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Radio review: Celebration of BBC centenary

28 October 2022


Lord Reith

Lord Reith

THE legend of Lord Reith includes the story that, on arrival in London in 1922 to take up the job of running the BBC, his first stop was a church. The question asked by the preacher that day, inspired by the prophet Ezekiel, was if there was anyone who could stand up for the soul of the nation. It was a sign in confirmation of what must already have been Reith’s intent: that the BBC was part of God’s divine purpose.

To discuss the covenant set ’twixt Heaven and the Corporation, and in celebration of its 100th year, the Religion Media Centre (RMC) hosted an impressive gathering of BBC religious broadcasters, past and present, for a Zoom last Tuesday. (The conversation can be found on YouTube here). Hosted by the RMC leader Ruth Peacock, it included some sobering history, reflections from veterans on the good-old/bad-old days, and a few blandishments from the whipper-snappers whose job it now is to re-interpret the Reithian ambition.

In some respects, it has become easier to justify religious news and features on the BBC in the past two decades. Faith-inspired atrocities such as 9/11 have forced a secular media to take religion seriously, just as a post-Christian quest for the generically spiritual has enhanced the role of slots such as Thought for the Day. Michael Green, Controller of Radio 4 in the late 1980s and early ’90s, once said of the Daily Service that he couldn’t drop it because he was too young to die. The strand remains, a feature of the Long Wave schedule reassuring even those who would never deign to tune in.

But the story of religion and broadcasting nowadays is not about the status of religion in the BBC, so much as it is about the status of the BBC in broadcasting. In the most insightful portion of this conversation, we heard from Nick Hamer, whose documentary on a community of monks in Leicestershire recently won a Sandford St Martin Award.

Hamer’s film was made by his own independent production company, with no commissioning brief from BBC Religion and Ethics. After a year on iPlayer, the documentary is now to be found on an independent streaming service.

In itself, the fact that the BBC no longer has a monopoly on religious content should not be a concern; except that it leads one to reflect who, other than the BBC, is going to be making programmes which do faith rather than simply talk about faith. Mr Hamer’s film is about how the ageing community has turned to brewing as a means of supporting itself; and, as Mr Hamer admits, there is little mention of faith, let alone the Rule of St Benedict.

Choral Evensong and the Daily Service are essential in this respect; particularly with the noticeable slide of Christmas and Easter programming away from what one might, broadly speaking, call “liturgical” presentation, to collections of reports on faith practices and interviews with the faithful. The difference is between faith as subject and object, observed and observing.

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