By Edward Pentin
ROME, FEB. 11, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is not known to be one of the Catholic Church’s closest friends.
Although it has a worldwide reputation for high quality programming, the vast state-funded broadcaster has often been accused of treating the Church and the Catholic faith unfairly at best, and maliciously at worst.
Many examples back up this accusation, beginning with a number programmes over the past 10 years that have been blasphemous and highly offensive to Catholics.
In 2003, the BBC broadcast — to a large international audience — a documentary entitled “Sex and the Holy City,” which intentionally misrepresented the Church and its teaching on condoms and AIDS. Two years later, it aired “Jerry Springer the Opera,” a blasphemous and very offensive programme that ridiculed Jesus and the faith in general. Earlier, the BBC had spent £2 million ($3.13 million) on a program called “Popetown” — an animated series set in the Vatican that mocked the Church and included plotlines about bestiality. Due to protests, it was banned in Britain but broadcast overseas and sold in Britain on DVD.
The BBC has also been accused of failing in other areas when it comes to Catholicism. The persecution of Catholics in the Middle East or Asia is rarely covered or warranted adequate attention; the immense good work that Catholic priests, religious and laity do around the world is generally passed over; and the Church’s invaluable contribution to Western culture tends to be disparaged in favour of focusing on the sins of Church members in the past.
The BBC has also been blamed for more subtle instances of anti-Catholic bias. Discussion panels, news reports and web articles tend to focus on the sensational; they also often comprise contributions from secular figures or dissenting Catholics but hardly ever from orthodox Catholics who will properly convey the Church’s teaching.
The corporation’s treatment of clergy not infrequently involves interrogations by disparaging and dismissive presenters who seem to view them as guilty until proven innocent. Stephen Glover, a non-Catholic British newspaper columnist, wrote how a BBC television interviewer, quizzing English Archbishop Vincent Nichols in 2007, “treated him like a member of some extreme sect, interrupting him continually, and sneering at him as though he were a half-wit.”
Most of this bias is attributed to a predominantly secular mindset in the corporation that embraces, or is sympathetic to, the culture of death, whether it be abortion, radical feminism, the homosexual agenda, euthanasia, or unethical science such as embryonic stem cell research. “The BBC,” Glover once wrote, “represents a materialist, mechanistic consensus which has rejected God, and deludes itself that science is capable of providing a complete explanation of existence.”
Even one of the BBC’s most accomplished journalists, Andrew Marr, admitted the difficulty the corporation has in offering unbiased coverage. “The BBC is not impartial or neutral,” he told a secret summit of BBC executives in 2006. “It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”
At that same meeting, one veteran BBC executive was reported in the British press as saying there was “widespread acknowledgement that we may have gone too far in the direction of political correctness” and that much of this mentality is “so deeply embedded in the BBC’s culture, that it is very hard to change it.” It was also reported that “nearly everyone” at the summit agreed the Bible could be thrown into the bin on a comedy show, but not the Koran for fear of offending Muslims.
The BBC’s managers are, of course, quick to publicly reject most allegations of anti-Catholic bias. Last week, Mark Thompson, the corporation’s director-general — essentially its editor-in-chief — gave a speech at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross on the theme “Broadcasting and Civil Society.” Disappointingly and perhaps revealingly his speech didn’t specifically mention religion at all but rather focused on how well the BBC is performing as an independent state broadcaster, and how a forthcoming review promises to deliver better quality programmes.
But during the question and answer session afterward, he admitted some anti-Catholic bias “may be the case” in relation to news coverage, although as far as the corporation’s religious broadcasting was concerned, he said the BBC tries and generally succeeds in giving “a rounded picture.”
He then gave examples of BBC documentaries and live coverage of the Church, from the funeral of Cardinal Basil Hume, the former archbishop of Westminster, to the exposition in Britain of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux. Asked if he believed the BBC tends to favour an ideology at odds with the Church’s teaching, he replied: “No, I really don’t,” and recalled another programme, this time on the Passion shown at Easter in 2008.
This wasn’t the first time he’d had to confront such criticism. Speaking on the theme of religious broadcasting at a London lecture in 2008, Thompson, who is a Catholic, recalled how his mother shook her head when told her son had been appointed director-general. “The BBC is anti-Catholic and anti-God,” she told him in no uncertain terms.
But such anti-God labels, he explained to the audience in London, were “not just too sweeping; they are not even directionally true.” He said that naturally, inside the BBC are many people “who take a strongly sceptical view of religion,” but you’d also find “thousands of people for whom religion plays a central role in their lives.” He accepted that coverage of religion as “faith and lived experience” rather than as a story or controversy was “unusual” but noted there is more interest in “high profile” religious affairs programming than there was 25 years ago.
And yet on his watch, BBC television coverage of religious affairs has fallen, from 177 hours in 1987-88 to 155 hours in 2007-08. This week the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, is debating whether the BBC marginalises Christianity, treating it like a “freak show” or a “rare species” to be studied on a nature programme.
At last week’s lecture, Thompson said he didn’t address religion specifically because he didn’t want to put it into a special category, preferring instead to include religion in his comments on history, knowledge and culture. Yet such a vision risks sidelining it further, and is perhaps one reason why the BBC rarely airs programmes aimed at a particular faith but instead lumps them together into a relativist muddle.
As one priest asked after hearing Thompson’s speech: Why not have programmes dedicated to each religion, for example one made up of a group of Catholic theologians discussing the role of works in justification, or another of Muslim scholars debating the interpretation of the Koran?
Speaking with Thompson later on, he appeared open to having an honest dialogue with the Church and to listening to ideas on how to improve coverage. The main purpose of his visit was to meet the Holy Father and Vatican officials to discuss the Pope’s visit to Britain later this year.
A hopeful sign, though how genuinely serious BBC management takes the Church remains very much open to doubt.
Should any reader wish to propose ideas to Mark Thompson on how to improve coverage of the Church on the BBC, e-mail me and I’ll send you details on how you can drop him a line.
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: email@example.com.