Aaqil Ahmed: The BBC's new head of religious affairs is a practising Muslim
The BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson has said that religious broadcasting gives rise to more controversy in his job than any other subject. I am afraid he hasn’t seen anything yet.
On Monday, the Corporation announced that it has appointed a Muslim as head of religious broadcasting. This is not a joke, I can assure you.
The person responsible for overseeing the BBC’s — so far — largely Christian output will be Aaqil Ahmed, a practising Muslim.
Let me say at once that I have nothing whatsoever against Mr Ahmed, who is, I am sure, an excellent broadcaster who may have much to contribute to the coverage of religion.
Some say that he has done a good job producing religious programmes in his present job at Channel 4, though he has been accused of intellectual shallowness, and last year some Roman Catholic priests alleged he had commissioned documentaries that appeared to contain a pro-Islam bias.
Nor do I doubt that Britain’s three million Muslims have every right to expect the BBC to provide some religious broadcasting directly aimed at them.
They pay their licence fee like everyone else, and their views should be properly and proportionately reflected in the Corporation’s programming.
That said, they still constitute a small (though doubtless devout) minority of this country’s population of 60 million.
Some 70 per cent of adult Britons describe themselves as Christian, though a far smaller proportion regularly attend church.
Culturally, this still remains a Christian country with a national Church, the Church of England, whose supreme head is Her Majesty the Queen.
I realise there are also millions of atheists, Muslims and Hindus, and a smaller number of Sikhs and Jews, who may not embrace Christian religious broadcasting.
But I suspect that most of them are happy to put up with it, partly because they respect this country’s Christian traditions, and partly because, in any case, the BBC is producing fewer and fewer specifically Christian programmes.
Majority faiths: The Church of England's Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Reverend Doctor Rowan Williams (left) and leader of English Catholics Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who later this month retires from his post as Archbishop of Westminster
My quarrel is not so much with Mr Ahmed as with the BBC. Despite being required under its charter to provide religious programming, and despite being funded by licence-payers who overwhelmingly describe themselves as Christian, the Corporation has been increasingly pursuing what can only be, at best, described as a non-Christian agenda and, at worst, as an anti-Christian one.
Do I exaggerate? I don’t believe so. Religious programming on the BBC has dwindled over the past ten years, and what remains is usually anodyne — calculated not to offend non-Christians, and therefore likely to provide very little inspiration to those who have Christian leanings.
Songs Of Praise, for example, has become little more than a jolly sing-a-long with very little Christian input.
A few years ago the BBC’s own governors criticised the Corporation for ‘earlier and irregular scheduling’ of this once popular programme. In others words, the BBC was attempting to marginalise it, and to a large degree it has succeeded.
In a bizarre move which prefigured the appointment of Mr Ahmed, the Corporation last year made Tommy Nagra, a Sikh, the producer of Songs Of Praise. So we have a non-Christian in charge of a programme which, not at all surprisingly in the circumstances, has less and less Christian content.
Christians at the BBC appear to be surplus to requirements. During the past year, four out of seven executives in its already diminished religion department have been made redundant. These included Michael Wakelin, a Methodist preacher, who was removed as head of religious programmes to clear the way for Aaqil Ahmed. I imagine that having a Methodist preacher at the heart of the BBC was more than it could stomach.
What the Corporation does at home, it does even more blatantly abroad. Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently complained to Mark Thompson at a private lunch that the BBC World Service has reduced its English-language religious coverage from one hour 45 minutes a week in 2001 to a mere half an hour a week in 2009.
Tommy Nagra: Sikh producer of Songs of Praise
Half an hour! This is a highly significant reduction.
For in the Third World, and particularly in Africa, there are hundreds of millions of Christians who probably yearn for more religious programmes on the BBC, and yet the grim, secular-minded commissars who oversee these matters have chosen to cut them back.
The BBC does not like God, unless perhaps it be a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh version.
At every possible opportunity it will wheel forward one of those professional atheists who are not happy to live silently with their own non-belief but are determined to shove it down everyone else’s throats.
I am thinking particularly of the biologist Richard Dawkins, the novelist Philip Pullman and the philosopher A. C. Grayling.
Can you think of a Christian biologist, novelist or philosopher who is afforded one-tenth of the airtime of these militant, omnipresent non-believers?
The odd thing is that we live in an age of growing religious conviction. Even in this country there is a small resurgence of Christianity, largely outside the mainstream churches. But the BBC is travelling fast in the opposite direction. The new intellectual orthodoxy, among the narrow group of people who control it, is profoundly anti-Christian.
Yet the Roman Catholic Mark Thompson is probably the most devoutly Christian director-general since John Reith, the first man to have the job and who, as a flinty Presbyterian, must now be spinning in his grave.
Alas, in marked distinction to the militant atheists I have mentioned, Mr Thompson will not stand up for his beliefs.
Being, I trust, fairly realistic, I do not expect him to push back the encroaching secular tide that has taken over so many of the Corporation’s religious programmes. But one might reasonably hope that he would at least hold the line.
That line is in keeping with the BBC’s obligations under its charter, and with the predilections of the Christian majority of this country.
Mr Thompson will not defend it. To judge by Mr Ahmed’s appointment, he did not heed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s concerns at their recent lunch that the BBC is ignoring its Christian audience.
However, the director-general does not mind intervening when he sees fit. Last year he suggested that Islam should be treated more sensitively by the media because it is a minority religion in this country.
For all I know, Mr Ahmed may prove himself remarkably sympathetic to the sensibilities of Christians in his new job. One cannot, however, count on that, and it is interesting that he has said there should be more coverage of Muslim matters in the media.
Will this, on the BBC, be at the expense of an already reduced number of Christian programmes?
In all kinds of ways the publicly funded BBC does not reflect the views of the public it is supposed to serve.
No doubt its secular suits assume that Britain is as anti-Christian as they are. They’re out of touch again. In appointing Aaqil Ahmed they do not simply offend against this country’s Christian heritage and traditions. They also further weaken the hold and authority of the BBC.