BBC doesn’t do God

Well-made television and radio programmes about religion attract large audiences and address crucial subjects, so why are there so few of them? asks Nigel Holmes

It is ten years since first I raised the issue of religious broadcasting in the General Synod of the Church of England. The noticeable difference this time was the level

of opposition evident on the secular websites. The secular humanists, and not just the few well-known names, have become increasingly active in challenging not only Thought for the Day but the very existence of religion in the media.

Output halved

Perhaps this was a response to the greater coverage my motion attracted, including the 8.15am slot on Radio 4’s Today and a full page in the Independent, as well as the whole debate being shown on BBC Parliament.

One accepts that there is bound to be a range of views on an issue of this kind. I was called to defend my position on the web which led me succinctly to state some facts. Over the past twenty years the proportion of the output on the BBC’s general television channels, (excluding News, Parliament and Children’s) which is classified by the BBC itself as religion, has halved. That is a fact. It is also a fact that, when asked, more than 70% of people in this country describe themselves as Christian.

Our culture is imbued with Christianity; our national institutions are founded on Christian principles. Every month some 3–4 million people worship in Christian churches and every year 85% of the total population enters a church.

When religious programmes are made to high production standards, effectively scheduled and well promoted, they build audience for a given time slot. Recent examples include Son of God, The Passion and A History of Christianity.

Role in global affairs

A documentary series broadcast last year on the work of the nuns of Helen House achieved the highest Appreciation Index (95) for any programme ever broadcast on BBC 2. BBC Local Radio religious programmes regularly attract the largest audience share of the week and Good Morning Sunday has the third highest share of the week on BBC Radio 2. Sunday on Radio 4 draws one million before 8am.

People are intrinsically interested in the human condition. It would be wrong were that subject not to be covered by broadcasters. People are also interested in moral and ethical issues. Where are such television programmes focusing on standards in politics and finance? In Britain the interplay of the major faiths has huge significance for the future of our nation.

Worldwide, religion plays an increasingly significant role in global affairs. It is vital to our understanding of international politics. Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that

listeners and viewers are given facts and opinions which will help them to think and consider issues of faith.

Director-General

In the Synod debate on 10 February I quoted the words of the present Director-General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, just before he took up that post. He said, ‘It’s true that there is an enormous prevailing prejudice inside broadcasting about religion.

‘It’s not really based on hatred of religion – I’m sure that exists to some degree as well – but there’s a presumption that religion is boring... I’m in favour of mandating religious programmes on television because it’s the only way of offsetting the prejudice and making sure that religion, which is a big part of many people’s lives – and goodness knows a big part of our world – is represented...

‘Religion is pretty interesting and it is by no means obvious that religious programmes get tiny audience. It’s an enormous, growing topic... It’s a mistake to assume that religion is naturally something just appealing to a minority’ [Not Just on Sunday, ITV, 27 June 2004].

Responsibility

My hope is that Mark Thompson will encourage the BBC Trust to commission a proper study of religion. Its predecessor, the Board of Governors, did this the year before they were abolished. That report, which greatly affirmed the importance of religion on the air, in both news and programmes, appears to have been shelved.

They also need to ask why BBC radio gives so much better coverage than BBC television. They also need to consider, now that ITV has left the field and Channel 4 has not replaced its commissioning editor for religion, whether the BBC should shoulder greater responsibility for keeping the rumour of God alive?

Otherwise there is a real danger that the creative core of specialist television programme makers will be lost. Once most had a proper, academic theological background; that is now rare.

I was prompted to raise the issue again after reading the letter from the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, to The Times last Holy Week in which he said that BBC television channels ‘seem to have overlooked Good Friday’.

Aaqil Ahmed, the new Head of BBC Religion and Ethics, promised the approximately two million listeners in that peak-time interview on the Today Programme, which we shared, that whatever might have been said about last year, this year Easter would be a season to savour.

I hope that together we can persuade the Corporation to prize religion in television once more. ND

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