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Government draft Media Bill causes concern over future of religious programming

14 April 2023

Trust’s chairman questions provision for religious content

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CONCERNS are being voiced about the future scope of religious and ethical programming, in the light of the Government’s Draft Media Bill, published at the end of last month.

The current remit of the networks defined as public-service broadcasters (PSBs) — the BBC channels, Channels 3, 4, and 5, and the Welsh-language TV channel S4C — to provide a range of high-quality and diverse programming which includes “education, sport, science, religion, and other beliefs, social issues and matters of international significance or interest” is to be changed.

It will be replaced by a less specific obligation to provide “a sufficient quantity of audio visual content . . . that reflects the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the United Kingdom”.

The Draft Bill, resulting from the White Paper On Next: The Government’s vision for the broadcasting sector, legislates for how the public-service remit is to be fulfilled to meet the needs and satisfy the interests of as many different audiences as practicable. It must be “appropriate for facilitating civic understanding and fair and well informed debate on news and current affairs in the different parts of the UK and from around the world”.

It must “reflect the life and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the UK and locally in different parts of it”, and also “the lives and concerns of young children and young people in the UK”.

The White Paper described the UK’s creative economy as a global success story, and PBS channels as “the beating heart of that success. They produce great British content loved across the UK and the world over. The government wants it to stay that way.”

It warned, however, that “the headwinds facing our radio and television broadcasters are intensifying. Competition is increasing, audience habits and technology are changing constantly, and global giants are making their presence felt.”

It referred to “the end of an area of mass media dominated by linear television and radio, delivered over the airwaves via a box in the front room. . . Video on demand (VoD) services allow viewers to select from a catalogue of hundreds or even thousands of hours of programmes at the touch of a button.”

The Bill provides for a wide range of public-service content to contribute towards fulfilment of the remit. It also amends quotas to allow PSBs to deliver them by way of any on-demand services which are, or are part of, a designated “internet programme service”.

It promises to “reform decades-old laws to turbocharge the growth potential of our world-leading PBSs, which develop talent and skills, drive growth in the creative industries across the UK and deliver distinctive, diverse British content.

“It will mean that audiences can more easily access and enjoy high quality British originated content and allow that content to project British values globally.”

The Sandford St Martin Trust, which has been making annual awards for the best programmes about religion, ethics. and spirituality since 1978, welcomed moves to modernise current broadcasting legislation. But it warned that the Bill would not protect or ensure the future of core PSB content such as religious and ethical programming.

Dr Tony Stoller, who chairs the trust, said that the qualification of the existing PSB remit was too vague to be enforceable, and failed to indicate what a “sufficient” quantity was.

“We would also like to ask how, without targets, quotas, or clear obligations around genres, the Government proposes the quality and quantity of PSB provision will be assessed? Who will do the assessing, and what measures will they use to ensure audiences are getting the content they deserve?” he asked.

“The Sandford St Martin Trust has long argued that to ignore religion is to leave a gaping hole at the heart of public service broadcasting. For this reason, it is essential that the Government ensures that the sustainability of this important genre is at the heart of the process of modernising broadcasting legislation and the future of Public Service Broadcasting.”

News also came this week that the production company CTVC had won the tender to produce Songs of Praise, after a decision by its current co-producers, Afanti and Nine Lives, to end their five-year partnership.

The company, which produces audio and digital content on social issues, current affairs, religion, ethics, history, and education, was established in 1978 by Lord and Lady Rank, and receives a grant from the Rank Foundation.

The BBC’s commissioning editor, Daisy Scalchi, described CTVC as “bringing their passion, expertise, and commitment to this much loved brand. I know it is in very safe hands and will continue to thrive in the years ahead.”

CTVC was responsible for the TV series Pilgrimage, and makes the podcast Things Unseen, and the website for schools TrueTube.

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