The BBC and religion: bad decisions, badly timed

by
07 April 2017

The Corporation lacks a strategy, and is dangerously out of touch with faith communities, says Roger Bolton

ARE you confused by the BBC’s strategy for covering religion? You should be: the BBC is.

That may be a little unfair. Can the BBC be confused about something that it does not have? The Corporation is not “fit for purpose” in this vital public-service area; and, although it is now finally trying to develop such a strategy, it is dangerously late in doing so. There are real doubts about whether it has the will or ability to implement an effective response to a mess that is largely of its own making.

Lisa Opie, the director of factual at BBC Studios, the newly created programme arm of the BBC, told staff on Monday of last week: “We will no longer have a permanent Religion and Ethics department in Salford” — which is, or has been until now, the base of the department. She went on to say that “we have decided to close most of the remaining staff roles in the department.” (This relates to the television, not radio, output.)

James Purnell is the senior executive whom the Director-General, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, has given the task of developing a Corporation-wide religion strategy. The decision came just as he was starting to gather evidence, and telling the great and the good how committed the BBC was to this vital area of broadcasting.

 

ANY sensible organisation would conduct a review first, decide what its broadcasting ambitions were, decide how much expertise and in-house production it needed, and then take a decision about its in-house department. Not so the dysfunctional BBC.

The BBC has also fatally weakened its in-house programme-making team precisely at the moment when the Corporation’s new regulator, OFCOM, has called for it to broadcast more TV religious programming in prime time.

On Thursday of last week, OFCOM’s chief executive, Sharon White, published Holding the BBC to Account for the Delivery of its Mission and Public Purposes. This document says: “To acknowledge that arts, music and religious programme making are in decline across all public service broadcaster channels, and to recognise the key role the BBC’s provision plays, we propose increasing targets for the BBC in these genres and are proposing some new peak time obligations for arts, music, and religious programmes on BBC One and Two. This will help ensure that the largest possible audience can learn by engaging with new and stimulating ideas and perspectives” (section 1.19.4).

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(This is a consultation document. Responses have to be received by OFCOM by 5 p.m. on 17 July.)

It is difficult not to agree with the broadcasting trade union BECTU. On hearing of the decision to close the TV religion and ethics department in Salford, which followed the news that Songs of Praise has been awarded to an independent producer, having previously been produced in-house since its inception (News, 17 March), BECTU’s head, Gerry Morrissey, wrote to Lord Hall about “the abject lack of forward planning in the outsourcing process affecting Songs of Praise”.

He continued: “Losing the commission is one thing, but it is shocking that nobody seems to have given a moment’s thought to the possibility that a commissioning decision could have an impact wider than the individual programme, and to plan ahead in the event that the BBC’s pitch was unsuccessful. As a result, there is a question mark not only over the future of individuals who have given many years of dedicated service to the BBC, but also the whole future of religion- and ethics-based programming by the BBC.”

Mr Morrissey is properly concerned with in-house jobs. As it happens, the Songs of Praise contract has gone to two good independent companies who made a joint bid, and who will ensure that some contracts remain in Salford, although they will be freelance and not staff. And, indeed, there are many good programme-makers — mostly trained by the BBC — who work for independent companies.

I owned such a company for 20 years, and I have no doubts about the ability of independent programme-makers to deliver excellent work. As chairman of the awards committee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, I see the fruits of their labours, and they are often exceptional. But then so was some of the in-house work.

 

THE key questions are whether the Corporation has the expertise and commitment to commission the best programmes in this area, and whether the market will provide in every area vacated by the BBC. I think that all this is debatable. Any strategic review must convincingly answer these questions.

This has been an accident waiting to happen. The Corporation has no head of religion, no religion news editor (unlike almost every other area such as sport, economics, and the arts), and a predominantly young workforce, which is more liberal and secular than the rest of the country. It is dangerously out of touch, not least with immigrant communities, whose faiths are central to their lives.

OFCOM has given it the chance to think again. It should. Why dismantle a department when, in a few months, you ought to need it?

 

Roger Bolton is a former independent producer and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme. The Sandford St Martin Trust seeks to promote excellence in religious programmes (sandfordawards.org.uk).

 

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