BBC Prepares "Balanced" Coverage of Papal Visit

Reality Betrays the Rhetoric

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JULY 22, 2010 ( When Mark Thompson, the director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, came to Rome in February to prepare coverage of the upcoming papal visit to Britain, he denied the BBC had an innate bias against the Catholic Church.

He and other BBC managers believe that coverage, like much of its programming, is respectful and balanced, and that programs on the Church are of a high standard.

But as the papal visit nears, how true is this?

Judging by programs already aired and rumors of those planned, sadly not very true at all.

According to a number of news sources, the BBC is expected to upset many Catholics when it broadcasts a program timed to coincide with the Pope’s Sept. 16-19 visit. The contents of the program remain under wraps, but some news sources say it will be a 90-minute drama that puts the Pope on trial, accused of covering up sex abuse perpetrated by priests.

The BBC is being very coy about the rumor. A spokeswoman told me July 21 that programs are being made to coincide with the state visit, but couldn’t give details — even regarding possible content — for «scheduling reasons.» She was also unable to give information about any papal visit-related programs which had already been broadcast.

The most prominent program the corporation has aired so far in connection with the visit has been a BBC Radio 4 drama on Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom the Holy Father will beatify in Birmingham on Sept. 19.

Called «Gerontius,» Newman was played by the respected actor Derek Jacobi. But the play had nothing to do with the soul’s progress toward purgatory, nor did it bring out the relevance to people’s lives of Newman’s great theological works. Instead, it focused on his close friendship with Fr. Ambrose St. John — a friendship gay rights campaigners say was of a homosexual nature, but which Newman scholars stress was simply one of close, fraternal affection.
Reviewing the play in The Catholic Herald, author Francis Phillips wrote: «Halfway through [a] breathless, melodramatic dialogue between Newman and his guardian angel, a young male voice declares: ‘The Roman Catholic Church is homophobic!’ It is further inferred that Newman’s motto, ‘From shadows into the truth,’ could be a disguised code for his wanting to come out of the closet.» Phillips proposed reading the foremost Newman scholar, Father Ian Ker, instead.  

Aside from programs directly related to the papal visit, the BBC has produced some praiseworthy output. In March, Radio 4 broadcast «Heart and Soul,» an excellent documentary on suffering and how it can lead to a personal understanding of Christ’s resurrection. That same month, BBC News Online carried a very balanced article by Vatican correspondent Gerry O’Connell on the Vatican’s media handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

Thinly veiled

But most programs continue to betray the BBC’s dominant secularist leanings. Although it has made an effort to ask a few orthodox-thinking Catholics to appear on its news programs, the majority still tend to be dissenting Catholics. Those faithful believers who do get on are usually harangued, as was the case on April 5 when an Italian Catholic philosopher and politician, Rocco Buttiglione, appeared on Radio 4’s Today program to discuss the sexual abuse crisis. Buttiglione gave a spirited and balanced defense, but was constantly interrupted by presenter John Humphrys.

English priest blogger Father Tim Finigan summed up the problem when in May he wrote about an internal BBC e-mail he had been sent. «The BBC are hosting a staff discussion on Christianity,» he wrote on his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity. «Who do they get to do it? A history professor and campaigner for gay rights who describes his own current religious position as that of an agnostic or atheist with a background in Anglicanism, and a Muslim academic. […] As my correspondent comments, ‘How very BBC.'»

And if evidence were needed that the BBC is unable to take the faith with the seriousness it deserves, Cristina Odone, a former editor of The Catholic Herald, wrote April 29 in the Telegraph how angered she was when the BBC sent a comedian to interview her about the clerical sex abuse scandal — and spent much of the time mocking the faith. «Would the BBC do this to a Muslim? A Jew? A Hindu?» she asked. «Of course not. They haven’t got the guts. But when it comes to the Catholics, send in the clowns.»

When I wrote here about the BBC’s bias in February, I concluded that among BBC management, there wasn’t so much a dominant anti-Catholic animus — though that undoubtedly exists in some quarters — as an inability among its predominantly secularist staff to take the faith seriously.  

The Church of England tends to agree. Earlier this year, it criticized the BBC’s coverage of religion in general as «not good enough» and expressed concern that religious affairs broadcasting is being sidelined. Even one of the BBC’s erstwhile religious affairs presenters, Roger Bolton, complained in a speech in March that a religious perspective on the news is «so bafflingly absent, both on air and behind the scenes in internal editorial discussions.»

But criticizing the BBC is easy to do, and often done. A friend who works for the corporation recently lamented that knocking the «Beeb» is rather like «shooting fish in a barrel — though fish barrel shooting isn’t as popular a sport.» Indeed, public broadcasters the world over come in for similar accusations of bias.

In his Rome speech in February, Thompson referred to a few typical jibes: «‘Just what is the license-fee for anyway?’ ‘Abolish it.’ ‘Why not put a bomb under them,'» he said, adding: «These aren’t quotes from the British press. They’re from Bild, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Flemish paper De Standaard, Il Giornale and Spiegel. Nor are they about the BBC — they’re about ARD/ZDF, VRT and RAI.»

Culture of death

But it could be argued that the BBC’s bias against the Catholic Church has more serious and sinister undertones than simply the ordinary flaws of a public broadcaster, ones related not only to a malaise in the corporation but more generally among the country’s media elites and perhaps within British culture as a whole. The BBC, after all, is not the only UK broadcaster to knock the Church: with remarkable though unsurprising chutzpah, Channel 4 has asked gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to front a documentary on Benedict XVI.

But the BBC is said to particularly suffer from a pervading secular mindset, one that embraces, or is sympathetic to, the culture of death, whether it be abortion, radical feminism, the homosexual agenda, contraception, euthanasia, or unethical science such as embryonic stem cell research. Drug-taking among employees is also said to be widespread.

Recent tragic events involving BBC employees seem to corroborate this view. Ray Gosling, a veteran presenter and prominent gay rights activist, admitted in February that a number of years ago he had suffocated his former male lover who was dying of AIDS. He said he had made a pact with the man to end his life. Soon after his on-air confession, he was arrested on suspicion of murder and released on bail, although the investigation continues.

And over the past two years, three young BBC presenters have died in unusual circumstances, the most recent being Kristian Digby, an openly gay television presenter, who died mysteriously in February at the age of 33.

In 2006, Benedict XVI stressed the importance of saying «no» to the prevailing culture of death, «an anti-culture» which he said manifests itself in such things as escape into drugs. It is an «escape from reality into the illusory,» he said, «into a false happiness that manifests itself in lies, in fraud, in injustice, in contempt for others.»

He also said the culture of death «manifests itself in a sexuality that becomes pure gratification
without responsibility, that makes man a thing, so to speak, as it no longer considers him a person, with a personal love, with fidelity, but turns him into merchandise.»<br>
As an antidote, he advocated the «yes» of the culture of life: fidelity to the Ten Commandments, which he said «are not prohibitions, but a vision of life.»

Perhaps we can hope that the BBC and other parts of the UK media will realize the wisdom and relevance of the Holy Father’s words when he visits Britain.

Within the corporation and other parts of the country, they are certainly needed.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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