Well, we handed in the first 11,000 signatures of the petition to the BBC, calling for them to reject proposals to downgrade and reduce Christian programming, and for the removal of Aaqil Ahmed, Commissioning Editor for Religion and Head of Religion and Ethics. Mr Ahmed, it will be remembered, submitted a report saying the BBC was ‘too Christian” and there was a need for greater diversity. But so far the response has been pretty much what you’d expect.
Which is to say that the BBC hasn’t deigned to respond to us directly (there’s a surprise) but, as posted on Premier Radio, have said, “We are actually intending to do more programming around Christianity and more on other faiths as well, so there is absolutely no question of an ‘either or’ on our output. BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, is not biased against Christianity programming, nor does he show any pro-islamic bias and any suggestions that he does are ludicrous and unfounded.”
Is this right?
Let us try to unpack in a little more detail the background to our petition.
First, can it be said the BBC is anti-Christian? Well, the BBC appears to think so. In a 2011 survey, carried out as part of their Diversity Strategy, of the 4,500 people interviewed, the overwhelming feeling was apparently that the BBC was anti-Christian, and consistently misrepresentative of Christianity. The following year Mark Thompson, the then Director General, openly admitted that Christianity was treated with far less sensitivity than other religions (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2106953/Christianity-gets-sensitive-treatment-religions-admits-BBC-chief.html ). Which was a view echoed by ex-BBC presenter Don Maclean, who claimed the BBC consistently failed to show churches in a positive light. “They seem to take the negative angle every time,” he said. “They don’t do that if they’re doing programmes on Islam. Programmes on Islam are always supportive.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1194580/The-BBC-keen-attacking-Christianity-support-Islam-claims-radio-presenter-Maclean.html)
Former news anchor Peter Sissons then also agreed, “Islam must not be offended at any price, although Christians are fair game because they do nothing about it if they are offended.” ( http://www.christian.org.uk/news/anti-christian-bias-is-ok-at-the-bbc-says-former-presenter/)
But none of this apparently had any effect on programming policy, because in 2013 Auntie again admitted failing in its treatment of Christians: https://godandpoliticsuk.org/2013/07/09/the-bbc-admits-failings-in-its-treatment-of-christians/. Since nothing has obviously changed, it must surely be assumed that this is still the general assessment.
Second, can it be said that Mr Ahmed displays bias? Aaqil Ahmed was appointed to his current position in May 2009. Prior to that he had been Commissioning editor for religion and Head of Multicultural Programming at Channel 4. Most memorably, while there, he commissioned a week of special programmes on Islam, a feature-length documentary on the Koran, ‘Inside the mind of a suicide bomber’, and a series of interviews with Muslims from around the world, talking about their faith. On the Christian side, he commissioned the eight part series ‘Christianity – a history’, presented by eight high profile British personalities, including journalist and Muslim, Rageh Omaar; well known atheist Professor Colin Blakemore (‘I believe that human beings will eventually come to see religion as a misconception http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2010/08/interview-science-public); and Dr Robert Beckford (see below). Apparently conceived as ‘challenging’ Christian belief, on the pro-side of this largely unChristian series, we had Anne Widdecombe, a recent convert to Catholicism, and well-known Pyramid squatter and crystal gazer Cherie Blair – which sort of says it all.
Under his tenure at the BBC, programmes commissioned have shown a similar bias. First, a few examples of pro-Islamic output. In November 2009, there was The purpose of Islam, a documentary produced to (quote) ‘give Islam a better image’. This is apparently now blocked from showing in the UK, and all reference has disappeared from the internet.
In 2011, again using Rageh Omaar, the BBC broadcast a three-part miniseries entitled The Life of Muhammed. Despite Iranian fears when the series was announced, this turned out to be a highly ‘reverential’ and positive examination of the orgins of Islam – and the Iranians appeared happy.
April 2012, once again presented by Rageh Omaar, there was The Hidden Art of Islam. This was described as telling the history of a journey to Mecca, featuring visual examples of Islamic culture down the centuries, and created so as to reflect the powerful experience of any Muslim making the Hajj pilgrimage – to Islam’s most sacred building in Islam’s most sacred city. Again, all highly positive, without any hint of criticism or doubt.
2013 brought The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors. This was another three-part miniseries, once again presented by … Rageh Omaar. Again a highly positive presentation of the effects of Islam on Europe, with Muslims being presented as peaceful and benign. Also, and yet again presented by Rageh Omaar, there was An Islamic History of Europe, described as looking back to ‘the golden age when European civilization was enriched by Islamic learning’. Makes you wonder why Christianised Europe was so keen to expel them.
2015: Make me a Muslim, describing how and why large numbers of British girls are converting to Islam. Also, Welcome to the Mosque, a documentary based on eight months spent inside an East London mosque.
