EARLY last week, The Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 4 would no longer have to cover religious services, consumer programmes, science, or the arts. Alarm bells rang as Radio 4 listeners in particular contemplated a future without Inside Science, You and Yours, and Front Row. I hope that I was not alone in wondering about the future of Sunday Worship and the Daily Service.
The report was based on a pronouncement from Ofcom, acting as the BBC’s first external regulator. It was, in fact, a response to a request from the BBC to simplify the rules on its public service obligations.
The BBC’s director of radio and education, James Purnell, emphasised that the BBC was not wanting to lessen its public-service remit, but to increase it, “creatively, rather than as box-ticking”. Although he mentioned “religion” as one of the areas distinctive to Radio 4, however, it was not clear whether this extended to broadcasting religious services.
Mr Purnell’s commitment to religion is hardly controversial. Religion motivates millions: Radio 4 would be failing if it did not produce coverage, and, hopefully, something like the current mix of explanation, exposition, and challenge.
But broadcast services are a different matter. When I joined the BBC, there was a Sunday-morning service on Radio 2 and Radio 4, and late-night worship on Saturdays. Today, there is much less worship broadcast.
The argument for continuing to broadcast acts of Christian worship must surely rest on the BBC’s commitment to minority audiences — a commitment that remains vital to its public-service remit. Guessing ahead, I would think that the least vulnerable programme in the worship area is not on Radio 4 at all, but on Radio 3. That is because Choral Evensong keeps alive a recognised art form in a way that clearly fits the Radio 3 ethos (although I do remember a Radio 3 producer asking why Choral Evensong didn’t just drop the scripture readings — and the spoken prayers).
On Radio 4, Daily Service and Sunday Worship are perhaps more vulnerable. This is not because their audiences do not value them. The problem is that most of the people who run Ofcom and the BBC cannot imagine themselves appreciating the consolation of radio worship. They are part of that “liberal elite” who are simply and unthinkingly embarrassed by God.
It would be astonishing if the external regulator has indeed singled out religious services as no longer necessary for the BBC’s public-service remit. In a week when it has lectured the BBC for its lack of diversity, it would be showing an extraordinary lack of insight into what it is for.