BBC appoints Muslim to top religious post in controversial first
By Steve Doughty
Aaqil Ahmed has been appointed the Head of Religion and Ethics
The BBC yesterday appointed a Muslim as its head of religious programming in a radical departure from broadcasting tradition.
The post - considered one of the most influential religious roles in the country - has gone to Aaqil Ahmed, who has been working as an executive at Channel 4.
The appointment will cause dismay among the Christian churches.
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams raised concerns over the prospect of a Muslim head of religious broadcasting during a meeting with the corporation's director general Mark Thompson in March.
It comes at a time of deepening worries among Christian leaders that their faith is being sidelined and downgraded by authorities.
Both Dr Williams and Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu have made repeated public complaints over the indifference and occasional hostility to Christianity shown in Whitehall and from other authorities.
Last year the BBC gave the job of producing its most popular and longrunning religious programme, Songs of Praise, to a Sikh, Tommy Nagra.
The Church of England points out that 70 per cent of the population of Britain professes to be Christian, but only 3 per cent are Muslims.
An official spokesman for the CofE said: 'We will judge the new man by his output rather than his label.'
Christina Rees, a member of the Church's 'Cabinet', the Archbishops' Council, said: 'Aaqil Ahmed is a respected professional who has an established record of producing programmes on religion and ethics.
'It is important that the Christian faith continues to receive coverage that accurately reflects its significance in the lives of most people who live in Britain, the overwhelming majority of whom regard themselves as Christian.'
But one corporation insider suggested the BBC would have been in breach of employment law if it had failed to give the job to Mr Ahmed.
He was the best-qualified for the post, they said, and a decision to turn him down would have amounted to discrimination.
Mr Ahmed is currently Channel 4's senior executive for religious programmes. He has commissioned series on the history of Christianity and the Koran.
His critics accuse him of dumbing down religion, for example in one programme by presenting an assessment of the state of Christianity by Cherie Blair.
Mr Ahmed is a trustee of the Runnymede Trust, a body that has championed the ideology of multiculturalism.
He has also taken part in campaigns for a greater Muslim presence in the media.
In the past the post of head of religion at the BBC has been considered a job for a senior and respected cleric or lay churchgoer.
The Church of England's place as the established Church has usually been influential in the choice of postholders.
There were deep reservations among church leaders eight years ago when for the first time the corporation appointed an atheist to the role.
Mr Ahmed's appointment follows a re- organisation of the BBC religious broadcasting department and his title will be Head of Religion and Ethics and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV.
The former head of religious programmes, Methodist preacher Michael Wakelin, failed to land the new post.
Church leaders have become increasing disillusioned with the BBC in recent years. There have been a number of complaints that the corporation has shifted religious broadcasting out of prime time and cut down on the amount of time it gets.
The BBC's TV religious programming is much reduced from the days when there were only terrestrial channels, which were required to set aside an hour on Sunday evening as a 'God Slot'.
The remaining religious flagship is Songs of Praise, which has been running since 1961 and which can still command audiences of four million. Last Sunday it ran at close to peak time, at 5.55pm.
Otherwise the only Sunday TV religious programme is The Big Question, broadcast at 10am and intended to represent different faiths and beliefs.
Last Sunday, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4 offered no religious programmes. BBC3, however, did broadcast Kirsten's Topless Ambition, about a TV presenter considering going topless for a photo shoot, and two episodes of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.
The BBC has recently announced a six-part documentary on the history of Christianity, to be presented by the highly-respected historian Diarmaid McCulloch.
- The BBC has made a second senior religious appointment, making Christine Morgan, a longstanding producer who has been responsible for Radio 4's Thought for the Day, Head of Religion Radio.