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Digital media could bring bewildering Babel, bishop warns

26 June 2008

by Pat Ashworth

Acclaimed: Joseph Mawle as Jesus in the BBC's The Passion, shown throughout Holy Week this year BBC

Acclaimed: Joseph Mawle as Jesus in the BBC's The Passion, shown throughout Holy Week this year BBC

A MODERN-DAY Tower of Babel could ensue from an information overload on digital channels, the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, warned Ofcom on Tuesday.

Bishop McCulloch is the C of E’s senior spokesman on communications. In the Church’s submission to Ofcom’s Second Review of Public Broadcasting, he warns that, without strong and vibrant public-service content, broadcasting after the digital switchover could sow bewilderment and mistrust.

The effect of UK public-service broadcasting on social cohesion is “highly socially desirable”, and the service must be funded and adapted to fit the world after digital switchover, the Bishop argues. “The BBC should not be left to be the sole provider of public-service television,” he says.

Bishop McCulloch calls for new funding and access to multiple channels, internet and mobile platforms, which would bring public-service content to new audiences. He warns against an over-reliance on the internet, which would be likely to reinforce the social exclusion of elderly people and those in rural communities.

He praises OFCOM for recognising that there might be new forms of subsidy for public-service broadcasting.

Programmes about faith and the lives of believers, as well as programmes examining the larger questions of life, should continue to feature in public-service output, the Bishop’s submission says: “given the significance of faith for promoting social cohesion, the complex nature of modern society, and the desire of audiences, reported in Ofcom’s research findings”.

He argues that Britain’s cultural identity is still predominantly Christian. “We reject OFCOM’s suggestion that audiences attach less significance to religious output. There is still a concern that audiences only think of televised church services as religious content, important thought these are,” he says.

“The higher audience figures and extremely high audience appreciation figures for programmes like A Seaside Parish, Helen House, and The Monastery bear this out. OFCOM’s own figures show that religion is still considered socially significant.”

The Bishop expresses concern that the contribution of niche religious channels to general audience consumption is overestimated: “There is no incentive under the current licensing regime for specialist religious channels to serve a wider audience beyond the special community of interest they currently reach.”

Referring to the documentary series on the Helen House hospice and The Passion (broadcast by the BBC at Easter): “There is also a clear hunger for programmes about spiritual, moral and ethical issues that are broader.”

The Bishop opposes the proposals to split the BBC licence fee, diverting funds to other broadcasters, because it might damage the Corporation’s capacity and influence. “Preserving the licence fee as BBC-only funding will maintain the broadest appeal of public-service broadcasting, with the least risk of exclusion of the vulnerable or poor or elderly.”

The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference has also made a submission to OFCOM. Bishop McCulloch confirmed that the C of E “fully supports its content”.

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