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
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
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
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.