THE news that the BBC will no longer have a dedicated executive in charge of religious broadcasting is evidence that it is “failing in its responsibility to take religion seriously”, the Sandford St Martin Trust has said.
The Trust, which advocates for religious broadcasting, said in a statement that it was “very concerned” to hear that Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, would not be replaced when he leaves shortly.
The BBC need to ensure that “religious-programme commissioners have the specialist knowledge required to effectively do their jobs”, the Trust said. “At a time when religion, and belief in general, plays such a key role in some of the biggest issues of our time, it is absolutely essential that broadcasters are religiously literate if they are going to make compelling programmes and reach the widest audiences possible.”
The chairman of the Trust, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said that to report effectively on the world, the BBC needed to be able to interpret faith as one of the prime motivators for both individuals and communities.“This means that religion needs to be taken more seriously by the BBC in its future shape and remit.”
Mr Ahmed’s post is being abolished as part of internal changes to BBC bureaucracy as it separates its in-house production teams into a stand-alone BBC Studios subsidiary.
A spokesman for the BBC denied that no longer having a dedicated Head of Religion meant that the Corporation was downgrading religious programming.
“The BBC recognises the importance of faith, and while we already do more than anyone else for religious broadcasting, we’ll do even more over the next Charter [period] to reflect and help people understand the role of religion,” the spokesman said. “The BBC needs to be as lean and simple as possible to focus money on programmes for people to enjoy, and our new structure will put religion firmly at the heart of what the BBC does.”
The Director General of the BBC, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, will invite faith leaders to a discussion next year to investigate how the BBC can reflect the realities of religion in modern Britain in its news and drama programmes, the spokesman said.
The specialist religion and ethics TV production team within the BBC will become part of Factual Scotland, a division of BBC Studios based in Glasgow.
The spin-off of BBC Studios will be accompanied by changes to how the BBC commissions TV shows, with any production unit, internal or external, able to bid for some programmes.
Songs of Praise will be one of the first contracts to be offered for tender (News, 7 October), and Bishop Baines has also expressed his concerns about the process.
In a letter to Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, Bishop Baines said that he and the other trustees at Sandford St Martin were worried that the four members of the BBC team which would decide who the successful candidate to make Songs of Praise was had no specialist religious knowledge.
Ms Moore replied in a letter last week, insisting that Songs of Praise was hugely important to the BBC and said the evaluation team had wide experience in commissioning and managing religious broadcasting.