The BBC Trust has admitted that comments by Jeremy Paxman in which he called the Book of Genesis 'religious hogwash' were indeed 'offensive'. Paxman had also described those who hold a literal belief in the Old Testament as 'stupid people'.
Paxman's comments were made during a Newsnight programme in which he interviewed Richard Dawkins about his book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. The programme was broadcast in October last year.
In a scripted introduction to the item Paxman said that from 'our earliest years we learn to suspend disbelief'. He then added, 'And that apparently is also how we condition impressionable brains to absorb religious hogwash.'
In another section Paxman said of Dawkins, 'Even with him setting them up as Aunt Sallies the myths remain the better stories carrying an imaginative charge that makes nonsense easier to understand than fact. Fairy tales of whatever world religion retain an untarnishable beauty more easily followed by a small and impressionable Tasmanian child for example.'
During the live interview Dawkins said he thought Genesis was a wonderful story 'as long as you don't think it's true.' He then said that the problem was that 40% of Americans did think it was true and they 'probably think Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt as well for that matter.' Paxman then asked him, 'Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?' Dawkins replied that he did care that children were being misled by 'those stupid people'.
Richard Dawkins is renowned for his rudeness towards Christians but on this occasion it seems that Paxman actually outdid him in rudeness, which was quite an achievement.
Paxman's comments led to a viewer complaining to the BBC but initially the complaints unit cleared the programme of causing any offence. However after an appeal the BBC Trust's Editorial Standards Committee concluded that the item breached BBC Editorial Guidelines on harm and offence and ruled:
Although Mr Paxman's use of the terms 'religious hogwash' and 'stupid people' was not intended to cause deliberate offence, particularly to those with religious views and beliefs, the use of the terms was offensive to some of the audience and there was no clear editorial purpose for their use in the context of this Newsnight item.
The Trust decided some Newsnight viewers were:
... unlikely to have expected Jeremy Paxman's typically robust and confrontational interviewing style to extend to the use of the terms 'religious hogwash' when introducing the story of Genesis and 'stupid people' when talking about those with a literal belief in the Old Testament in the context of the item about religious myths.
It is right that Jeremy Paxman has been reprimanded for his rudeness. Moreover it shows the value of making complaints and of pursuing them.