Maintaining faith in the mainstream media            

08 June 2018

Religious broadcasting has had a rocky 40 years — but it is now being taken more seriously, says Torin Douglas

LAST night, broadcasters and religious leaders were due to gather in the 13th-century Great Hall at Lambeth Palace for the annual awards for programmes that explore issues of religion and ethics. The occasion also marked the 40th anniversary of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which runs the awards — and it has reason to celebrate.

Two years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury galvanised the awards audience — and stung the higher echelons of the BBC — with a call for the media to treat religion “with the same seriousness as other genres like politics, economics, drama, or sport” (News, 10 June 2016). He said that it was impossible to understand the world today without an understanding of religion: the BBC needed to raise its game, and should be given a duty to promote religious literacy.

The Archbishop quoted the words of Simon Schama, a Sandford award-winner for his BBC2 series The Story of The Jews: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong.”

The message hit home. The BBC began a year-long Religion and Ethics Review, and — despite a W1A moment, when it closed its in-house religion and ethics TV department and outsourced Songs of Praise halfway through the review process (News, 17 March 2017) — the Review accepted much of what the Trust and its supporters had been saying about the need to reverse the decline in religious and ethical broadcasting (News, Comment, 5 January).

The BBC said that it would “raise our game across all output” and “increase specialist expertise with a new Religious Affairs Team and Religion Editor in News”; “reach as many people as possible with landmark series and cross-genre commissions”; and “diversify our range of contributors, increase coverage of religious events, and enhance portrayal in mainstream programming”. Next year, 2019, would be designated a Year of Beliefs: programmes would be aimed at mainstream audiences on radio and television, as well as those with a faith perspective.

Not before time, many would say.


Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, at the first Sandford Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace in 1981THERE has been a dramatic reduction in the amount — if not the quality — of religious programming on TV since the Sandford Trust was set up in 1978. Its mission was “to promote excellence in the areas of broadcasting concerned with religious, spiritual, and moral values and experience”. The Trust was the initiative of Sir David Wills, an Anglican layman who was keen to develop Christian involvement in broadcasting. He had funded a studio in Church House, Westminster, for broadcast interviews and training, and named the Trust after the Oxfordshire village where he lived.

Forty years ago, Britain was a different place — not just in social terms, but in media, too. There were just three TV channels, broadcasting only in the afternoons and evenings, and commercial radio was in its infancy. All broadcasters were required to make religious programmes, and most had clerics on the staff or as religious-affairs advisers, under the beady eye of the bishops and the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC). On Sunday evenings, television still had a 35-minute “closed period” devoted to religious programmes, known as the “Sunday break” (until 1977 it was twice that long).

“Forty years ago, religious broadcasting still felt itself a national chaplaincy service,” David Craig, who became the Trust’s secretary after 20 years in BBC religious programmes, says. “With few exceptions, most of its senior staff were clerics for whom the BBC was an antechamber to clerical preferment — and, of course, men.”

The biggest change has been at ITV. As public-service requirements were relaxed or eliminated, ITV coverage of religion and ethics virtually disappeared. Its spend dropped, according to Ofcom, from £40 million in 2008 to £2 million in 2013. In 2004, it made a commitment, with Ofcom, to 104 hours of religion. In 2005, Ofcom allowed that to be halved, and, in 2012, ITV showed just two hours of religious programming, although it has since been commended for its portrayal of clerics in dramas such as Broadchurch and Grantchester.

By contrast, at Easter 1977, ITV broadcast Franco Zeffirelli’s epic Jesus of Nazareth, made by Lew Grade’s ATV and watched by millions across the UK and around the world. That autumn, ITV showed Granada’s 13-part history of Christianity, The Christians, written and presented by Bamber Gascoigne and filmed in 30 countries.

Those programmes predated the Sandford Awards — but ITV would pick up many of the prizes over the years. Thames Television won the Sandford Trust’s first TV award with its documentary Basil Hume OSB, a profile of the monk who, in 1976, became the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. Cardinal Hume came to Lambeth Palace for the ceremony, where he was photographed with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.

