Dr Bridget McConnell, head of Culture and Sport Glasgow (CSG), the £100 million charity in charge of the city’s culture, says she is alarmed by what she describes as a “personal witchhunt” against her.
“It is almost like being physically abused,” she said. “You get knocked down by it every day and you pick yourself up, but then you come in the next morning and it happens all over again. It’s attrition.”
Since July, when a row broke out over an art exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) featuring homosexuality and religion in which comments were written on a Bible, Dr McConnell — whose organisation funded the exhibition — has been targeted by an organised group of protesters.
She has received up to 2,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls attacking her and objecting to the art show. There have been petitions and personal visits to her office. Her office has been routinely picketed by groups with a loud hailer, calling upon her to repent, and her staff have been harassed.
Police are known to be concerned at the targeting of Dr McConnell and on at least one occasion officers had to be called to demonstrations outside the art gallery when staff were “seriously intimidated”.
On a website linked to an English organisation called Christian Watch, the campaigners openly declare their intention is to have Dr McConnell removed from her post.
Notably, she has also featured on the front page of the BNP newsletter, in an article which claimed that her “misuse” of public money on this exhibition helped the case for reintroducing the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Sermons have been preached in Roman Catholic churches across Glasgow condemning the art exhibition and this week one man — Paul Mansbacher, a fundamentalist Protestant who has been banned from the Free Church of Scotland — wrote to the Archdiocese of Glasgow demanding that she be “officially and publicly excommunicated from the Catholic Church” for what he described as the funding of “blasphemous events”.
Dr McConnell, speaking exclusively to The Times, said: “It is not an exaggeration to say that on every working day from August last year until now I have had to deal with some protest concerning this issue. What is deeply worrying is the fact that those who are protesting are not simply interested in expressing a difference of opinion — which they are entitled to — but want to silence those they do not agree with. The menace, intimidation and misogny expressed in a great deal of the correspondence is deeply worrying.
“To get such venom and aggression from total strangers gives you the feeling they would like a public execution. They continually express this feeling that it’s unfair — if we were Muslims we could murder you for this. I’m not naive. I know I’m in a public position and I know the way it works. That’s life and I’m not complaining about it. It’s the way this campaign has become truly personal and quite vicious that I find so unpleasant.
“There is an aggression behind it which is really intimidating — and intimidating to my staff too, who have to deal with the calls.”
“It wears you down and you actually do start to feel personally intimidated. You don’t get used to it.”
The controversy began last summer as a result of an exhibition called sh[OUT]!, which contained works by renowned artists such as David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe, and had as its theme the representation of gay people in art. The exhibition was part of a wider contemporary art programme on themes including violence against women and sectarianism. A secondary exhibition within sh[OUT], called Made in God’s Image, invited visitors who felt excluded from the Bible, especially on the ground of sexual orientation, to record their names in its margins.
But some people recorded doodles and obscenities. The Bible was placed behind glass but the story reached the newspapers where, in Dr McConnell’s view, it was distorted by parts of the media to suggest that people were being actively encouraged to deface the Bible. The story was picked up by the international media and stirred outrage around the world. “The majority of people who are complaining didn’t see the exhibition, but were responding to the Daily Mail story,” she said.
“The whole thing took on a life distinct from the reality of what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of people actually visited the exhibition and enjoyed it. Despite this fact, this minority group has been given significant media coverage.
“The coverage has given the campaign a kind of respectable anger, when the reality is there’s a viciousness and misogny in response to something entirely manufactured.
“The majority of these people weren’t interested in the facts, let alone a reasoned debate. Their influence is completely disproportionate.”
Dr McConnell said the art exhibition had been “seriously misrepresented by the press”. She said: “The work did not invite people to deface or otherwise vandalise the Bible. All the artwork in the exhibition was made by practising believers in the various faiths (including Muslims) — no disrespect was intended to Christianity or to any of the other faiths represented in exhibition. This was a serious artistic project which addressed important issues.”
