BBC director-general Mark Thompson has claimed Christianity is treated with far less sensitivity than other religions because it is ‘pretty broad shouldered’.
He suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities’, and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters.
But he also revealed that producers had to consider the possibilities of ‘violent threats’ instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.
Mr Thompson said: ‘Without question, “I complain in the strongest possible terms”, is different from, “I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write”. This definitely raises the stakes.’
But he added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race.
Mr Thompson was making his comments during a wide ranging interview about faith and broadcasting, which included the furore provoked by the Corporation’s decision to screen the controversial show Jerry Springer: The Opera on BBC2 in 2005.
Hundreds of Christians rallied outside BBC buildings before and during the broadcast to protest about what they saw as blasphemous scenes such as Jesus Christ wearing a nappy.
At least 45,000 people contacted the BBC to complain about swearing and its irreverent treatment of Christian themes.
Many said that no one would have dreamed of making such a show about the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.
Mr Thompson has now appeared belatedly to accept their argument. In an interview, he said Islam was ‘almost entirely’ practised by people who already may feel in other ways ‘isolated’, ‘prejudiced against’ and who may regard an attack on their religion as ‘racism by other means’.
But he said that Christianity was ‘an established part of our cultural-built landscape’ which meant it was ‘a pretty broad- shouldered religion’.
He conceded that the broadcaster would never have aired a similar show about Mohammed because it could have had the same impact as a piece of ‘grotesque child pornography’.
In the interview posted online for the Free Speech Debate—a research project at Oxford University—Mr Thompson said: ‘The kind of constraints that most people accept around racial hatred, the fact that it may be in certain forms of expression or certain forms of depiction, may be outlawed because of the way in which they go to racial hatred and potentially the promotion and incitement of racial hatred.
‘I think religion should never receive that level of protection or sensitivity.
But I think it is wrong to imagine that it therefore goes into the general swim and that a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed is no more challenging than a debate about what two plus two equals.’
He added: ‘The point is that for a Muslim, a depiction, particularly a comic or demeaning depiction, of the Prophet Mohammed might have the emotional force of a piece of grotesque child pornography.
‘One of the mistakes secularists make is not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief.’
When asked by his interviewer, the historian Timothy Garton Ash, if it was the case that the BBC wouldn’t dream of airing something ‘comparably satirical’ as Jerry Springer: The Opera about Mohammed, he said:
‘Essentially the answer to that question is yes.’
He added: ‘The idea you might want to… think quite carefully about whether something done, in quotes, in the name of freedom of expression, might to the Jew, or the Sikh, or the Hindu, or the Muslim, who receives it, feel threatening, isolating and so forth, I think those are meaningful considerations.’
Mr Thompson, who is expected to leave his job after the Olympics, said he was a ‘practising Catholic’ who believed that the ‘truths of the Christian faith’ were objective rather than subjective.
He had never watched Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ or Monty Python’s The Life of Brian because he was ‘quite personally sensitive to mockery of religious images’.
But he said this did not mean that he was against either film being broadcast, adding that the best advice if you thought something might offend you was not to watch it.
However, he had no problem with the decision to show Jerry Springer: The Opera, and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’.
Mr Thompson said the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his novel The Satanic Verses, the September 11 terror attacks, and the murder in Holland in 2004 of film-maker Theo van Gogh, who had criticised Islam, had made broadcasters realise that religious controversies could lead to murder or serious criminal acts.