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Faith programmes safe, say BBC heads of religion and ethics

03 May 2024

BBC

The Head of Religion and Ethics for BBC Audio, Tim Pemberton

The Head of Religion and Ethics for BBC Audio, Tim Pemberton

FAITH programmes on the BBC will not be moved from television and radio to solely digital platforms, the heads of religion and ethics have said, as the Corporation this year marks 100 years of religious broadcasting.

In a joint interview last Friday, the Head of Religion and Ethics for BBC Audio, Tim Pemberton, and his counterpart for television, Daisy Scalchi, addressed concerns that religious output was being marginalised.

Both emphasised that senior managers were enthusastic about religious programming; but acknowledged that, as the Corporation faced budgetary demands, there was pressure to ensure that content “goes as far as it possibly can”, across traditional and digital platforms.

An online timeline compiled by BBC History selects significant moments of the past century of religious broadcasting: from the first broadcast service in 1924, led by the Revd Dick Sheppard in St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, to the BBC2 series Pilgrimage, in which celebrities with different beliefs “embark on a spiritual journey to broaden minds”.

Other highlights include the broadcast of a Jewish service from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945; a TV dramatisation of the life of Christ in 1956; the first broadcast of Songs of Praise in 1961 and of Thought for the Day in 1970; the six-part series Sea of Faith in 1984; and the launches of The Moral Maze on Radio 4 in 1990, and Beyond Belief in 2002.

Mr Pemberton believed that the Covid pandemic showed that religion was as relevant as it was 100 years ago. He is proud of the services that were broadcast into people’s homes when churches were closed, and of the “programmes that dealt with big ethical thought, and deeper themes about life that helped people navigate their way through”.

Neither Mr Pemberton nor Ms Scalchi was concerned by the decline in church attendance and the secularisation of British society. “Whereas formal religion, church attendance, all of those things, may decline over time — and we know in the Census it dipped below 50 per cent for the first time — that’s different to people’s interest in religion and people’s engagement in spirituality,” Mr Pemberton said. “Our programmes are very buoyant: people are still engaging with them and still really like what we do.”

Ms Scalchi said: “When the Census came out, there was a lot of noise around more people ticking the ‘None’ box than ever before. But, actually, when you pull apart that group and what that 37 per cent actually consists of, it’s not a homogeneous group of people who are irreligious or uninterested in religion. They’re actually a really complex group of people who often are quite warm towards religion, have a real interest in faith and belief, but they just aren’t classifying themselves as one thing above another.

“We’re certainly seeing with our viewer figures that there is definitely no diminishing or reduction in interest in our programmes about faith and belief.”

Mr Pemberton also observed that, while participation in organised religion was declining in the UK, “in the global South, that’s not the story. We need to be conscious that there are parts of the world where religion is burgeoning and doing very well.”

This made the need for religious literacy more important than ever, Ms Scalchi said. “Whether you have a faith or not, it is essential to good social cohesion that we understand different belief systems, different faiths, particularly on the global stage, where the numbers and that overall picture is quite distinct from what’s happening here in the UK.”

 

THE BBC does not reveal budgets for specific genres, but Ms Scalchi acknowledged that inflationary pressures had had “a direct impact across all genres. But that just means that we have to have a really laser-focus on making sure our content goes as far as it possibly can.”

By way of examples, she gave the five-part box-set series Love, Faith and Me (TV, 28 April 2023), Being. . . , and A Believer’s Guide to. . . , all of which had “really strong digital support”: some of the clips received more than one million views on Facebook.

Gareth Malone’s Easter Passion (TV, 5 April), broadcast over Easter, marked the 300th anniversary of the performance of Bach’s St John Passion in Germany. This was, she said, an example of “a really pan-BBC offering, the licence fee going as far as it could. We teamed up with BBC Wales, the BBC Singers, the National Orchestra of Wales, Radio 4, BBC One and BBC Two, and the programmes went out across all of those platforms.

