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Review of BBC religion: some feel like ‘outsiders’

12 July 2013

BBC/EMILIE SANDY

Back-to-back: the presenters of the long-standing television programme, Songs of Praise. Left to right: Pam Rhodes, Aled Jones and Diane Louise Jordan

Back-to-back: the presenters of the long-standing television programme, Songs of Praise. Left to right: Pam Rhodes, Aled Jones and Diane Louise Jord...

THE BBC's coverage of religion and belief is "wide-ranging and substantial", but some religious people feel that they are treated as "rarified and slightly deranged outsiders to mainstream thinking".

These are some of the findings of a new report, A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC's Output, based on an assessment carried out by Stuart Prebble, a former chief executive of ITV.

Mr Prebble was commissioned to carry out the research last summer, examining three areas in particular: religion and belief in the UK, the UK's relationship with the EU, and immigration. A brand consultant was commissioned to carry out audience research, recruiting a range of religious (both "very" and "nominally"), and non-religious people for group discussions and interviews. They were asked for their opinions on specific coverage of topics including gay marriage and women bishops.

The vast majority of this sample felt that the BBC delivered a "reasonable breadth of opinion" and was "reasonably impartial" with regard to religion. The BBC was, however, sometimes seen by the very religious (mainly Muslims and Evangelical Christians) as "secular in its content, rather than completely unbiased". This group expressed concern about their depiction, calling on the BBC not to "take the part of the secular by condemning, mocking or failing to understand religious arguments".

The presenter of Feedback on Radio 4, Roger Bolton, argued that "if a Christian is interviewed by the BBC about their objections to abortion on religious grounds, they are treated as though they are just a bit barmy".

Mr Bolton and others told Mr Prebble that people with conservative views on gay marriage and women bishops "tend to be treated by interviewers as throwbacks who are damaging the Church and dragging it back into the past, rather than people who simply have a different view about the tenets of their faith". Both non-believers and believers felt that there was too little context in coverage of the women-bishops debate for them to make sense of the story.

The Evangelical Alliance, when invited to make a submission to the review, asked members to share their views. The Revd Roger Simpson, Archbishop's Evangelist and a Canon of York Minster, wrote: "In programmes relating to science or ethics, the thoughtful Evangelical approach is completely missing, and instead the Christian viewpoint is expressed by a narrow, fundamentalist slant which has more to do with the North American approach than that here in the UK. As a result, thoughtful UK Evangelicals find that their world view is unfairly represented."

Mr Prebble writes in the report that, in the light of the "dramatic decline" in the number of professed Christians in the country, the volume of programmes of worship "may seem difficult to justify". But he also highlights "high levels of appreciation" by those who do tune in, and the fact that the programmes are appreciated by a "signficant number" of people who are not regular viewers or listeners.

No denomination of the Christian faith complained that it was under-represented in the distribution of worship services, and Mr Prebble expressed surprise that no other religion wished to have its own worship broadcast.

He also addressed a long-standing debate about whether Thought for the Day should have a humanist or secular contribution ( News, 20 November 2009), concluding: "Personally I see no difficulty . . . if justified on editorial grounds."

Concern that aspects of minority religions are reflected "through the prism of Christianity" is discussed with reference to last year's TV series about Westminster Abbey, which, Mr Prebble suggests, presented those of other religions as "slightly exotic and slightly mysterious creatures".

The complaint made most frequently by representatives of all religions was about a "disappointingly low level of basic knowledge" about their faiths among generalist journalists (as distinct from those specialising in religion). "There is no excuse for this," Mr Prebble writes. The BBC has decided to establish a pan-BBC forum on religion and ethics to encourage collaboration in this area.

The report is available in full here

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