BY FREDDY GRAY
ARCHBISHOP Mario Conti of Glasgow has joined the growing ranks of Catholic critics of the BBC, with two stinging attacks on a satirical cartoon which mocks the Pope and the Catholic Church.
In an article in the Daily Mail, Archbishop Conti attacked Popetown and accused the corporation of being “socially irresponsible” and “downright offensive” in its attitude towards Catholics.
Archbishop Conti wrote: “My concerns do not only relate to the changes in broadcasting etiquette. More worrying is the apparent willingness of broadcasters to air programmes which are not only distasteful but downright offensive to religious institutions.” He wrote: “Would a programme parodying a leader of the Islamic community, the Jewish community or the Sikh community have been countenanced? Is Popetown to be followed by Dalailamatown? I think not.
“It is, I venture, socially irresponsible to commission programmes which mock religious minorities. Anyone with any experience of the cancer of sectarianism in the West of Scotland would vouch for that. Is it any wonder that Catholics all over Britain are saying ‘enough is enough’. To be mocked is bad enough. To pay to be mocked through the licence fee adds insult to injury.” Popetown, a BBC3 programme which has cost license-fee payers £2.5 million, portrays Pope John Paul II as an infantile tyrant on a pogo stick, with the voice of entertainer Ruby Wax, and the Vatican as a criminal racket.
On Monday, The Guardian reported that sources connected to the programme have said that it may be too controversial to be broadcast at all.
One source said: “It is causing huge ructions within the BBC. There is no rush to get it out.” Another source close to the programme admitted: “There is never going to be a good time to put this out. The whole point about these complaints is that none of the people making them have seen the scripts, but if they did they would be hugely upset.” Producers are considering dealing with the deluge of complaints simply by changing the title of the cartoon. One name which has been mooted is Holy Smoke.
But Kate Page, a BBC3 publicist insisted there was no intention to pull the plug on the controversial comedy.
She admitted receiving “several thousand complaints,” but was adamant that the animation has been rescheduled after “technical” complications. It is now expected to appear on BBC3 this summer.
Archbishop Conti also criticised the BBC Panorama documentary “Sex and the Holy City” which concluded that the Vatican’s stance on contraception and abortion was resulting in poverty and death on a global scale. The report was aired during the celebrations of the Pope’s Silver Jubilee.
He wrote: “Apart the highly questionable, indeed inaccurate thesis, the timing of such a programme was grossly offensive.” Archbishop Conti is among a range of Catholic figures to voice their objections to the apparent antiCatholic bias of the BBC.
In an article for last week’s edition of The Catholic Herald, Catholic human rights activist James Mawdsley announced he would rather go to prison than pay his licence fee if the BBC continued to “mock” his religion.
Several national newspapers have picked up on the controversy, and Clifford Longley, a man who has already received an apology from the BBC over one of its unwarranted attacks on Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor, spoke in defence of British Catholics in the “Thought for the Day” slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Longley said: “If you insult the leadership of the Catholic Church like this, you insult all Catholics — including the six million who live in the UK, and you hold them up for public hatred, ridicule and contempt.” The National Secular Society (NSS) has hit back at the Catholic position, accusing the Catholics of “opportunism” for striking at the BBC as the corporation smarted over the scathing criticisms of Lord Hutton for falsely reporting that the Government had deliberately misled the nation over the case for war with Iraq.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director, argued that the BBC must assert its independence from “powerful institutions.” He said: “The BBC prides itself on being impervious to the pressure of interest groups, and certainly it ignored our calls to have a non-believer’s participation in ‘Thought for the Day’. We sincerely hope that the mounting Catholic pressure on the BBC will be resisted.” Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, who has campaigned against the anti-Catholic bias since last year, was unwilling to apply more public pressure on the corporation during the current crisis, but expressed his optimism for the future of licence funded broadcasting.
He said: “I am pleased to express my support for the BBC at this difficult time for the corporation. I share the view that a positive way forward for the BBC is now being shaped.”