“It brought the Passion story to a really broad audience, which I think is so important that in our culture, [where] people are perhaps going to church less and may not actually hear some of the basics such as the Passion story at Easter, we’re making sure that that stays front and centre of our offering at Easter.”

BBCThe Head of Religion and Ethics for BBC Television, Daisy Scalchi

Mr Pemberton considered digital output as part of the “pioneering spirit” of the founders of BBC religious broadcasting. “The religion that you’ll be consuming now, hopefully, you get all sourced on BBC Sounds, BBC iPlayer, and, in the palm of your hand with your mobile phone, you can get loads of religious content.”

Concerns have been expressed that the Media Bill, which is passing through Parliament, will give broadcasters more freedom to move programmes to digital formats, where the audiences will be smaller (Comment, 19 January). The absence of a reference to religion in the Bill has also provoked disquiet.

The Bill updates the public-service remit of broadcasters, including the BBC, but it does not change the detailed requirements of the BBC, set out in the Charter, Framework Agreement, and Operating Licence. In the Operating Licence, Ofcom says that “the BBC should deliver a broad range of output covering different genres and content types, including genres that are underprovided or in decline across public service broadcasting (including . . . religion).”

Ms Scalchi said that she understood why people might be nervous about the implications for religious content; but “We’re still held to account by Ofcom, with measurable hours, which are still being stipulated there.”

Ofcom requires the BBC to broadcast about 200 hours a year of religious content on TV, and 500 hours on radio. Ofcom’s 2022 report said that the BBC accounted for 99 per cent of all religious programming on public-service broadcasters.

Ms Scalchi continued: “I know that there’s been some concern around programmes moving online, and therefore being less accessible. But that’s not the plan with religion content: it’s not going to be moved online at the cost of what’s on television; it’s as well as; so we just have to make sure that what we’re doing is accessible across digital platforms as well. Because that’s where a lot of audiences and listeners are finding the content, but it’s not at the cost of what’s on television.”

Mr Pemberton agreed: there would be “no trade-off” between digital and traditional formats.

Both executives said that commissioners at the BBC remained committed to religious content. Mr Pemberton said that he was “always surprised the amount of people [in the BBC] who are interested in religion, and some who are signed up to the different faiths”. Many of them, he said, would attend the Ascension Day service in St Martin-in-the-Fields, to be broadcast live on Radio 4.

“If anything, I would say the commissioners tend to challenge us — because they are very hungry for the ideas — to come up with the ideas that allow them to showcase what we’re doing.”

Ms Scalchi believed that, within the Corporation, understanding of religion as an essential part of the public-service remit had increased. “It’s definitely not pushing at a closed door; it feels like that door is really open.”

In response to accusations that religious programmes had been pushed out of peak-time slots, she pointed to Pilgrimage (9 p.m., Fridays); Big Zuu Goes to Mecca (9 p.m., Sundays) (TV, 26 April); and Stacey Dooley: Inside the undertakers (TV, 17 November 2023), which “doesn’t necessarily straightaway read as a religion title”, but which dealt with religious and secular approaches to death.

The fact that Radio 4’s Today programme retained the daily Thought for the Day at 7.50 a.m. also showed schedulers’ commitment to religion in peak slots, Mr Pemberton said. He was proud of Thought for the Day’s “versatility”: for example, when the war in Ukraine broke out, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a “massively poignant” Thought at very short notice (News, 25 February 2022).

Radio listeners were, however, concerned about the loss, last autumn, of local Sunday-morning religious programmes in England (Comment, 25 August 2023). The local programmes were replaced by regional programmes, and the 39 local stations were reorganised into 13 groups.

Local radio does not fall under Mr Pemberton’s remit, but a BBC spokesperson said: “We are committed to the representation of the UK’s different faith communities and the provision of religious and ethical content for audiences across England. Faith remains the focus of all our Sunday Breakfast Shows and we will continue to broadcast services to mark significant religious faith festivals.”

A Celebration for Ascension Day will be broadcast live on Radio 4 on 9 May at 8 p.m.

The BBC History timeline, “BBC Religion & Ethics at 100”, is available here

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