Recently the BBC appointed Aaqil Ahmed to be its new Head of Religion and Ethics and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV. This appointment has provoked a good deal of heated response and debate, not least in the media. It seems now that a motion has been put down for the forthcoming meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in which the appointment of Ahmed will be questioned as part of a wider complaint about the diminution of serious religious broadcasting in the UK.
According to reports in today’s newspapers (heralded in a fair piece on Friday by Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph), the following seems to be the case:
1. The motion before the Synod calls on the BBC to explain the decline in its coverage of religion and its failure to provide enough programming during key Christian festivals.
2. The document accompanying the motion 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… 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.”
3. Concern is then expressed that “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.” Why? Read on…
4. Last summer, Channel 4 screened a week of special programmes on Islam including a feature-length documentary on the Quran, 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.
5. This shows that traditional religious broadcasting is under threat and that ”the appointment of Aaqil Ahmed gives rise to an element of concern… He has been involved with programmes that have tended to look at the fringes of Christianity where it can be brought into disrepute.”
6. 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.
Well, I met Ahmed briefly after the Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace recently. He was displeased with my lack of overwhelming welcome for his appointment during my keynote speech at the event and tried to leave without speaking to me. I can well understand his misery at the way his appointment has been received in some quarters, but I had actually gone out of my way to note his appointment (and the promotion of Christine Morgan in the same department), offer critical friendship and say the blindingly obvious: that I would be watching to see how things develop. This was heard negatively, but the petulence that followed was a bit sad. Ahmed needs friends and allies and won’t win them by responding the way he did.
But, the appointment of Ahmed as a Muslim is not the problem. It is entirely possible that a non-Christian theist will give better attention to Christianity than an atheist. What matters is that a good commissioning editor does his job properly, recognising that religion matters, that this country has a deeply Christian heritage, that most of the population have Christian roots (if not commitments) and that Christianity has to be taken seriously.
Indeed, according to the Telegraph report, 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.
But the real question is this: will Ahmed bring to coverage of Christianity the same intelligent and explanatory approach he has brought to coverage of Islam and the Quran at Channel 4? It seems to me that coverage of Islam assumes ignorance on the part of viewers and, therefore, seeks to explain before offering a critique. When it comes to Christianity, however, understanding is (mistakenly) assumed and the critique is almost always wholly negative – and frequently weak. Why, for example, does coverage of the Quran use sympathetic voices whereas the series on Christianity gives voice to critics – not to people from within the faith? A series on the Bible planned for 2011 (the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – which shaped the English language and people) has now been ditched.
Even Don Maclean has joined in the fray. According to a report in the Mail on Sunday (!), he commented that “you don’t see any programmes on Anglicanism that don’t talk about homosexual clergy and you don’t see anything on Roman Catholicism that don’t talk about paedophiles… They seem to take the negative angle every time.”
A satirical take on this can be read on the Ship of Fools website in an article following the ‘sacking’ of Michael Wakelin from the job that Ahmed will now assume (in revised form):
For almost 70 years, the BBC played it far too safe when it came to religion. It’s hard to believe, but only people with a long-term commitment to religious broadcasting (and a devoted faith) were appointed head of BBC Religion. Canon David Winter, Rev Dr Colin Morris, Rev Ernie Rea… an endless procession of dog collars ran the show.
But the new millennium heralded a fresh, enlightened dawn. In 2001 Alan Bookbinder, avowedly agnostic and (refreshingly) with no particular commitment to religious broadcasting, was given the hot seat.
Some doubted the move, but the thinking of the BBC’s top brass was visionary. They took as their model Sir David Attenborough. He has absolutely no interest in wildlife and conservation, and that’s what makes his programmes so compelling. And Alan Titchmarsh is a self-confessed, feet under the desk, office type who can’t bear the outdoors. His highly popular programmes on gardening and the natural world are the result.
I hope the Synod will avoid silly scaremongering about religious broadcasting and that only people who know what they are talking about will be allowed to speak in the debate. The media world is changing rapidly and protected space will lead only to acquiescence to religious narrowcasting. It is not enough for the Synod to repeat well-meant mantras deploring falling standards without offering serious proposals for how religious broadcasting ought to be shaped in the new and emerging worlds of digital media.