The BBC is lobbying the Vatican in an effort to persuade the Pope to deliver the Thought for the Day religious slot on the Radio 4 Today programme.
The corporation hopes that a broadcast can be recorded to coincide with the Papal visit to Britain later this year.
Mark Thompson, the BBC director general and a devout Roman Catholic who was educated by Jesuits, is leading the corporation’s negotiations himself. Thompson met the Pope recently on a visit to Rome, when he is believed to have raised the possibility of the recording.
Plans for the broadcast, which would be unprecedented in the history of the BBC, are certain to upset secularist groups which have already expressed fears that the Papal visit will be exploited by the Vatican as a great media opportunity.
But the BBC has also recently found itself under fire from the religious establishment over a perceived marginalisation of faith issues in its broadcasting schedules in recent years. The Church of England’s General Synod last week carried an almost unanimous vote on a motion criticising the lack of religious output on the BBC.
If Pope Benedict XVI, who is likely to come to Britain in September, was to appear on the Today programme it would be a personal ambition realised for Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, who today confirmed that talks were already taking place with the Vatican.
Damazer whose ambition is to include on the Radio 4 schedule during his tenure as controller a list of “dream” presenters that also includes Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, indicated that Thompson was taking the lead in the negotiations. “I think Mark Thompson is better qualified than me,” he said, referring to the director general’s religious beliefs.
Asked if a request had been made specifically in relation to the Today programme, Damazer said: “Mark knows of my aspiration.”
The recording, if it happens, would be likely to be made by the BBC’s religious department, which is based in Manchester.
The BBC’s plan was condemened today by the National Secular Society which is running a campaign to stop the Papal visit being state-funded. Terry Sanderson, the society’s president, said: “I think this is an indication of what we can expect. I think the BBC under Mark Thompson is going to go into overdrive and we are going to have Pope, Pope, Pope, driven down our throats for the whole three days of the visit.
“We cannot help but suspect that Mark Thompson’s recent visit to the Vatican for what were called ‘high-level talks’ with Vatican officials might well have been to plan this kind of propaganda exercise.”
When challenged, Sanderson accepted that Thought for the Day was a religious slot and so to have the Bishop of Rome as presenter was not an unreasonable ambition. But he said: On its own terms it is reasonable that he should be invited onto ‘Thought for the Day’ but the Pope gets to say what he wants unchallenged.
“It would be much better if he was on the mainstream Today programme under the scrutiny of [presenter] John Humphrys rather than just giving the Catholic church an opportunity to promote itself.”
Earlier this month Mr Thompson attended a reception at the Venerable English College in Rome in honour of the pilgrimage known as the “ad limina” being made by 35 Catholic bishops from England and Wales. He also attended the Pope’s weekly general audience and was “prima fila” – in the front row reserved for visiting dignitaries. A BBC spokesman said at the time that Mr Thompson met “senior Vatican officials in his capacity as Editor-In-Chief of the BBC to discuss the forthcoming Papal visit to the UK”.