The BBC must show due impartiality when covering the ‘controversial topic’ of religion, new editorial guidelines say.
It follows several incidents where the BBC has been accused of an anti-Christian bias in its broadcasts.
Secular campaigners are angry at the move, saying the BBC has bowed to “pressure from religious groups”.
The new guidelines, which have been published by the BBC Trust, stipulate that when the broadcaster deals with controversial topics involving religion it should show impartiality.
They also state that any content which is likely to cause offence to those “with religious views must be editorially justified and must be referred to a senior editorial figure”.
The BBC’s previous editorial guidelines, issued in 2005, stated that the “controversial subjects” which must be treated with due impartiality were those subjects involving public policy or political/industrial controversy.
But the new guidelines, which were released yesterday, extend the definition of “controversial subjects” to include religion, science, culture and ethics.
A statement from the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, said: “In practice, this means that when BBC content deals with controversy within these subjects, it must be treated with a level of impartiality adequate and appropriate to the content, taking account of the nature of the content and the likely audience expectation.”
Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, welcomed the new guidance, saying: “We recognise the need for the BBC to be original, surprising and sometimes edgy. At the same time it must be fair, accurate, impartial and avoid giving broad offence.
“The need to get that right lies at the heart of these editorial guidelines – it’s always been clear that the public expects the very highest standards from the BBC, and the editorial guidelines are a vital tool in achieving that.”
Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “The idea that any comment that could be offensive to a religious person must be editorially approved shows that the BBC has become ridiculously timid and fearful of religious controversy.
“Pressure from religious groups has caused the BBC to severely curb free speech in the area of religion.”
Earlier this year the BBC was forced to defend an EastEnders storyline after outraged viewers accused the corporation of anti-Christian bias.
The complaints centered around a plotline on EastEnders which portrayed Lucas Johnson, a Christian Pentecostal pastor, as a deranged killer whose deeds were motivated by his Christian faith.
Viewers watched the pastor, played by actor Don Gilet, failing to help his ex-wife when she was dying, strangling a love rival to death, and attacking his current wife.
Last year an ex-BBC presenter claimed that the BBC is keen on programmes which attack churches, and that there was a wider secularist campaign “to get rid of Christianity”.
Don Maclean, the former Radio 2 religious programme host, also said that the broadcaster is “keen on Islam”.
Mr Maclean said: “you don’t see any programmes on Anglicanism that don’t talk about homosexual clergy and you don’t see anything on Roman Catholicism that doesn’t talk about paedophiles.
“They seem to take the negative angle every time. They don’t do that if they’re doing programmes on Islam. Programmes on Islam are always supportive.”
And in June 2009 it was revealed that the BBC Trust had rejected complaints against a TV drama that showed a fanatical British Christian beheading a moderate Muslim.
The offending episode of “Bonekickers” was aired in July 2008.
The BBC Trust rejected suggestions that the drama associated fanatical Christianity with evangelicalism and gave an offensive portrayal of evangelical Christians.
But Daily Telegraph writer, Damian Thompson, said: “We are deep into the realms of BBC bias and ignorance here.
“Only a BBC drama series would, to quote the complainant, ‘transfer the practice of terrorist beheadings from Islamist radicals to a fantasised group of fundamentalist Christians’.”
In April 2009 Jonathan Wynne-Jones, a national newspaper journalist, warned that the frequent television portrayals of Christians as absurd make it more difficult for believers to defend themselves.
Writing on his blog Mr Wynne-Jones warned that a spate of recent storylines in a number of soaps had sent the clear message that “Christians are nutters”.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines, which cover TV, radio and the internet, are reviewed every five years
The guidelines also say that the BBC shouldn’t mislead its audiences through editing or commentaries, and that it should avoid the over-promotion of new films and bands.
The editorial rules also brought in restrictions on the use of “humiliating and derogatory remarks”.