Rowan Williams accuses BBC of ignoring faithful

London, UK - The Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the director-general of the BBC, accusing the corporation of ignoring its Christian audience.

Rowan Williams told Mark Thompson that the BBC should not ignore Christian viewers and took him to task over cuts in religious programming on the World Service, during a meeting at Lambeth Palace earlier this month.

Senior figures in the Church of England are understood to believe that Christians are being sidelined by the broadcaster; the removal of Michael Wakelin, who was head of religious programmes, only adds to this feeling.

Wakelin, 47, a Methodist lay preacher, was a producer on Songs of Praise for five years before being appointed head of religion and ethics at the BBC in August 2006. He had previously established Radio 2’s Faith in the World week, which is now in its 17th year.

After a restructuring of BBC commissioning, Wakelin was invited to reapply for the new post of commissioning editor and head of production. He was not successful and became the fourth out of seven executives in the religion department to lose their job in the past year.

The BBC said last night that the recruitment process for his successor was still open.

One man tipped for the position is Aaqil Ahmed, the Muslim commissioning editor for religion at Channel 4. He has commissioned programmes such as God Is Black, Putting the Fun in Fundamental and Priest Idol.

The BBC recently appointed Tommy Nagra, a Sikh, to produce Songs of Praise. He is also understood to be in the running for the job.

As a public broadcaster the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes, but since 2001 religious programming on the BBC World Service has shrunk from 1¾ hours to half an hour, described by Williams as a significant loss.

The archbishop agreed that the future of religious broadcasting was under threat at a gathering of the Archbishops’ Council, the church’s executive body, last week.

The matter was raised by Christina Rees, a member of the General Synod. “We need to be concerned,” she said last night. “We have had a productive and positive relationship with the BBC and there was no intention to be hostile. But it is an abrogation of our responsibility as the established church to ignore what is going on with the BBC in terms of religion and ethics right now.

“I know [Williams] wants to see the role of religion enhanced in the media and covered accurately and well. He had a meeting with Mark Thompson. They are friends and they meet from time to time.”

The Churches’ Media Council, which represents the major Christian denominations, says Christians are under-represented at the BBC. Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, will hold a meeting next month with senior BBC and church figures to discuss the corporation’s attitude to faith issues.

The BBC said: “Changes to the religious and ethics department in Manchester are being made to strengthen the BBC’s offering, not diminish it.”

Thompson said last year that Christianity should be central to the BBC’s religion coverage.

A Lambeth Palace spokeswoman said she could not comment on a private meeting.