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Showing faith in our global under­­s­tanding

13 February 2015

We should resist the BBC's charter renewal until it demonstrates its commitment to taking religion seriously, argues Roger Bolton

AS SOON as the Election campaign is over, another campaign will start in earnest. The BBC will be seeking your support as it renegotiates its charter and licence fee. In the light of its latest plans to reorganise the way in which it commissions its religious and ethical television programmes, you may wonder whether it deserves it.

At the moment, the commissioner is the Head of the in-house Religion and Ethics Department, Professor Aaqil Ahmed. Under new plans outlined last week by the BBC's new Controller of Factual Commissioning, Emma Swain, he will lose his ability to commission programmes. It appears that the BBC thinks that his is a one-day-a-week commissioning job, since whoever is appointed as the new commissioner will also be responsible for science, business, and history. As Leonardo Da Vinci is not available, it is difficult to think of any other Renaissance figure qualified for such a task.

This arrangement contrasts starkly with the Corporation's plans for the commissioning of the arts, where, instead of having one person doing four jobs, it has two people - a head and a director - doing one.You may wonder why this matters.

There is no serious problem with the potential supply of excellent religious programmes, as I can testify from my work with the Sandford St Martin Trust. Last year, our annual broadcasting awards recognised the work of Professor Simon Schama and Lord Bragg, among many others. But producers can make only what is commissioned. They may have all sorts of wonderful ideas, but in the end, if they want to stay in work, they have to make what the commissioner wants.

The market in religious and ethical programmes is very small. The non-BBC broadcasters have more or less given up in this area. Channel 4, for example, no longer has a specialist commissioning editor for religion. One of the arguments for public-service broadcasting is that it is needed where there is so-called "market failure". Since the market has well and truly failed in this area of television, the BBC commissioner is crucial. It is also crucial that she or he has real expertise in the area, has read widely, and is fully alert to the potential of the subject-matter, and to possible programme suppliers. To expect this person to be equally expert in the fields of science, business, and history is to exhibit, at best, excessive optimism; at worst, dangerous naïvety.

The situation in BBC News is equally worrying. It has specialist editors for economics, business, finance, sport, the arts, defence, foreign and home affairs, and security, etc. What is does not have is a Religion Editor: someone of real knowledge and authority, who can be an important influence on air and in the newsroom. It does have a religious-affairs correspondent: Caroline Wyatt - a former defence correspondent, who had no real expertise in religion before she was appointed. She is now doing an excellent job. But she goes where she is sent.


WHY does the BBC, its television arm in particular, have such a problem with God? Perhaps it is because, like Stephen Fry and Professor Richard Dawkins, the only God of which it can conceive is a medieval tyrant.

BBC Televison has consistently failed to develop an imaginative strategy for the coverage of religion and ethics which matches the potential of the subject. Its own in-house department was exiled to Manchester in the early 1990s because, in the view of BBC bosses, something had to be moved out of London, and moving religion would cause the least fuss.

The subsequent three heads of department all left, disillusioned. The present head, Professor Ahmed, now has half a job. (Of course, he could apply for the new commissioning post, provided he can suddenly develop an expertise in business, history, and science.)

So, where in the BBC will religious knowledge and expertise lie in future? The members of the radio arm of Religion and Ethics in Salford will continue to achieve miracles with diminishing resources, but they will be increasingly isolated, with no formal links to the rest of the Corporation, and a much reduced in-house television team.

This corporate failure is both tragic and serious, because the need for a religiously literate public- service broadcaster has never been greater. As the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust, asks: "When it is impossible to understand the modern world - its politics, economics, military and humanitarian events - without understanding religion, why isn't religion being prioritised by the BBC as needing expert commissioning?"

He goes on: "Will the new Commissioning Head of Specialist Factual be issued specific objectives and goals that will help ensure informed coverage of religion as a motivator and factor in local, national, and world events? And, if so, when will these become known?"

Some - perhaps many - of us need convincing answers to these questions before we can give our wholehearted support to the Corporation's campaign for a new charter, and a substantial licence fee. It will not be sufficient for the BBC to issue reassurances about how seriously it takes religious and ethical coverage. There have been many of those in the past. The minimum requirement is for a commissioning editor who can spend much more than one day a week on religious programmes; a Religion Editor in BBC News; and enhanced training of BBC journalists and producers in one of the most vital areas of public service broadcasting.

Roger Bolton is a former presenter of BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme and a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious programmes (www. http://sandfordawards.org.uk/).

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