Defender of the faith

As ITV halves its religious output and evangelical pressure groups lead the charge against 'blasphemy' on screen, the broadcasters' official adviser on religion, the Bishop of Norwich, tells Maggie Brown why television needs God

In the passage of time between the two great Christian religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, the issue of religious broadcasting, and what constitutes blasphemy in Britain in 2005, has burst into flames and, in so doing, changed the media landscape. In January, BBC2 broadcast Jerry Springer - the Opera, provoking a tabloid furore, and it is now facing a potential judicial challenge as the governors steel themselves this month to answer a record 50,000 complaints.

Meanwhile, Ofcom, which abruptly allowed ITV to kill off My Favourite Hymns and halve its religious output from this week without public consultation - raising questions about its conduct over sensitive content issues - is also pondering a record 8,857 Springer complaints.

You sense Ofcom would rather rule on competition issues than whether "fuck" and "crucifixion" can be used in the same sentence at 10pm, or if Eve "masturbating" Jesus on BBC2 causes harm and offence - but that is the new reality. The BBC complaints also include one significant letter, carefully crafted by the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, and widely supported by the rest of the clergy. This senior bishop, now sitting on the House of Lords committee vetting the BBC green paper, is taking the responsibility very seriously.

Meanwhile, for all the BBC's defiant words about the right to broadcast provocative pieces for a broad audience, director general Mark Thompson used a keynote speech this month to agree it was time to do more to "connect" with Christian viewers and plug a "creative deficit" in a nation where 72% of the population say they are in some sense Christian.

But the furore, which could easily be replicated again in multi-faith Britain, has raised a further question: what input has there been from a broadly based and carefully balanced body, the Central Religious Advisory Committee (Crac), there to advise the BBC, and, it is assumed, Ofcom about such elephant traps?

Which leads straight to Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, who exactly a year ago became chair of Crac. Predictably, Bishop James, speaking from the historic Bishop's House in Norwich, did not care much for Springer. "I didn't think it made good television. Televising plays direct from the theatre is rarely a good idea. I found it tasteless, but I find the real Jerry Springer programme equally tasteless."

But, perhaps less predictably, the bishop was more offended by the crude content of the Vicar Of Dibley Christmas special. "I thought the initial series very good. I thought the last Christmas Day edition more seriously offensive than Jerry Springer. The jokes about Jesus were in pretty poor taste and the drunken performances at midnight mass lost touch with reality. They were not comedy, and not quite farce."

The bishop reveals that neither he nor Crac was asked for advice by the BBC about Jerry Springer - The Opera. "Given Crac exists it seems odd we were not used at all in the run-up. I'm not sure the BBC saw it coming. It got caught out by the scale of protest." The bishop says the BBC should have turned to his committee once the level of the protest had become clear. "What the BBC could have done is say they are asking Crac to review the BBC's internal decision-making process. How is an internal review to decide if something is blasphemous? Where are the BBC executives who know how to judge these things?"

The Springer row left Crac on the sidelines, with all the running being made by Christian Voice, a small but vocal pressure group based in west Wales. As one very senior opinion former in the Church of England says, the row has damaged Crac's standing. "What's the point of Crac? We are puzzled about Crac's status, it seems to have completely lost out, moved to a twilight zone."

It is a sentiment reinforced by Bishop James's surprise when ITV so swiftly won the argument to halve its religious programming. He was on holiday in Australia, and not formally consulted or informed.

If only they had asked, broadcasters would have found that the bishop has strong and progressive views on how religion could be covered on television. "Religion is one of the great phenomena of the world for millions and millions and yet people represent religious broadcasting as dull. There is a huge amount to be done to produce more exciting programmes - a need for a mission to educate."

Bishop James believes that a prevailing liberal, sceptical view is stifling innovation. "The western secular liberal mindset seems to dominate broadcasting - and for that matter a paper like the Guardian. They gave up on religion some 30 years ago, and thought that as we all became more prosperous and so on, it would die away."

He says this mindset also informed Ofcom's public service broadcasting review, which paved the way for the TV cutbacks. "I think there were some quite unsophisticated questions about whether people valued religious broad casting. It is not fashionable to say you like religious broadcasting, yet if you asked people if they are interested in spirituality you might have a very different reply.

"The truth is that far from falling, religions are resurgent. Look at Islam, in China, as prosperity rises it is also resurgent and this is quite apart from what is happening in the US."

The bishop insists that debates about the coverage of religion on television need not revolve around the relative merits of each one. "It is not whether all religions are true, or not. They can't all be true. It's whether religion matters in people's lives. The number of communicants on a wet February Sunday morning in the Church of England are more than the members of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat political parties. We are a mass movement by comparison."

Bishop James is also critical of the quality of coverage in news programmes. "ITV and the BBC maintain huge investment in news and current affairs, and in correspondents, yet their secular news gathering makes chronic mistakes. I would like to see religious broadcasting departments with informed journalists in them, to make the connections between the minority world of religious broadcasting and the wider issues. For example, I think the reporting of Iraq carried very little about the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, let alone the Christians, and the reporting of Syria has been even more seriously neglectful of the Syrian Christian population."

On a more upbeat note he says that although the BBC has taken a long time to develop programmes to address the religious deficit, "there's been quite a shift at the top with the arrival of Michael Grade and Thompson. I don't think religion was taken at all seriously by Greg (Dyke). It wasn't top of his agenda - it was not on his agenda. I sense things have changed - there's been a decision that religion does matter. It can't be sidelined to one or two hours a week and end up in a ghetto."

