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Review of the year 2022: television

23 December 2022


President Zelensky is interviewed by Clive Myrie on BBC News, in April

President Zelensky is interviewed by Clive Myrie on BBC News, in April

FOR television, 2022 was the year of news coverage. Despite social media’s ascendancy in informing us about current events, we still turn to the solid fare of news bulletins and, now, rolling news to find out about the serious events of the day and what they portend.

In this BBC centenary year, the issue of impartiality and objectivity remains crucial. Boris Johnson’s government happily accused the Corporation of bias and consistently negativity — a trickier call when eventually the most loyal right-wing papers turned against him. Several centenary documentaries showed how this had been a constant problem: Prime Ministers publicly celebrate the BBC’s absolute independence, while privately most have sought to suppress negative reporting, drama, or satire — which, at their strongest, have been astonishingly forthright, a radical critique of policy and politicians.

The Government’s appetite for ending the licence fee is stronger than ever; the narrow line of giving journalists, dramatists, and comedians the greatest possible freedom while not bringing down the guillotine on the fee is an unenviable balance to strike.

Thank heavens no even-handed “impartiality” vitiated TV coverage of the year’s most appalling event, still unfolding before our eyes: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here, as never before, have image and narrative brought us into the reality of war: its horror, waste, and revolting detail. Despite the editing out of the worst barbarities, we see how lives exactly like ours, in communities great and small, are just a whisker away from pulverisation. What we witness with astonishment is the extraordinary heroism and determination of the Ukrainian people. Here, TV has brought us deeper understanding, enlarged our fellowship, and inspired remarkable charity.

Our UK political life has, day by day, undermined any need to commission works of drama, tragedy, and farce: Westminster (beloved by TV in news bulletins, analysis, opinion) provided all of them, in superabundance. In fact, the twist and turns have been so persistent that it is no small task to reconstruct what happened exactly and in what order. As we approach the year’s end, it does seem clear that the country has never thrown away so much prestige and capital, and that we have entered a state of official poverty: economic, moral, and social.

AlamyCustomers watch the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in the Turners Old Star pub, east London, on 19 September

Further state-of-the-nation reflection was ignited by the sudden death of the Queen Elizabeth II. Was TV‘s saturation coverage self-indulgent, mere sentimental nostalgia, head-in-the-sand relief from the shame of the present moment? I thought not: it caught rather than whipped up the genuine tide of emotion and surprisingly deep realisation of how much the monarch mattered to us all. Our late Queen was loved — and TV loved her back.

And the King’s accession and the first acts of his reign also caught — perhaps engendered — a rare sense of national belonging. Here, also, was not just the splendour of British pageantry, both traditional and military, but also actual religion — even Christianity. “God” and “prayer” were, without embarrassment, central, not just in words but in actions, implied by so many of those who paid their respects, and responding to something deep, if inchoate. Of course, the traditional ceremonies of the Church of England make especially splendid viewing.

This annual round-up should be an in-depth analysis of the year’s religious broadcasting, but, apart from royal services, there has hardly been any. That doyen of religious broadcasters, Roger Bolton, launched his podcast (feeds.acast.com/public/shows/rogerboltonsbeebwatch) with interviews with his friend and colleague Ernie Rea — equally no longer employed by the BBC. It really is a coruscating critique, reinforcing all my prejudices: that TV’s controllers and commissioners have no interest in religion and find it an embarrassment, dismissing the proposals made to them for well-though-out programmes and series.

Mr Bolton and Mr Rea share the convictions of all reasonable people: that, without knowledge of religion — not just “theoretical” faith and theology, but also the actual lived experience of religious people — we have no hope of understanding national or world history, current affairs, or setting workable policy for the future. The BBC’s narrow caste, which seeks to banish faith and longs for the dismantling of religious-broadcasting quotas, assumes that this medieval survival will shortly wither or fade away, refusing to admit to the worldwide growth in religious adherence and intensity of practise.

Of course, they deplore fundamentalist hatred just as I do; but it is in their power to counter those stains on the face of religion by providing thoughtful, exciting, and provocative programmes that inform and challenge with the realities of how true faith changes lives and nations.

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