Sunday, June 21, 2009

Anglican Clerics Tackle BBC Bias

Concerns over the appointment of Aaqil Ahmed, who was poached by the corporation from Channel 4 last month, will be raised in a Church document to be published tomorrow.

It calls his move to the BBC a "worrying" development and accuses the corporation of treating religion like "a freak show".

Senior bishops have signalled their backing for the paper, which is set to trigger a debate at the General Synod, the Church's parliament, over the alleged marginalisation of religious broadcasting.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, met with Mark Thompson, the BBC's director-general, in March to challenge him about the issue.

Now a motion prepared for the Synod calls on the corporation to explain the decline in its coverage of religion and its failure to provide enough programming during key Christian festivals.

The document accompanying the motion, published ahead of next month's General Synod in York, criticises the lack of regular religious programmes on BBC television and alleges that Mr Ahmed, a Muslim, displayed anti-Christian bias while in charge of commissioning at Channel 4.

"The regular BBC Television coverage of religion consists of just two programmes." the Church paper says.

"BBC 3 tackles religion rarely but does so from the angle of the freak show, and many of the Channel 4 programmes concerned with Christianity, in contrast to those featuring other faiths, seem to be of a sensationalist or unduly critical nature.

"From this point of view it is worrying that the Channel 4 religion and multicultural commissioning editor, Aaqil Ahmed, who is a Muslim, is soon to be responsible for all the religious output from the BBC."

Last summer, Channel 4 screened a week of special programmes on Islam including a feature-length documentary on the Koran, and a series of interviews with Muslims around the world talking about their beliefs.

The main Christian documentary broadcast for Easter that year, called The Secrets of the 12 Disciples, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Pope's leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
Nigel Holmes, a General Synod member and former BBC producer, who has tabled the motion and who wrote the paper, said that the Church needed to tackle the issue at a time when the future of religious broadcasting was under threat.

"There is an element of uncertainty at the BBC with all of the changes there, and the appointment of Aaqil Ahmed gives rise to an element of concern," he said.

"He has been involved with programmes that have tended to look at the fringes of Christianity where it can be brought into disrepute.

"Religion is higher on the political agenda than ever before and we are crying out for programmes that give a moral view."

Mr Holmes attacked the BBC for the lack of religious television programmes at Easter, but said that ITV has also failed to give enough coverage.

The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, has signalled he would support the motion.

He told The Sunday Telegraph that Mr Ahmed is "duty bound to provide adequate time and fair representation to the Christian faith and to Christian concerns".

The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, has previously accused the BBC of "overlooking" Good Friday.

"Many people want an appropriate marker of religious significance, whether it is life and death or Easter and Christmas," he said.

While the BBC's total output of television hours has doubled over the past 20 years, the amount of religious coverage has fallen by nearly 15 per cent, from 177 hours in 1988 to 155 in 2008.
Critics of the corporation are upset that respected programmes such as Everyman and Heart of the Matter have not been replaced.

They argue that well-produced and promoted programmes can attract a large audience. The Passion, which received a big budget and prime-time slot, attracted more than five million viewers when it was broadcast last year.

Mr Ahmed is understood to have impressed BBC executives by commissioning a series on Christianity that featured high-profile names, including Cherie Blair and Michael Portillo.
Samir Shah, a non-executive director at the corporation, said that the programme-maker's critics might be surprised to find that he raises the profile of religion at the BBC.

"I think that they'll find that ultimately it will be a Muslim who drives up the amount of Christianity on the schedules," Mr Shah said.

The Rev Jonathan Alderton-Ford, vicar of Christ Church, Bury St Edmunds, and a General Synod member, said that he would support the motion.

"It gives voice to the concerns many of us have about the drift of the BBC over the last decade," said Mr Alderton-Ford, who has advised the Church on media issues.

"The BBC's bias permeates its programme-making, so that the Christians get criticised while the minority faiths escape the same treatment. It's necessary that we debate this."

A spokesman for the BBC said that Mr Ahmed was the best-qualified candidate for the role and rejected claims that religious affairs has been covered in a "sensationalist manner".

She added: "The BBC's commitment to religion and ethics broadcasting is unequivocal. As the majority faith of the UK, Christians are and will remain a central audience for the BBC's religious and ethics television and other output."

From here.

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