A few weeks ago, the Sunday Telegraph newspaper ran a front-page story (29 March 2009) alleging that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was worried that the appointment of a Muslim as head of religion at the BBC would "sideline" the "Christian voice". Coincidentally, the Sunday Times ran a remarkably similar story the same day, as did the Daily Mail the following day.
It smacked of a classic media hit-job and I decided to dig deeper. Rowan Williams had met the BBC director-general at a lunch that was nothing out of the ordinary. According to a source at his office, there was no official agenda or any leaks about what was discussed. Since his office is very non-confrontational about such matters and because nothing is ever denied or confirmed, it presents a perfect opportunity for others to use it for their own agenda. According to many, the Churches' Media Council kicked off the story. The lobby was on the attack.
I do not have a problem with Christian groups demanding a fair share of religious coverage in the media. But it is undeniably xenophobic to imply strongly, as each of the three newspaper reports did, that non-Christians should not be let anywhere near Christian-focused programming because they are not up to the job.
This seems to be a regular feature of right-wing newspapers: they continually complain about identity politics and say people should be rewarded on a meritocratic basis. Agreed. But it seems that only applies when they're bashing minorities. Otherwise it is fine to play identity politics to support the establishment because, well, they have powerful friends.
"For many years I worked in and headed up multicultural programmes and hired the best people to do the job – it is like me saying that you have to be black or Asian to produce programmes about black or Asian subject matter, which is utter nonsense and frankly an outdated argument and line of reasoning," said Tommy Nagra when I interviewed him.
Tommy now produces 'Songs of Praise' for the BBC and says he had not applied for the vacant position even though that is heavily implied in the newspaper reports. It has become common knowledge in his department that he has since received a torrent of abuse from viewers simply for being a Sikh producing 'Songs of Praise'.
But the main target of the newspaper briefings was Aaqil Ahmed at Channel 4. Despite producing a range of well-received Christian programming including: 'Rowan Williams Meets...', 'Christianity: A History' and 'Resurrection, with the Bishop of Durham'; Ahmed came in the firing line merely for being Muslim. Apparently he will only end up promoting minority faiths at the BBC, even though this argument is never used when the shoe is on the other foot.
More recently, other arms of the Christian lobby have swung into attack. Christian Concern for Our Nation, which rails against "against a tide of unchristian legal and political changes in the United Kingdom", issued a call to its readers stating:
Your letter or email could make a few of the following points, in your own words:
- I am concerned that a Muslim or a Sikh may soon be appointed as head of religious programming at the BBC.
- Given that we are a Christian Nation, it is appropriate that the post of Commissioning Editor, Religion and Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC should continue to be a Christian.
- I strongly object to the appointment of a person who does not belong to the Christian faith, as this appointment is not representative of the beliefs of the majority of licence holders.
All this encapsulates a problem. I expect CCFON to react like this – after all, its representatives were happy to showcase their attitudes for a recent Channel 4 documentary. But the media campaign orchestrated by the Telegraph, Times and Daily Mail is really no different because they want to stop a Muslim getting a job they think should belong to a Christian. It is just a matter of how you frame your complaint: calling it a sop to "political correctness gone mad" allows people to hide their bigotry.
The selection is due soon. It remains to be seen whether the BBC will capitulate.
© Sunny Hundal is a leading media commentator. His projects include the Asians in Media industry magazine, the New Generation Network, Pickled Politics (current affairs "with a South Asian tinge") and the progressive politics group blog Liberal Conspiracy. He is from a Sikh family. Sunny writes regularly for a range of newspapers and has a column on Guardian Comment-is-Free, from which this article is adapted.