Prominent Catholics in the UK are up in arms over Channel 4's decision to invite a known critic of the Catholic Church to present a documentary film about Pope Benedict XVI.
Peter Tatchell, an Australian-born British activist, has been commissioned by Channel 4 to present the 60-minute programme. Tatchell has been an often-outspoken campaigner on issues such as gay rights, racism and religion, having repeatedly described the Pope and the Catholic Church as "anti-gay" and "gay-hating".
The timing of the documentary's broadcast is particularly provocative; in a statement announcing the commissioning of the programme, Channel 4 indicated that it is due to be aired "shortly before" the Pope visits Britain in September.
Announcing the programme, Channel 4's head of specialist factual, Ralph Lee, said that Tatchell's presence would enable "diverse and alternative perspectives" to be aired.
"In keeping with Channel 4's remit to provide a platform for diverse and alternative perspectives, equality campaigner Peter Tatchell will assess the effect of the current Pope's teachings throughout the world and the conflict between some of his values and those held by modern Britain."
'It will be hostile'
British Catholics have been quick to criticise Channel 4, according to The Daily Telegraph. Anne Widdecombe, a well-known Conservative politician, said that the decision by the public service broadcaster reflected a desire to attract controversy rather than to produce a balanced programme.
"I think this will confirm the view that there probably already is in the Vatican that this is a profoundly anti-Catholic country.
"I wouldn't call this the right thing for any serious broadcaster to do, but they're doing it for the publicity, they’re doing it to stir up controversy. Mr Tatchell certainly won't be sympathetic to his subject, so what's the point of doing it? It won't be skeptical, it will be hostile."
The Scottish composer James MacMillan went further, suggesting that it was another manifestation of an anti-Catholic conspiracy among elements of the media.
"There is nothing surprising in the continued frantic jumping up and down by the Guardian/Channel 4/BBC axis in opposition to the Pope.
"Their venom is now so repetitive that it has lost any potency it once had. Frankly, people are getting bored with them."
'Not an anti-Catholic programme'
Channel 4 said that Tatchell would seek to "challenge Pope Benedict XVI’s beliefs and positions on a range of issues - including condoms, homosexuality and fertility treatment". But the broadcaster emphasised that the programme would give supporters of the Church, not just critics, the opportunity to make their voices heard. According to Tatchell:
"My aim is to make a robustly factual programme that explores the Pope's personal, religious and political journey since the 1930s, as well as the motives and effects of his controversial policies. I intend to ensure that we hear the voices of the Pope’s defenders, as well as his critics...
"This will not be an anti-Catholic programme."
Tatchell has on numerous occasions criticised the Catholic Church, which he sees as a systematically homophobic institution that also attempts to paper over the historical existence of homosexuality among its own leaders and followers.
But his criticisms have not been confined to Catholicism. Tatchell has attracted even more controversy for his comments about Islam, having described Sharia law as "a clerical form of fascism" and argued that "significant numbers [of Muslims] are violently homophobic".
Tatchell is a co-founder of the gay rights group OutRage! and has campaigned internationally for recognition of LGBT rights. He has also stood for Parliament as a candidate for Labour and the Green Party.