As the Huffington Post UK reported this week, the BBC is under fire for the lack of original religious programming on TV this Christmas.
“BBC accused of ‘diminishing religion’ blared the headline in the Daily Express – “Only FOUR HOURS of Christian programming over Xmas”.
The paper went on: “In total, just eight hours of Christian-themed television, such as traditional carols and religious messages, is being aired over seven days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This is less than three per cent of the total and four hours of this are repeats. “
The BBC’s religious output on TV has shrunk considerably from a decade ago, according to Mail Online: “In 2005 the broadcaster aired eight hours of Christian programming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone, the same total that is scheduled over a seven-day period this year.”
BBC TV’s lack of interest in religious broadcasting – even at Christmas – doesn’t surprise me. I was the BBC’s Media Correspondent for 24 years, but continue to be a member of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics and morality.
In our recent submission to the BBC Trust on the review of the BBC Charter, we took the Corporation to task for its failure to take seriously its obligations in this area, at a time when it is widely acknowledged that religious literacy has never been more important.
We quoted, among others, the historian Simon Schama, who wrote: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong…”
Professor Schama is one of many distinguished programme-makers who have won a Sandford St Martin Trust award for the best broadcast programmes about religion, ethics and spirituality.
And despite the apparent lack of understanding among many at the top of the BBC, some very fine programmes are still being made there, as our awards demonstrate.
In our submission to the BBC Trust, we urged the BBC management to take more notice of its own expert programme-makers like Professor Schama.
We pointed out that Ofcom identified religious programming as one of the “immediate areas of concern” in its July 2015 report ‘Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age’.
We noted that the point was highlighted in the BBC’s own Charter Review report, ‘British Bold Creative: The BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter’.
The BBC said on page 49: “We have designed our proposals to address these needs.”
But the 99-page document made no further reference to religion – the only programme genre on the list of “immediate areas of concern” which the BBC neglected to mention in its proposals.
We wrote: “The complete absence of any proposals, or creative thinking, relating to this area in its document British Bold Creative does not give us any confidence that the BBC or the BBC Trust recognises its importance.”
The BBC has always held the prime responsibility to provide high-quality religious programming in the UK. At the Sandford St Martin Trust, we believe that this obligation is now even more important because of:
(a) the need for greater understanding of religious issues, to deliver proper coverage of world affairs and community issues in the UK, and
(b) the clear market failure in religious programming on commercial channels as a result of the relaxation of the Public Service Broadcasting regime.
In our submission to the BBC Trust, we said: “The Trust believes that the withdrawal of the commercial TV channels from a core element of public service broadcasting increases the BBC’s obligation to provide such coverage; to make good the deficiency as far as possible; and certainly not to reduce its own religious programming output.”
We identified other areas of concern, including the effective downgrading of the post of BBC head of religion as a result of budgetary cuts (paragraph 48). BBC TV’s Factual Commissioning division announced in January 2015 plans to merge the role of Commissioning Head of Religion with those of Science, Business and History.
We also fear that future cuts outlined in the BBC Charter Review document will put further strain on the BBC’s religious output (paragraph 52). In particular, we are seeking assurances that the proposal to set up a new BBC Studios production centre will not reduce the level of knowledge and expertise in the BBC’s Religion and Ethics department.
There already seems a lack of expertise among some of those who commission TV programmes about religion and ethics. In a recent video aimed at programme-makers which claims to explain the BBC’s Religion strategy for BBC One. It doesn’t mention religion until 25 seconds from the end!
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