the attack. It will remain to be seen whether the BBC can rally antidisestablishmentarian attitudes to save themselves.

Trending Stories