Dr McConnell, an art historian who was brought up a Catholic but no longer practises, said she was being attacked by the campaigners for art exhibitions with which she had no responsibility, such as one at the Glasgow School of Art featuring a deep-fried Bible, and a theatre show involving a transgendered woman.
She said the protests had reached the point where they had begun to feel sinister. “It’s a classic witchhunt. The things that comes to mind are the Hieronymus Bosch pictures of the mob. Undoubtedly, given the chance of being abusive and almost violent, they would take it. There’s that sense that there’s no reasoning with them ... What I find quite disturbing is the increasing sense they have of being able to progress these sort of fundamental views and behaviours and demand that these people who they hate — there’s no other word for it — should have no means of expression.
“Some days you come in and ... you have to respond to a really abusive letter, of which there have been hundreds, if not thousands, and you’re thinking: who is it they are writing about? I’m just a human being and if only I had the time to be as wicked as you suggest I am.”
Dr McConnell, who retains the full support of her board, said her organisation had apologised for any offence caused by the displays in GoMA “because that was not our intention or the intention of the artists”. She added: “But people do not have a right not to be offended, and arguing that this debate involves an attack on Christianity is, in effect, an argument against pluralism and free speech.”
She admits the campaign has had its impact. “What’s damaged me professionally is the indirect stuff — my family members find it appalling.” She also said it had left her more isolated and conceded: “If I want to champion something it makes it harder to garner support, which in turn can damage Glasgow’s cutting edge reputation for art. One of my strengths is to garner a whole range of views and What this campaign has done, completely inaccurately, is make me seem partisan.”
She said there were “undoubtedly lessons learnt” from the controversy, one being that the board of her organisation should have known about the content beforehand. But she said: “We would definitely have done the exhibition. The content would have been very little different.”
On the website set up by Christian Watch, www.csgwatch.com, the protesters state their aim is to stop the city supporting events and programmes that insult Christ, the Bible, Christians and to “have Bridget McConnell removed from her position”.
Bob Handyside, from Bearsden, one of the organisers, said they believed Dr McConnell was conducting a vendetta against them, rather than vice versa. “We’re not militants, we’re ordinary Bible-believing Christians who want a quiet life,” he said.
“She is on a campaign. She has funded, with taxpayers’ money, three attacks on the Bible. Everyone knows these things would never happen against Islam. Our outrage is far more legitimate then hers; that woman is on £132,000 of public money and she is betraying Christ.
“The protest is growing and we have plans for the next six months, but if she promises to change course, it will stop.”
Asked if the protest was misogynist, Mr Handyside, 76, said: “That’s outrageous. What’s this got to do with women? That woman is plumbing the bottom of the barrel to find something to say against us. This is nothing to do with women or gay rights or homosexuality. It’s all to do with singling out Christianity and offending Lord Jesus Christ.”
A spokesman for Strathclyde Police said: “We can confirm there was an exchange of correspondence between Strathclyde Police and Culture and Sport Glasgow, and officers from City Centre Police Office gave crime prevention and personal protection advice to staff members.”
Notes from protesters
Some of the many comments sent to Dr McConnell and her staff include:
“You’re lucky you didn’t grow up in Iraq or Afghanistan as you wouldn’t have got an education there and if you had been there, your punishment would have been severe”
“You are a very sick person. You should be ashamed of yourself”
“It is an abomination to be gay/lesbian. It is a sin to be sexually deviant. The soul that sinneth shall DIE”
“I challenge you to put a copy of the Koran alongside the Bible. However I know that you will not as the reaction of Muslims would be rather different and CSG, cowards that they are, know it”
“Your latest stunt is not art, it is provocative hate. You have broken the law”
“How dare you. How dare you. You have only yourselves to blame if you rot in hell”
“You are sad and sick”
“You’d be afraid to write on the Koran — and suffer a worse fate, as many do who differ from Islam in Islamic countries”
“I hope someone burns it to the ground”
“Try it with the Koran and I’m sure you’ll get physical repercussion”
Source: The Times