Best stick to bishoping, Nigel

I have discovered an unexpected pleasure since entering the world of religious media - the special delight in spotting the many bizarre religious comments which emerge from unlikely sources.

You know the sort of thing: TV presenters who think that having an expensive haircut and a botoxed forehead qualifies them to adjudicate on the schisms within Judaism; or self-appointed Muslim spokesmen who claim to have unearthed the anti-Muslim agenda of the JC.

But last month I came across a comment which makes all the others look like models of rational thought.

Let me introduce you to the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch. As well as being the chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, Bishop Nigel is the Church of England's spokesman on media issues. In that capacity, there are all sorts of matters on which you might expect him to comment. Violence on TV, swearing, sex. That sort of thing.

A mere 6 per cent share does not equal market domination

You might even think that, given his role at the CCJ, he might comment on what sometimes appears to be a determination by the BBC to deepen the divide between faiths with its coverage of the Middle East.

He has certainly commented on the BBC. But not as you might have expected. Because Bishop Nigel seems to fancy himself not just as a religious leader, able to offer that perspective on contemporary issues, but as
a media economist and policy maker.

Last month he made a submission to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, on the attempt by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to buy the remaining shares in BSkyB.

Ah yes, Rupert Murdoch. Mention the name in some circles and you know what will follow. Certain types of Brit are unable to hear his name without a verbal explosion.Sure enough, Bishop Nigel's submission let rip exactly as could be predicted. But even by the standards of Murdoch-phobia, his argument was, in the technical term, bonkers.

If the bid was allowed, he said, News Corp would "dominate both the television and newspaper landscape". Sky News might have a reputation for innovation and the quality of its journalism, but that was irrelevant because Bishop Nigel feared a "potential" exercise of "subtle editorial influence".

If it wasn't so serious, you'd have to laugh.

Have a guess at what proportion of news viewers Sky News has at the moment. Seventy five per cent? 50 per cent? 25 per cent? Remember, he thinks that if News Corp gets its hands on the rest of BSkyB, Sky News will come to dominate the market.

Sky News has six per cent of viewers of news. Bishop Nigel really thinks, it seems, that 6 per cent constitutes potential market domination. The BBC has 58 per cent. Clearly, it's an inconsequential minnow compared to Sky News' mighty six per cent.

Best stick to bishoping and leave the economisting to someone numerate.

It's that name Murdoch which does it. I assume that the Bishop is relatively intelligent. Yet when it comes to Rupert Murdoch, he - like so many others - seems to be incapable of rational thought.

Take what one might assume would be his prime concern, religious coverage. The BBC's programming effectively stops at Songs of Praise, its Sunday morning discussion programme on BBC1 and the morning service on Radio 4. Under the guise of religious broadcasting, it also has programmes such as The Moral Maze, but they are about as religious as I am. As for the other side of religious coverage - its coverage of Israel: need I say any more? I'd rather watch Al Jazeera English for balance (and do, regularly - it is scrupulous in having both sides of a story).

And why am I now able to watch Al Jazeera English? Because it's on Sky. Far from reducing choice, Sky has transformed what's available to viewers. And Sky News' coverage of Israel is immeasurably fairer and more rounded than the egregious Jeremy Bowen.

None of that seems to have been noticed by Bishop Nigel because of his Pavlovian reaction to that name, Murdoch. Nor has he noticed the £2 billion in capital investment and near £1 billion in taxes Sky's parent company has contributed in the last five years.

And now he has the cheek, in his capacity as a religious leader, to demand that the government reject News Corp's plans to make the UK the global centre of its Sky channels. Just at the time when we are desperate for inward investment.

You can think what you like about Sky and Rupert Murdoch, Bishop. But how dare you use your religious office to sanctify it.

    Last updated: 10:30am, December 10 2010