Bishop James says Crac is meeting the BBC and Ofcom on May 4 and 5, for the standard six-monthly meeting, and he clearly has a big agenda, including Jerry Springer, which extends to how Ofcom handles religious complaints. Last month's Channel 4 programme featuring live exorcism is a case in point: he says it may have breached programme guidelines.

"The relationship between Crac and Ofcom is being worked out. One of the things we do need to do is establish where Crac stands in relation to Ofcom decisions. What does need discussion is how Ofcom reaches its decisions under the Communications Act."

Ofcom responds that its main board has no statutory duty to consult with Crac, which began life more than 40 years ago as a committee selected by the BBC to advise the BBC and was adopted by the Independent Broadcasting Authority and then Independent Television Commission for a joint role. There is also a BBC belief that Crac cannot advise two regulators.

Bishop James adds that Crac members work pro bono, and the committee is not resourced to handle the deluge of documents sent out by Ofcom. Nor does it have a direct relationship with ITV, whose delivery of commitments in statements of programme policy it is expected to comment on.

But Bishop James is known as an incisive man, who rose from humble origins in Cornwall. He has a modernising agenda. He was in two minds as to whether to defend My Favourite Hymns when it was axed. "Looking back at ITV's record on religious broadcasting, it has consistently provided Sunday worship. I feel between a rock and a hard place arguing for prescribed slots, protected hours, because it gives the impression that religious broadcasting is an endangered species, a bit like a minority sport."

The danger, he says, is that "religion is put into a broadcasting siding, which has led to religious broadcasting being marginalised" - a banishment that explains the old-fashionedness of the programmes.

Yet he defends the place of worship on ITV, something which makes some senior people at Ofcom uncomfortable. "The Communications Act requires some complete acts of worship and it would be very odd if they didn't broadcast communal acts of worship. It is something very many people do. It's not a cult secret, and it is not there just for the housebound."

So where does Crac go from here? "Crac stands outside both Ofcom and the BBC, though its membership is determined by both bodies consulting each other. I value Crac's independence. We are not regulators ourselves. I do think Crac would be more effective if better resourced. But who would resource it more fully without Crac sacrificing its independence?

"I think both the BBC and Ofcom have realised that religion requires specialist advice, not simply in relation to religious broadcasting but the presentation of religion in all areas of broadcasting. Crac has all the major faiths represented on the committee and the degree of unanimity is very striking."

And he returns to the wider point. "We are in an age where religion is a more sensitive issue than in the past. Crac's involvement should be of very great use. It seems odd to maintain a group and not use it as creatively as possible."

Brave words, intelligent words, but from a twilight zone?

A Crac team Right Rev Graham James
Chairman. Bishop of Norwich since January 2000.
Rachel Lampard
Secretary for parliamentary and political affairs for the Methodist Church since May 2000. Formerly a policy manager at the Catholic Housing Aid Society.
Zaki Badawi
Principal of the Muslim College and chairman of the Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK. Egypt-born Dr Badawi is a former research professor at the Hajj research centre of King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia. In 1984 he was elected chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council UK.
Barry Marcus
Rabbi of Central Synagogue, London, one of the oldest and most prestigious synagogues in the UK. A member of the chief rabbi's cabinet, holding the the Israel portfolio.
Mohinder Singh Chana
An engineer, Mohinder Singh Chana is active in religious affairs and interfaith dialogues. He gives talks on the Sikh religion and culture and represents the Network of Sikh Organisations UK.
Mona Siddiqui
Head of the department of theology and religious studies at Glasgow University, Dr Siddiqui has been a member of the Scottish Religious Advisory Committee since May 1999.
Chakravarti Ram-Prasad
Dr Ram-Prasad is lecturer in the department of religious studies at Lancaster University. He has a particular interest in the philosophy of religion, religion and politics and the conceptual sources of modern Hindu life and beliefs. He has published a range of papers and books.
Gerald Coates
Leads the Pioneer Team, one of the larger networks of New Churches in the UK, which he founded. With Dr Patrick Dixon he initiated an Aids ministry which grew into Acet (Aids Care Education Training).
Lesley Carroll
The Rev Lesley Carroll is minister at Fortwilliam Park Presbyterian Church, Belfast. She sits on the General Board of the Church and Government Committee and is Convenor of the Irish Church Relation Committee. A regular broadcaster.
Winston Bygrave
A black evangelical Christian, Bygrave is pastor of Mount Zion Pentecostal Church (Apostolic) in Clapham, south London, and a humanities teacher in Harrow.
James Hanvey
Director of the institute for religion, ethics and public life at Heythrop College, University of London.
Christina Rees
Christina Rees is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England, and is chair of National WATCH (Women and the Church), and serves on the governing body of two theological colleges.
Adele Blakebrough
Adele Blakebrough, a Baptist minister, is co-founder and co-director of the Community Action Network, a relationship and internet-based network of social entrepreneurs.
Eudora Pascall
Media relations officer for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
John Peacock
Director of studies at Sharpham College since August 2000. He lectures in Indian religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) at the University of Bristol but has had nearly 20 years' experience teaching meditation and the practical dimensions of Buddhism.


Maggie Brown

The GuardianTramp

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