Secular groups have reacted angrily to news that the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is lobbying the Vatican in an effort to persuade the Pope to deliver the Thought for the Day religious slot on Radio 4's Today programme. The corporation hopes that a broadcast can be recorded to coincide with the Papal visit to Britain, which is set to take place in September.
Mr Thompson, who is a devout Roman Catholic and was educated by Jesuits, is leading the negotiations himself. He recently went to Rome to attend the Pope's weekly audience, where he was a special guest in the front row. He spoke with the pontiff and during his visit is understood to have discussed with Vatican officials the possibility of him recording a message for the BBC.
The three-minute slot is broadcast at around 7.45am. Regular contributors have included Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rabbi Lionel Blue and the Bishop of Southwark. But plans for the broadcast, which would be unprecedented in the history of the BBC, have upset secularists who have already expressed fears that the Papal visit will be exploited by the Vatican as a great media opportunity.
Terry Sanderson, the National Secular Society president, said: "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."
Mr 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 on to 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."
The BBC has recently found itself under fire from the religious establishment over a perceived marginalisation of faith issues in its broadcasting schedules. 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 was to appear on the Today programme it would be a personal ambition realised for Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, who yesterday confirmed that talks were already taking place with the Vatican.
Mr Damazer has a list of "fantasy" presenters, including Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, whom he would like to include on the Radio 4 schedule during his tenure as controller.
He indicated that Mr 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, Mr Damazer said: "Mark knows of my aspiration".
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" – sitting 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".