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Religion and ethics still matter to TV viewers

19 January 2024

Yet the Media Bill that is making its way through Parliament fails to acknowledge this, argues Roger Bolton

“I THOUGHT it was bad, but never as bad as this.” That was the reaction of a former BBC Head of Religion when I showed him the latest statistics from Ofcom, the industry regulator. The statistics show a dramatic reduction in television programmes about “Religion and Ethics” broadcast by the public-service broadcasting networks (PSBs: BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5).

Comparing 2022 with 2011: peak-time hours of “first-run” UK origination output fell by 85 per cent; peak-time hours of “all origin” output (that is, including bought-in material) fell by 76 per cent. Within that overall fall, Channel 4 dropped from being the most prolific network to providing no output at all. BBC output fell by 65 per cent.

It is not only that such programming is being moved out of peak time, but that the volume of programming is decreasing rapidly. In the category “All Days Hours of all origin” (including non-UK produced programmes, repeats, etc.), output fell by 41 per cent. Within that overall fall, the output of Channels 4 and 5 both fell to almost zero

All this has happened without a peep from Ofcom or the boards of the PSBs, who are supposed to protect the public interest. There have been no peeps, either, from religious leaders. They seem to be asleep, or preoccupied with their own internal issues, unaware of this wanton destruction.

If the Media Bill, racing through Parliament, is passed in its present form, the situation will get even worse. The Bill does not even mention religion and ethics; it gives the broadcasting networks much greater freedom to move such programmes to digital, where the audiences will almost certainly be smaller, along with the programme budgets; and it releases Ofcom from the need to monitor such programming in detail, with the result that, in future, we would not know what has been transmitted, and what has not.

WHY is this happening? There seem, to me, to be three main reasons.

First, there is the view that there has been a collapse in religious belief. Worldwide, there has been no such collapse. For example, there have never been as many Christians in the world as there are today, and religion underpins the culture, conflicts, and often the foreign policies of many countries worldwide. The present Middle Eastern conflict cannot be fully understood without examining its religious roots.

In the UK, there has been a collapse in religious authority among Christians — unsurprising, in view of the scandals that have engulfed the Churches; but I believe that people are as interested in the spiritual as much as ever. They largely prefer, however, to make their own spiritual journeys.

We are not talking, however, only about religious programmes, but also about ethical ones. It can be argued that we have never faced so many ethical dilemmas: in science and medicine, as well as in politics. Audiences want and need to explore difficult and complex ethical dilemmas, often in drama, but also in discussions and documentaries.

Second is the belief that everyone can have access to digital, which is where the future lies. According to a report published by Ofcom and the Office for National Statistics last year, however, six per cent of UK households have no access to the internet, and 4.2 per cent of adults have never used the internet, or have not used it in the past three months.

Digital Exclusion, a report published last year by the House of Lords Digital Committee, said that seven million households had no broadband or mobile access: one quarter of all UK households, 28.4 million as of January last year.

This means that, if some religion and ethics programmes are moved from broadcast to digital, a significant part of the population will have no access to them. It will be as if the programmes have been cancelled.

Finally, there is a belief that broadcasting is on its last legs, that its business model is bust. Well, it is certainly true that audiences are not what they were, but they are still high (six million watched Gladiators on BBC1 last Saturday), and, as ITV’s recent drama about the Post Office scandal has shown (TV, 12 January), they can have real impact.

In the United States, society is becoming atomised, as audiences enter echo chambers, having only their opinions and prejudices fed back to them. They have, in effect, no public service broadcasting: only channels such as Fox News.

WE NEED to be able to talk to one another, to share experiences, and to understand before we condemn; and we need to rediscover the power of broadcasting to inform and educate, as well as entertain.

In my opinion, television commissioners, largely of the same age and background, and mostly living in London, underestimate the power of religion and the continuing interest in it. They also seem to forget that people are moral creatures, often keen to do the right thing, but wishing to discuss and debate what that is.

There is still time to amend the Media Bill, to make sure that it mentions religion and ethics; that it restates their importance, to ensure that everyone has access to such programming; and that the performance of broadcasting networks in delivering such vital programmes is monitored thoroughly.

Broadcasting still has a future. It is more than a business; it can still be a source of real enlightenment, a force for good. Bishops and board members, MPs, and peers, need to wake up.

Roger Bolton is a former BBC and ITV executive and independent producer. He presented Right to Reply for Channel 4 and Feedback, and the Sunday programme for Radio 4. He now presents the Beebwatch podcast.

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