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Review of the year 2022: radio

23 December 2022


Sister Monica Clare, a TikTok phenomenon, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in May

Sister Monica Clare, a TikTok phenomenon, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in May

A MOMENT in May of this year represents, for me, the current state of religious discourse in the mainstream broadcast media. The occasion was Woman’s Hour (Radio 4), and a feature on Sister Monica Clare of the Community of St John the Baptist, in New Jersey. Sister Monica had spent much of her career as a photo-journalist in Hollywood before finding a vocation and turning in the wide-angle lens for the wimple. Recently, she has become a TikTok phenomenon, with videos about convent life, and she had much to say about secularism, the roles imposed on women by society, and faith.

Yet, instead of giving Sister Monica the courtesy of the spotlight, she was joined by a second guest, an actor whose claim to expertise was the fact that she had played a nun on television. That there was no acknowledgement by the presenter, Krupa Padhy, that this might be at best glaringly disrespectful made the whole encounter that much more depressing.

It came as no surprise, therefore, to hear, on the podcast Roger Bolton’s Beeb Watch, the story of Bolton’s failed application to be Head of Religion at the BBC. Unencumbered by any residual loyalty to his old employer, Bolton dished the dirt on a former head of BBC2 who had been on the interview panel, and had declared that they didn’t want anybody in the job who cared too much about religion — the implication being that they would be too much like hard work. The image evoked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams in last week’s Reith Lecture springs to mind: faith receiving the “granny flat” treatment.

This revelation came in the context of a long conversation with Ernie Rea, whom Bolton had been seeking to succeed at the BBC. Their joint assessment of radio’s religious programming was a good deal more encouraging than that of television’s — but this is not saying a great deal. One significant indicator will be what Radio 4 does with Beyond Belief after Rea’s retirement from the show in October.

BBCThe podcast Roger Bolton’s Beeb Watch told the story of the former Radio 4 presenter’s failed attempt to be appointed Head of Religion at the BBC

In partial fulfilment of Chesterton’s famous prophecy, investigative journalism seems to be expending a great deal of energy on exploring the plurality of beliefs that have sprung up in a world without God. Conspiracy theories — and podcast box-sets about conspiracy theories — are now legion, first adopting the stylistic characteristics of, and now competing with, the True Crime genre.

The BBC has a “disinformation correspondent”, who has been proving herself indispensable by exposing the Disaster Trolls (Radio 4, November), who dispute the reality of various well-publicised atrocities, and anti-vaxxers (in Death by Conspiracy?, Radio 4, March). These, as well as Gabriel Gatehouse’s “exposé” of QAnon (Radio 4, January and November), form the basis of a growing library of conspiracy documentaries.

The problem comes when one senses that the journalists themselves have followed their subjects so far down their chosen rabbit hole that they end up feeling more comfortable in those subterranean corridors than in the fresh air. This is never more apparent than in the excitable language that is sometimes used. My favourite piece of hyper-gibberish emanated this year from the mouth of Gabriel Gatehouse, who described a particular right-wing Twitter account as “the Large Hadron Collider of social media, smashing the liberal-filter bubble into the conservative information eco-system”. Can the BBC not afford editors any longer?

Speaking of gibberish, the hotly contested accolade of worst radio drama this year must surely go to Eleanor Rising (Radio 4, September), whose earlier seasons I seem, happily, to have missed. In their enthusiasm for creating a 21st-century vibe, the producer and scriptwriter turn Eleanor of Aquitaine into “Ellie”: a character so richly endowed with modern sensibilities that she would not stand out in a soap opera.

But let us conclude on a high note. Back in April, we heard in the Nomad Podcast from Erin, “a person with autism”, who, in adolescence, turned to High Anglicanism. Her account of faith and ceremony was both beautiful and profound, and made me cheekily consider whether faith might get more sympathetic consideration on the BBC if it were categorised as a form of neuro-divergence.

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