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Something undermined: BBC axes religious programme

26 October 2018


THE BBC Radio 4 programme Something Understood is to be mothballed in April 2019, despite a pledge by the corporation to protect and enhance its religious broadcasting.

On Thursday, a BBC spokeswoman confirmed that no new programmes in the series would be commissioned, in response to budget cuts. Instead, the programme’s slot would be filled with repeats of earlier recordings. It is understood no other programme has been earmarked for this treatment.

Something Understood, which explores spiritual and ethical topics through reflection, music, and literature, has been running since 1995. Sir Mark Tully is the main presenter, but more than half are now presented by others, among them Lord Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Fergal Keane, a BBC correspondent.

Mark Damazer, a former controller of Radio 4, described Something Understood as “compelling radio. For everybody. Full stop.”

On Thursday, a BBC spokeswoman said: “The BBC continues to face significant financial challenges, and has to save £800 million by 2021; so Radio 4, like the rest of BBC Radio, has to make tough choices.

“We’ve broadcast Something Understood for nearly 24 years, and we know the decision to no longer make this programme will disappoint our audience; but we have a full and rich back catalogue of the programme, and we propose to fill the schedule with the best of the archive for the foreseeable future.

“We are putting into action our plans to increase the ambition of religious programmes, and the critically acclaimed Morality in the 21st Century is an example of this, plus series like Moral Maze and Sunday continue to explore religious and ethical questions in depth.”

Roger Bolton, presenter of Feedback on Radio 4, said that the decision to cut Something Understood “sits oddly” with the BBC’s new commitment to religious broadcasting.

Last year, after a year-long review of its religion and ethics output, the BBC said that it would raise its game “across all output” in the way that it treats religion (News, 20 December, 2017).

The axe will fall on the programme in the year designated by the BBC as the “Year of Beliefs”, in which specialist programming and documentaries about religion and faith were promised.

At the time of the BBC’s earlier pledge, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that it “feels like the beginning of a new era” at the BBC (News, 5 January).

Mr Bolton echoed this: “The cancellation of Something Understood sits oddly with the BBC’s new religious strategy, which promised a renewed and increased commitment to coverage of religion and ethics. It seems particularly strange to take this action after the series has been put out to tender.

”It is to be hoped that Radio 4 will replace it with another series which also creates space for spiritual reflection. If not, this is a major blow for the many listeners who love the series, and raises questions about the Corporation’s commitment to this vital area of programming.”

The Revd Malcolm Doney, a frequent contributor to Something Understood, said he was crestfallen.

“It will leave a gap in the schedule, and it will be a shame if it isn’t filled — it is an extraordinary programme, such a lovely thing.

“The people I know that listen to it often aren’t card-carrying Christians, but agnostics and even out-and-out atheists. It’s the best of radio, because it is thoughtful and surprising.

“When people don’t do church-organised religion, this is a rare jewel of an opportunity for them. Even though it occupies only 30 minutes of radio, it feels like more. It transcends time and space.”

The Master of the Temple Church in London, the Revd Robin Griffith-Jones, who contributed to the programme twice, said that the news was “very disappointing”.

“It is an unfailingly thoughtful, measured programme, that covers a wide range of topics with grace. I would have thought it would be of genuine interest to a wide range of people.”

He criticised the programme’s scheduling: 6.05 a.m. on Sundays, repeated at 11.30 p.m. “They shouldn’t have cancelled it: they should have made it prime-time. It was held back by its scheduling. As an outsider, it seems a sad one to cut, on balance.”

The Sandford St Martin Trust makes annual awards for excellence in religious broadcasting. In a statement on Friday, the chair of the Trust, the Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, said: “As interesting and valuable as the archive examples of the programme are, they will not represent the role that religion continues to play in everyday life today, and they will be less pertinent when it comes to addressing the evolving world or contemporary decisions made at home and abroad.

“In cancelling Something Understood, we fear the BBC has reneged on its professed commitment to religious and ethical broadcasting less than a year since the publication of its review.”

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