THE Religion and Ethics department at BBC Studios in Salford, Manchester, is to fold as a direct result of the loss of Songs of Praise to independent producers, earlier this month, it was confirmed last week. Its remaining religious television producers have been made redundant.
The news was announced by the director of factual at BBC Studios, Lisa Opie, in a leaked email to all staff, last Monday.
The BBC removed its guarantee to produce Songs of Praise in-house, in September, as part of a Charter agreement with the Government to open 40 per cent of its returning television series to a competitive market within two years — and all by 2028. BBC Studios, which was created last April to compete with independent producers, pitched for a three-year contract to continue producing the programme, but lost out to a joint bid from Avanti Media and Nine Lives Media (News, 17 March).
“With our Songs of Praise team set to [transfer] across to Avanti/Nine Lives in July, we have now decided to close most of the remaining staff roles in the department. It means we will no longer have a permanent Religion and Ethics department in Salford,” Ms Opie wrote.
“Moving forward, we intend to continue to use Salford as a base to make some Religion and Ethics programmes. These will be on a seasonal basis, staffed mostly by freelancers. We’ll also make some Religion and Ethics programmes in Glasgow.”
The head of the broadcasting workers’ union BECTU, Gerry Morrissey, responded: “What is absolutely clear now is that, whether through arrogance or complacency, nobody in a position of authority at the BBC had given any significant thought to forward planning in respect of the consequences of losing the commission [of Songs of Praise]. . . There is now 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 focussed programme making by the BBC.”
People of faith have also expressed concern over the news, and what it might mean for the future of religious broadcasting in the UK. Writing in the Church Times this week, the broadcaster Roger Bolton, a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, said that the BBC “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 to do so, and there are real doubts about whether it has the will or ability to implement an effective response to a mess which is largely of its own making”.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust, said on Saturday: “Radio remains untouched. However, the loss of a specialist department in television poses serious questions for the BBC, and we will need to see how it will respond to OFCOM’s demands.”
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, later told The Sunday Times: “It is a failure of the BBC as a public-service broadcaster.”
OFCOM has published proposals on how it intends to regulate the BBC performance under the Charter. These include the future of religious broadcasting. A statement last Wednesday read: “Our plans would mean that BBC One and BBC Two would have tougher requirements for showing arts, music and religious programmes, including new requirements to show some during peak viewing times.”
A consultation on the proposals will close on 17 July, and a final framework and operating licence is to be published by the autumn. “We expect the BBC to take account of our draft Operating Licence to be reflected in its own creative plan,” it says.
A BBC spokesperson said on Monday: “BBC Studios will continue to have a religion and ethics team, as part of its Pacific Quay Productions unit, making and producing top quality religious and ethics programming; and we also have a wealth of religious broadcasting expertise within news, radio and the World Service. It is a requirement of the new Charter that we commercially contest long-running programmes. It’s not something we can simply decide not to do.”
Songs of Praise would remain at the “heart” of the BBC schedule, the spokesperson said, and new commissions had been made for Easter. “While we already do more than any other broadcaster, we’ve been clear that we want to do even more for all faiths, including Christianity. . . OFCOM’s draft operating licence, which we welcomed, is consulting on more hours of religious programming, and has nothing to do with who makes the programmes.”
OFCOM had focused on the “right priorities”, and its draft operating licence “appears to be a balanced but properly stretching and challenging document”, the spokesperson said. “We will consider the details carefully. We will shortly publish an Annual Plan which will set out how our services will deliver the mission and public purposes defined in the Charter.”