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Is the BBC committed to religious news?

by
01 October 2021

The corporation’s slowness to appoint a new Religion Editor does not inspire confidence, argues Christopher Landau

IT IS easy to criticise the BBC. Given the thousands of staff, and multiple hours of content being produced simultaneously at any hour of day or night, there are bound to be aspects of the output which prompt opposition from any particular community. But for those interested in the corporation’s approach to religion, the ongoing delay in the appointment of a new Religion Editor is a legitimate concern.

The number of correspondents employed in senior on-screen “editor” positions has increased substantially in recent years. Earlier this month, four new appointments were announced: replacements in technology and science, and newly created posts for climate and social affairs.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that there should be a delay in an appointment to the religion specialism, given the controversy that has surrounded Martin Bashir’s departure from the post in May this year. The revelations about his conduct in relation to securing an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 (Press, 21 May), have combined with grave personal health problems. But these factors alone do not adequately explain why other editor-level appointment processes have been announced quickly, while there has been no equivalent efficiency in relation to religion.

 

SOME fear that BBC News might prefer to see the religious specialism quietly sidelined. After all, successive religious-affairs correspondents have found that getting stories commissioned by often sceptical programme editors is one of the most significant challenges of the job. Recent newspaper criticism of Mr Bashir included observations about how infrequently he appeared on air during his tenure. I know, from personal experience, that getting religion on air is seldom straightforward.

Mr Bashir was in post when what had been the post of religious-affairs correspondent was upgraded to “religion editor”, after an internal Religion and Ethics Review, published in December 2017. It was widely hoped that his new title was more than window-dressing, and would be accompanied by a renewed enthusiasm for religious-affairs journalism.

Writing in these pages in January 2018, Bishop Jan McFarlane noted that much had been promised in the review, “perhaps most significantly, [a commitment] to increasing specialist knowledge of religion in news, with a new post of Religion Editor, and a global team containing new reporters, with specific religious expertise” (Comment, 5 January 2018).

It is unclear how much of this ambition has been realised. The review is helpful for those who care about the BBC’s commitment to religion, because it sets out a number of firm commitments. But, at present, neither the religion editor nor the global-religion reporter post has a permanent incumbent.*

These specific questions about the corporation’s commitment to the “religion editor” post are part of a wider problem. It is worth underlining that Mr Bashir’s former position is paid for and held within the BBC’s journalism output. Meanwhile, the radio religious-news programme Sunday, though generally presented by BBC News reporters, is financed by Radio 4 as a network, and produced by the radio religion department based in Salford.

Religious radio remains in good health, not least thanks to the stellar leadership of the department over many years by Christine Morgan, with Amanda Hancox as editor of Sunday. But both have left the BBC in recent months (Comment, 9 October 2020). Tim Pemberton’s appointment as the new department head is encouraging, but it should be noted that, as head of religion within BBC Audio, he is no longer part of a functioning religion department that also includes television and online content. TV output, beyond a tiny number of dedicated documentary hours and festival worship, is outsourced to the independent production companies now responsible for Songs of Praise.

 

NOT too many years ago, the top floor of New Broadcasting House in Manchester was entirely devoted to religious broadcasting across radio and TV, and online. That the BBC should no longer employ someone with departmental responsibility for religion coverage on television is, in my view, an oversight that undermines its ability to cover religion effectively across a breadth of output.

But change is possible. In August, the BBC announced the appointment of Suzy Klein to the new post of Head of Arts and Classical Music TV. The BBC, therefore, has made a strategic decision to invest in the coverage of arts and specifically classical music on television — areas that have long been criticised for patchy coverage by our national broadcasting network. It is time for an equivalent television post for religion.

In response to my query about the timescale for the reappointment of a religion editor, the press team for BBC News posted on Twitter: “We’ll advertise for that role in the coming weeks.” Those who care about the BBC’s approach to religion should pay close attention to this timescale — and also continue to press for a renewed commitment to religious coverage across its output as a whole.

The Revd Dr Christopher Landau is the incoming director of ReSource for Anglican Renewal Ministries. Before ordination, he was the BBC World Service’s religious-affairs correspondent.

*Lebo Diseko is the Global Religion Correspondent in the BBC World Service’s Specialist Unit

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