Media Guardian: Maggie Brown on religious broadcasting

As Christmas approaches, the bishops of the Church of England are keeping a close eye on the BBC's religious programming. Maggie Brown reports on the struggles between entertainment and enlightenment

Special report: religion in the UK

The bishops of the Church of England will be laying aside their Bibles this Advent and scanning the text of the Radio Times instead. "The broadcasters know we expect to see the same quality and quantity of religious broadcasting over Christmas and the New Year, which was so welcome over the millennium," warns the Bishop of Wakefield, the Right Rev Nigel McCulloch.

"You don't have a feeling there is anyone in the BBC championing these programmes," says the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones. "It is incumbent on public service broadcasters to provide proper funding and places in the schedules."

Last year, a bumper Songs of Praise with 60,000 trusty singers brought joy to the bishops - but also fanned the flames of disquiet because it showed what a power religious television can still be on BBC1. When Joan Bakewell quit Heart of the Matter over its ever-later time slot - it was then axed - she sent a shock wave through the faithful.

The Bishop of Wakefield's words carry particular force. He sits in the House of Lords and is the head of the general synod's new broadcast monitoring group, which in the New Year will draw together its first report, dwelling on quality, funding and scheduling, not just quantity.

In a separate move, the Archbishop's council has just fielded a group of five bishops, including the Bishop of Liverpool, for a frank first meeting with the media. The monitoring is designed to keep independent tabs on religious broadcasting trends, after last February's synod (the governing body of the CoE) gave unanimous backing to a regretful motion, based on a report by ex-BBC producer Nigel Holmes called Losing Faith in the BBC.

The key fact unearthed by Holmes was that while hours of output on BBC1 and BBC2 had doubled over the previous 10 years, religious programming had declined by one third. This is not contested by the BBC, though many were puzzled by the report's failure to link this trend to the decline in church attendance in this country and by the cleanish bill of health it gave to ITV.

Nor is it a purely Church of England matter any more. Neville Nagler, director general of the British Board of Deputies, says: "Religious output? It's a bit thin. There is a growth in interest in society in spiritual matters. But this is not being reflected by the broadcasters." The huge debates sparked by the plight of the conjoined twins and the murder of Damilola Taylor are just the most recent examples.

Dr Jim McDonnell, director of the Catholic Communications Centre in London, who welcomes the CoE initiative provided it's not purely negative, similarly observes that BBC television is "weak in religious news coverage".

Religious correspondent Emily Buchanan, he says, "finds it hard to get stories onto the news agenda. Religion is an important area of life. There could be much more insight into the connection between religion and politics in the rest of the world. The BBC has the resources, with the World Service, yet the coverage of Islam really upsets Muslims, it is so stereotyped."

This autumn BBC1's Everyman series was whisked in a twinkling of an eye from Sunday to Tuesday evenings, to make way for Panorama. Everyman editor Ruth Pitt insists it is flourishing in its post-10.30pm slot, and says she has been charged with devising a broad range of ethical programmes, including a series for next autumn on ... Islam.

Yet since the synod's vote, BBC director of television Mark Thompson has questioned, in his Banff speech, whether it will make sense in the future to guarantee a slot for all the BBC's "less popular" genres on BBC1. Thompson says he has not received a single complaint about moving Everyman and, with BBC1's new strategy settled, all religious programmes are being looked at. It might move again, to BBC2 (in a more accessible 9pm slot).

The real issue is that in an entertainment-driven BBC1, religion must earn audiences. "There is no market at all for bad religious broadcasting," says the Bishop of Liverpool. Seeing Salvation, the BBC2 series exploring artists' depiction of Christ, wins high praise from everyone interviewed.

The ongoing debate stirred up by Holmes is the subject of a measured essay (Religious Broadcasting on UK Television) published this week in Cultural Trends. Author Rachel Viney suggests that the BBC should make a declaration of intent, since its obligations are currently vague. She proposes a package including commitments on: the types of programmes viewers can expect; how the responsibilities are divided between television and radio; and clarification of how religious programmes are defined. Thompson says he'll consider what she says.

With the communications white paper due next week, promising lighter touch regulation, ITV confirms it is lobbying to have the requirement to screen religious programmes - historically written into ITV licences - dropped from the wording of the new act.

Remember, if you're allergic to religion, that children's programmes were written into the 1990 Broadcasting Act at the same time as the religious obligation. "We're in a multi-channel age of streamed services but the majority are not there yet," says Jocelyn Hay, chair of Voice of the Listener & Viewer. "Chris Smith keeps talking about lighter regulation. The commitments to children's programmes and religion were only won after a huge campaign. It is essential they stay."

Yet Rachel Viney's paper contains a salutary warning about the letter and spirit of the law. Although religious programmes became a legal duty after the 1990 act, there were no rules about scheduling.

"Religious broadcasting is an unfashionable genre," says Viney, "but I feel it is important because it offers people a different take on the world, a chance to think about moral, ethical issues." One of ITV's most successful offerings in the genre, The Storykeepers - an animated version of Bible stories - "came from the requirement to do religious programmes", she points out. "But if it's just a case of fulfilling quotas, then quality can be a real problem."

The key, says Dr McDonnell of the Catholic Communications Centre, is that the "culture of broadcasting is not lost" in the new age. "We have a vibrant broadcasting sector with a public service ethos. You won't get broad-based religious broadcasting unless you have that context."

As for a requirement in the communications act: "We still see a place for religious programmes on commercial television and they will not be there without that. Public service broadcasting shouldn't just be impartial news and current affairs. We will fight to have a strong public service dimension. It's worth fighting for." Wait for battle to commence.


Maggie Brown

The GuardianTramp

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