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We will raise our game on religion, BBC pledges

20 December 2017

RICHARD WEAVER/BBC

Fresh faces: left to right: Nicholas Lowton, Matthew Stafford, Matthew Cashmore, and Ruth Hulse, clergy from rural parishes who are to appear in A Vicar’s Life, a new series to begin in January on BBC2

Fresh faces: left to right: Nicholas Lowton, Matthew Stafford, Matthew Cashmore, and Ruth Hulse, clergy from rural parishes who are to appear in A Vic...

THE BBC says that it is to “raise our game across all output” in the way that it treats religion, as the result of a year-long review of its religion and ethics output.

Plans include the establishment of a religion editor for news, a global team of specialist reporters, a greater focus on religious festivals, and making 2019 a “Year of Belief”.

In a foreword to the BBC’s Religion and Ethics review, published on Wednesday, the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, writes that the plans “will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.”

The review points out that, although in the UK only about 50 per cent of the population is affiliated to a religion, the global figure is 84 per cent, which is predicted to rise above 90 per cent in the next few decades.

Under the new plans, more religious voices, drawn from a wider range of ages and backgrounds, will be heard on existing BBC programmes, and new drama and documentary programmes will be sought. The religious themes and a wider range of religious festivals will be marked on flagship shows such as BBC1’s The One Show, or Chris Evans’s Radio 2 breakfast show.

There is also a commitment to making religion more explicable. The review states: “We want to do more to help people understand the role of Christianity in today’s world, and more to understand other faiths and beliefs as well.”

The existing items Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought “will continue as religious slots in primetime radio”. Although there will be occasions when these can relate to news stories, the review also states: “It is important that these slots are grounded in different lived experiences of faith . . . so that the item is not just a reflection of current events, but also a chance to learn more about other religious beliefs.”

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A “Year of Beliefs” will be marked in 2019, with specialist programming and documentaries about religion and faith across the BBC.

More than 150 faith groups and experts were consulted as part of the review, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. The review reports: “Many stakeholders feel that the BBC doesn’t reflect the everyday role of faith or diversity of communities in our mainstream drama and comedy, and people of faith are often absent, poorly presented, or satirised.”

Recommendations include:

  • elevating the post of religious-affairs correspondent to a religion editor within BBC news;
  • the creation of new global team focusing on religion made up of specialist reporters;
  • a “slow news” approach to big stories to give time to reflect how religion affects them, “i.e. why things happen rather than simply what is happening”;
  • new “landmark” series and programmes “that explore religion in all its forms”;
  • a biennial “Belief Summit”;
  • a “Year of Beliefs” in 2019;
  • a greater diversity of contributors across all channels and programmes;
  • improving religious literacy both inside the BBC and outside in the general public;
  • specific features and content for all religious festivals on flagship programmes;
  • tackling religious issues in mainstream BBC dramas on TV and radio;
  • new religious programming targeted at under-45s;
  • working more closely with other “stakeholders”, including “faith and secular belief groups”, and organisations such as the Scottish Religious Advisory Committee and the Sandford St Martin Trust.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, the Church of England’s lead bishop for media matters, said: “We welcome the collaborative, open-hearted way in which the BBC has engaged with leaders from the different Churches and faith communities as well as broader society to inform their perspective.

“We look forward to seeing how their commitment to first-class coverage of religious affairs develops in its sophistication and scope in the months and years ahead.”

Another of those consulted for the review was the Sandford St Martin Trust, which awards excellence in religious broadcasting. The trust’s new chairman, the Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, said on Wednesday: “The trust strongly welcomes this review, in that it emphasises the importance of religious literacy in understanding our world.”

The trust’s patron, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, was similarly encouraged, but wrote on his blog: “My questions are the usual ones: who, when, how, and how much. In other words, when will we see the plan that clarifies who is responsible for establishing clear means to achieve these important aims, what are the timelines for delivery, and how much resource will be committed to making sure the promises are realised?”

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