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Sunday 17 April 2011

Herding Refugees’ Cats In Wakefield

Dropping into the lap of grateful hacks at the Mail has come a story pressing so many of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre’s agenda buttons that they can scarcely find time to bother thinking through their copy before rushing to publish. For this is about Christians, freedom, soldiering, tragic illness, and bureaucracy gone mad all together. And Muslims. Well, perhaps.

Colin Atkinson drives a van for housing association WDH in Wakefield. He is also a practising Christian. This much is uncontroversial. But he has also attached a cross to the dashboard of his van, and WDH have told him to remove it. He can, however, wear a Christian symbol should he wish. It’s the difference between company property – the van – and his personal space.

But this is sufficient for the Mail to thunder “persecution”. So out comes an array of apparent facts, none of which are material to the company’s decision, rather like the now legendary asylum seeker’s cat. They tell how Atkinson’s boss has a photo of Che Guevara in his office, but Guevara is not a religious symbol, and the boss is not in a customer facing role – although the Mail tries to make him so by saying that the public can see into his office.

Then we find that Atkinson was a regular soldier, for which fair play to him, but unless WDH has an exemption in its staff code for the fact, this too is not material – but for the driver and his legal team, it’s very good for getting the public on his side, as is the muscular disease that has confined Atkinson’s unfortunate wife to a wheelchair.

Ah, but then the Mail deploys its trump card by pressing the Muslim button. We get the “Muslim woman in black burqa” photo, and a false equivalence between Atkinson’s cross and Islamic dress. What the Mail does not do is ask whether attaching a Qur’anic text or inscription to a WDH van dashboard would be acceptable (the answer should be, if WDH are being consistent, that it is not).

Otherwise, the refugees’ cats keep on coming: the CEO of WDH earns more than 150k a year (irrelevant), the WDH equality manager used to work for HBOS “which almost collapsed in 2008” (ditto), the company has previously held “diversity days” (ditto), and that 51% of WDH customers identify as “Christian” (ditto).

What it boils down to is that, instead of WDH being “deeply illiberal and remarkably intolerant”, as one of Atkinson’s backers suggests, the company has said that its vans, which are its property, are subject to its rules, and that is that. By failing to argue that point and trying to cloud the issue with a welter of immaterial whataboutery, the Mail does not advance Colin Atkinson’s case at all.

But it sells papers, so that’s all right, then.

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