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Godly discussion

19 September 2014


ONE of the hottest tickets at this summer's Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival was a public debate about the place of religion in UK television, "God: TV's Holy Grail?" You can watch it on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=XI3KjZTpcVM).

It was splendidly hosted by the charity the Sandford St Martin Trust, and a starry panel had been lined up: Polly Toynbee (journalist and writer), Roger Bolton (the former editor of Panorama), Aaqil Ahmed (BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics), Tony Jordan (writer and producer), and Ralph Lee (Head of Factual, Channel 4), expertly kept in order and chal-lenged by Sian Williams.

Mr Bolton, while wanting to celebrate the excellence of the best current programmes, made a strong plea for the reversal of the severe decline in commissioning and funding religion in TV. Ms Toynbee thought that, in a largely secular nation, giving any privilege to religion was wrong.

Everyone agreed about the importance of programmes about religion, of documentaries that explain the part that faith plays in people's lives, and how religion has shaped, and continues to shape, our world. The debate moved round the issue of what can legitimately be classed as "religious TV".

When each of the panel was asked to nominate religious programmes that he or she approved of, the range of material was striking. Dramas, comedies, factual series - even Gogglebox, the fly-on-the-wall programme that records viewers' live reaction to TV - were deemed legitimate examples (the latter because one of the viewers is a priest). Rev should count as religious because the Revd Adam Smallbone's farcical incompetence is redeemed by the portrayal of faith as something real, embracing its range of human misfits.

Ms Toynbee made a clear case for distinguishing between programmes about religion, which she considered necessary, and programmes that encouraged the viewer to align with the faith depicted, or that involve actual worship (she was quite happy to exempt compilations of hymns and carols from her index - after all, as she said, even Richard Dawkins likes singing hymns).

Whether this view indicates that hymnody is, in fact, our most successful Trojan horse, planting seeds of faith while the doubters slumber, is a topic that should be given serious consideration.

I think Ms Toynbee is right to make a distinction. Because a broadcast is about religion, that does not make it, in itself, religious - indeed, a documentary about extreme sects is actually an anti-religion programme. She then loses my support by saying that UK broadcasting is compromised by the privileged position given to faith.

If only it was. I think that there should be far more unashamed religion on TV - after all, the medium caters for enough other minority interests.

As with most debates, I longed for a second round, with the issues more clearly marshalled and debated; but this was passionate, urgent, and committed - a public affirmation that, whether you like it or not, religion is not yet dead.

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