The Birth of a Meme

It’s not often that you can trace a tabloid meme back to its beginnings. Over the last week we’ve seen the birth of a new tabloid meme and, luckily, we’re able to see where it comes from.

Here’s the seed. It’s from the Frequently Asked Questions page on the BBC Religion religion web site.

Why does bbc.co.uk/religion use BCE and CE instead of BC and AD?

In line with modern practice bbc.co.uk/religion uses BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era) 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.

There is something important to notice here. From reading the answer to question, it’s clear that it’s only talking about the BBC Religion web site – this is not a BBC-wide policy. Also note that this page has been there for some time. There’s nothing at all that indicates that this is a new rule. But that’s not how it seemed to various Mail columnists.

In the Mail on Sunday on 18th Septamber, Peter Hitchins wrote this:

The BBC’s Chief Commissar for Political Correctness (whom I imagine as a tall, stern young woman in cruel glasses issuing edicts from an austere office) was hard at work again last week.

On University Challenge, Jeremy Paxman referred to a date as being Common Era, rather than AD. This nasty formulation is designed to write Christianity out of our culture. Given the allegedly ferocious Mr Paxman’s schoolgirlish, groupie-like treatment of various prominent atheists in recent interviews, maybe he favours this far-from-impartial view.

I’m guessing that Hitchens just happened to be watching University Challenge, got annoyed by the use of “Common Era” and decided to use it at the end of his column to have a little go at the BBC. It probably wouldn’t have gone any further if it wasn’t for James Delingpole.

On Saturday Delingpole wrote a piece for the Mail entitled “How the BBC fell for a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within”. I swear I’m not making this up. The piece reads like something from The Onion but, amazingly, he seems to be completely serious. It’s Delingpole who links Hitchens’ annoyance to the FAQ page I quoted above. He writes:

No longer will [The BBC’s] website refer to those bigoted, Christian-centric concepts AD (as in Anno Domini – the Year of Our Lord) and BC (Before Christ). From now on, it will use initials which strip our traditional Gregorian calendar of its offensive religious context. All reference to Christ has been expunged, replaced by the terms CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era).

But the BBC isn’t doing this because it has been flooded with complaints, you understand. Nor is it responding to public demand. No, as it primly explains on the Q&A page on the section of its website bbc.co.uk/religion, it is doing it to be ‘in line with modern practice’.

He’s getting it completely wrong, of course. As we’ve already established, the FAQ page is only talking about a single section section of the BBC’s web site. But Delingpole isn’t a man who ever lets facts stand in the way of a good rant. Building on a non-existent foundation he spins a magnificent conspiracy theory about pernicious left wingers destroying the British way of life.

BBC turns its back on year of our Lord
Then, on Sunday, Chris Hastings ties it all together, building on Hitchens’ annoyance, the BBC FAQ and Delingpole’s rantings to produce a front-page story with the headline “BBC turns its back on year of Our Lord: 2,000 years of Christianity jettisoned for politically correct ‘Common Era'”.

But, of course, the story doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. In fact it is full of internal contradictions.

The Corporation has replaced the familiar Anno Domini (the year of Our Lord) and Before Christ with the obscure terms Common Era and Before Common Era.

A bold statement which is rather shown up by the following sentence which admits that University Challenge and In Our Time “are among the growing number of shows using the new descriptions” – indication that the BBC’s evil plan isn’t quite as advanced as Hastings would like us to think. It’s also interesting that he uses the phrase “new descriptions” as the terms have been around for 150 years.

If you get to the end of the article, he has asked the BBC for a statement on the issue. They say:

The BBC has not issued editorial guidance on the date systems.

Both AD and BC, and CE and BCE are widely accepted date systems and the decision on which term to use lies with individual production and editorial teams.

A lesser man would have realised that this statement completely overturns the argument of the article and may even have thought better of submitting the story. Hastings, however, knows that most Mail readers don’t get past the first couple of paragraphs of a story and decided to press ahead safe in the knowledge that very few people would get to the end and realise the embarrassing truth. And it seems he was right to do so, as this story currently has over 1,500 comments, the vast majority of which are from people who obviously didn’t get far past the headline.

I thought that would have been the end of it, but this nonsense now seems to have gone viral. Yesterday the Mail published “Our language is being hijacked by the Left to muzzle rational debate” by Melanie Phillips (don’t read it – really, you have been warned) and “The BBC just loath anything that smacks of tradition” by Reverend Peter Mullen. Neither of these articles show any evidence of the authors having taken any time to investigate the story at all. The story has also moved beyond the Mail and has been covered by other papers like the Telegraph.

So there you have it. The birth of a new anti-BBC meme. One throwaway remark from a Mail writer and within a week the BBC is under attack for something that it hasn’t done. Well done Peter Hitchens. And the brilliant thing (as far as the Mail is concerned) is that the BBC is in a lose-lose situation here. If programmes stop using BC and AD then the paranoia of the Mail will be proved correct. If, however, (as seems far more likely) a mixture of the two systems continue to be used as it has been for several years, then the Mail will be able to point out every use of BC and AD as a triumph for its campaign.

One more nail in the coffin of rational debate in this country.

P.S. For more detail on the story see these two great posts over on Tabloid Watch.

Update: I’ve just seen this in an old article on the Daily Mail site:

A comparison of this latest finding with city walls and gates from the period of the First Temple, as well as pottery found at the site, enable us to postulate with a great degree of assurance that the wall that has been revealed is that which was built by King Solomon in Jerusalem in the latter part of the 10th century BCE.

And, you know what, not a ripple of complaint in the comments.

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