Archbishop Runcie had also attended the inaugural Sandford Awards for radio programmes. The top prize was won by Radio 4’s God In My Language, made by David Winter, who, later, as the BBC’s head of religious broadcasting, would launch Sunday, Radio 4’s religious news programme, and The Moral Maze, which won last year’s Sandford Trustees’ Award.

Runcie’s son, James, would win a Sandford award as a BBC producer and also write the novels on which Grantchester was based. He called it “Morse with morals”, and the series won the Radio Times Readers Prize in the 2015 Sandford Awards.

Early Sandford Awards ceremonies were attended by chairmen of the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority. Chairs of judges included those at the very top of broadcasting — the BBC’s Sir Huw Wheldon and Frank Gillard, and the IBA’s Sir Brian Young — as well as the Rt Revd Hugh Montefiore, and the writer and Church Times columnist Ronald Blythe.

From the start, the Trust set out to influence broadcasting policy. In 1980, it stated: “The Trust is seeking to encourage and foster Christian involvement in planning for the fourth TV channel, due in the autumn of 1982.”

Channel 4 was, indeed, required to produce religious programmes, but it also had a remit to be different; so its chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, decreed that they should never be shown on Sundays. Over the years, Channel 4 won several Sandford Awards, as did high-profile series such as LWT’s Credo, and the BBC’s Heart of the Matter and Everyman. There was recognition, too, for the ever popular hymn series Highway, and Songs of Praise.

The arrival of multi-channel TV, however, brought greater competition for viewers and advertisers, and religion’s safe slots and budgets came under increasing pressure. ITV abandoned the Sunday-evening “closed period” in 1993, at about the time that the BBC’s religion and ethics department was banished, kicking and screaming, to Manchester. When the Revd Ernie Rea complained that he needed to be near the religious leaders in London, he received little sympathy. Will Wyatt, the Managing Director of BBC Television, wrote in his memoirs: “That didn’t wash. Manchester was as close to his ultimate boss as London”.

At the same time, the decline in traditional churchgoing and religious belief in Britain, and the growing diversity in the population, changed the environment for such programmes. While fewer people professed to have a faith, the number of Muslims and ethnic-minority Christians grew rapidly. To reflect this, the Sandford St Martin Trust appointed more trustees and awards judges from non-Christian faiths, and widened its search for programme entries.

Despite diminished resources and slots, outstanding programmes about religion and ethics — and all faiths —are still being made, both for radio and television, as the Awards Archive on the Sandford Trust website clearly shows.

Sandford Award-winners have included high-profile presenters such as Rageh Omaar, David Suchet, Sally Phillips, Ian Hislop, and Simon Shama, and popular and engaging dramas such as The Nativity, Call The Midwife, and Grantchester. The range of faiths and issues is reflected in the titles: My Son the Jihadi, Life of Muhammad, In The Footsteps of St Paul, A Very British Ramadan, The King James Bible, A World Without Down’s Syndrome?, Children of the Holocaust, The Jewish Revival in Poland. . . There are now also awards for the best interviews and children’s programmes in this area.

AS THE BBC Review demonstrates, the Trust is making progress in its mission “to promote excellence in broadcasting concerned with religious, spiritual, and moral values”. Under its immediate past chairman, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines; and with proactive trustees such as the Feedback (and former Sunday) presenter, Roger Bolton; and the former Radio Authority chief executive Tony Stoller, the Sandford Trust has helped to co-ordinate the efforts of faith leaders, parliamentarians, and others to persuade broadcasters of the need to take religious broadcasting more seriously. It has stimulated debate through partnerships with the Edinburgh International TV Festival, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, the Media Society, the NUJ, and others.

This week, to mark the 40th anniversary, the Trust’s new chair, the Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, launched a Friends scheme to further its work championing excellent programmes and reversing the decline in religious broadcasting. In doing so, she quoted the words of the late A. A. Gill, the TV critic of the Sunday Times: “Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life. Not having more sensible and religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity.”

Torin Douglas was the BBC’s media correspondent for 24 years, and is a Sandford St Martin Trustee.

sandfordawards.org.uk

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