2016: Britain’s Muslim Soldiers, described as a timely one-off documentary following the story of the restoration of the forgotten and dilapidated burial ground of 27 Muslim soldiers who gave their lives fighting for Britain in two world wars. The film ends with the voices of modern Muslims who believe this shared narrative is one of the ways that prejudice and distrust of Islam might be overcome in modern Britain. It has subsequently been criticized for its heavy and blatant use of propaganda, and the absence of any similar programme(s) telling the stories of the many more Hindu and Sikh soldiers who also gave their lives. As one anonymous critic on the BBC website said, “What about Britain’s Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, African Animist and Jewish soldiers? Why don’t they get the “three years in the making” documentary treatment…? What could possibly explain that discrepancy?” The programme is no longer available for download on the BBC website, and all comments have been removed within the last couple of days (since, in fact, we handed in our petition).
A similar stance was taken in May of this year, with the documentary United States of hate: Muslims under attack. This, as the title suggests, examines America’s recent upsurge in Islamaphobia, fearlessly exposing the hatred of anti-Muslim groups, and asking what can be done.
There is, not surprisingly, more of the same, but let us turn now to some examples of specifically ‘Christian’ programmes commissioned by Mr Ahmed. There’s the traditional diet of Songs of Praise, Sunday Morning and Thought for the Day on the radio, but other programmes appear rather thin, while some are distinctly worrying for the stance they take.
The first ‘Christian’ programme to be aired under Mr Ahmed’s tenure was ‘A History of Christianity’, presented in 2009 by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This programme, however, was commissioned before Mr Ahmed’s appointment, so for these purposes must be discounted. The following year, however, saw the screening of a four-part Christmas ‘drama’, entitled The Nativity. Now this sounds really positive and encouraging … until you discover that the Virgin Mary was presented as a prostitute and sex cheat. Predictably, Christians were outraged (http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/218290/Fury-over-BBC-s-Nativity-insult).
2011: Does Christianity have a future? Presented by Anne Widdecombe and examining the decline of traditional religion in the UK, and its replacement by more assertive Pentacostalism leading to an upsurge in numbers. Well, this is encouraging! But no, wait a minute, because Anne goes on to asks some pointed questions. First, given the decline in Church attendance, is it possible any longer to justify an established Church of England with all its privileges? And second, since Fundamentalist Christian views of morality tend to conflict with those of society, as for example in relation to homosexuality, how do we deal with it? So the seemingly positive presentation is soured, and Christianity is once again undermined.
2012: The Preston Passion, retelling the story of Christ’s crucifixion through local history. Fair enough, and this was good, but Mr Ahmed had taken a lot of criticism following The Nativity, so perhaps had wisely decided to keep his head down. It didn’t last long.
2013: The Mystery of Mary Magdalene, the main Easter programme for that year, suggested that Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship with Jesus. Once again the complaints flooded in, with Bishop Nazir-Ali accusing the corporation of deliberately causing offence to Christians and questioning whether other groups would be treated in the same way. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9960642/BBC-accused-of-provoking-Christians-with-Mary-Magdalene-documentary.html
The next big production appears to have been this year, 2016, which saw In the footsteps of Judas. Presented by Revd Kate Bottley, this one-off documentary suggested that the traditional assessment of Judas as a traitor was inaccurate and overly simplistic. As the blurb proudly tells us, in this controversial documentary Kate demonstrates why Judas matters and why he is central to our understanding of the Christian message today.
So is Aaqil Ahmed now rehabilitated as a brave and impartial arbiter of religious truth, championing Christianity? Before we rush to this assessment, let’s consider. There have for years been different ways of approaching Judas, and given the seeming sentence of eternal damnation, many have felt rather sorry for this fallen disciple. But for all the many and varied explanations that have been put forward – from misunderstood freedom fighter, to devoted disciple trying to provoke the Messiah into action – none of them are in any way congruent with the New Testament, which throughout presents Judas as an instrument of evil. Which means, if Kate’s analysis is to be believed, that the gospels are plain wrong. Which means, in turn, that Christianity – founded as it is on the conflict of good and evil – is also wrong. Good topic for Easter then, and subtle!
Also this year was The Battle for Christianity, presented by Professor Robert Beckford, described as one of the UK’s leading Black theologians. Superficially, one might be forgiven for thinking that here at last Mr Ahmed has ticked all the right boxes. But yet again this would be wrong, because Professor Beckford – with whom Aaqil Ahmed has previously worked extensively at Channel 4 – has attracted strong criticism from Christians for dismissing the Bible as ‘lies and spin’ (http://(https://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/dec/19/broadcasting.channel4). In fact, for many Christians he is a heretic.
In sum, discounting run-of-the-mill and previously long established programmes like Songs of Praise and Sunday, it would seem that all the supposedly Christian programmes commissioned by Mr Ahmed either call into question the status of the established Church in this country, or cast doubt on key doctrines of the faith. In fact, in marked contrast to programmes commissioned by him relating to Islam, he appears to treat Christianity with contempt. Yet here he is, now calling for greater diversity on the grounds that the Corporation is ‘too Christian’.
This is a man who appears to follow an insidious but relentless agenda, and he is extremely good at his job. His motivation appears to be nothing less than the neutralization of Christianity, and its replacement by Islam. The conclusion seems inescapable that the BBC has put in place a ‘fifth columnist’, subverting our culture from within. It is for these reasons that we call the BBC to account and for Aaqil Ahmed’s immediate removal from post.