Why broadcasters need religious literacy

Why broadcasters need religious literacy

A wall painting of Moses and the Burning Bush (Credit: Dura Europos Synagogue)
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Roger Bolton argues that broadcasters must improve their coverage of faith – or else miss out on modernity’s biggest story

"My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong,” historian Simon Schama famously said.

In this, if in little else, Schama and I have something in common. Born in the same year, I was also carried along on the wave of 1960s optimism, which assumed that everyone was basically good, life was getting better for all, and reason would triumph.

As a historian, and a Jew, Schama knew this was an illusion, of course, yet even he misread the importance of faith in the modern world.

When I became a BBC journalist, I was encouraged to read books on, for example, Ireland and the trade unions and to learn about the City. No one ever mentioned the Shia/Sunni split. Indeed, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to Iran in 1979, I did not even know which branch of Islam he belonged to or why it mattered so much (Shia, since you ask).

What followed his return was the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and just about everything that has happened in the Middle East since. 

Today, religious literacy is vital for everyone involved in broadcasting.

Lyse Doucet, chief international correspondent for BBC News, says this: “Sadly, distortions of religious belief and texts are used as political weapons in many conflicts, as well as in clashes over traditional beliefs and practices. That requires us to know more about the tenets of major religions and systems of belief, and to be able to assess and analyse different interpretations.”

In the Sunday Times, the journalist AA Gill has written: “Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life. Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity.”

"It is impossible to understand fully our politics and our culture, painting, sculpture, poetry and drama... without understanding the Christian faith"

In a keynote speech at the 2016 Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace this June, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called on the BBC to treat religion “with the same seriousness as other genres such as sport, politics, economics or drama”. He went on: “The promotion of religious literacy should be a specific duty for the BBC across its broadcasting services.”

The BBC has six public purposes set out by Royal Charter. For some of us, the promotion of religious literacy ought to be a seventh such purpose.

Such literacy is not only necessary to understand the world beyond our shores. Christianity made this country. It is impossible to understand fully our politics and our culture, painting, sculpture, poetry and drama, indeed our new Prime Minister, without understanding the Christian faith.

And it impossible to understand the country we are becoming without understanding the beliefs of those who have immigrated here. The 2011 census recorded that there were 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, or 4.4% of the population; those figures will have increased in the past five years. For many, perhaps most, Muslims, their faith is the most important thing in their lives. How must they regard journalists who know little of their most cherished beliefs and who do not have the knowledge to challenge those who distort their faith?

So, how well are we broadcasters doing? The picture is decidedly mixed. There are some cracking programmes being made, as the shortlist for this year’s Sandford St Martin Awards showed. Entries were welcomed from news, current affairs, factual, arts, music, drama, children’s and comedy genres – as well as from teams producing specifically “religious” commissions. This year’s TV winner was My Son the Jihadi, made by True Vision Productions for Channel 4.

In 2011, Sally Evans made a devastating discovery: her son Thomas had left their home in a Buckinghamshire village and travelled to Somalia to join an Islamist terrorist group. The film charted, with immense sensitivity, her subsequent attempts to understand what had happened to her son and to come to terms with his death. Would it have been better if he had never been born?

The Radio Times Faith Award went to a very different sort of programme, BBC One’s Call the Midwife, and the Trustees’ Award to Joan Bakewell for her lifelong commitment to ethical inquiry in programmes such as Heart of the Matter and The Ethics Committee, which enabled her to explore, with judicious impartiality, the most interesting ethical dilemmas of our age. But if the quality is high, the volume is getting lower.

Take Channel 4. According to Ofcom, its spending on religious broadcasting dropped from £49m in 2008 to £20m in 2013 (the latest figures we have). This period coincided with Channel 4’s decisions to dispense with the role of commissioning editor for religion and to eliminate any religious programming quota.

At ITV, the position is even worse. Spending on religious programme commissions dropped from £40m in 2008 to £2m in 2013. Yes, £2m.

In 2015, according to Ofcom, spending by the PSBs on religious and ethics programmes was £12m, down 6% on 2014. So much, therefore, depends on our main public service broadcaster, the BBC. How well is it doing? It makes some good programmes, and has outstandingly well-informed journalists, such as Lyse Doucet and Ed Stourton. But it seems to have little or no strategy, is in an organisational muddle and seems to place religious broadcasting well down its list of priorities.

This may be a harsh judgement, and it would be wonderful if the BBC could produce the facts to contradict it, but consider the following, worrying, evidence.

Ofcom described religious programming as one of several “immediate issues” of concern in its July 2015 report “Public service in the internet age”. The point was repeated in the BBC’s own Charter review report of September 2015, “British, bold, creative: the BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter”.

But the 103-page corporation document made no further reference to religion – the only programme genre of “immediate issues” that got no mention in the BBC’s proposals for the next Charter period.

Aaqil Ahmed, officially the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, has had his commissioning power taken away from him. TV religious programmes are now commissioned by a non-­specialist responsible for several other genres, science, business and history.

BBC News has editors for a vast range of subjects, including consumer affairs, the arts, sport, politics, economics and a host of others. Religion does not have such a senior figure able to influence editorial policy, and its correspondent has to make do with a part-time producer, though that may change.

In the light of this apparent vacuum, the Sandford St Martin Trust has been trying to get answers from the BBC to three key questions:

  • Who in the BBC will take overall responsibility for the range, quality and quantity of religious coverage?
  • Are BBC commissioners and programme-makers issued with specific objectives or goals to help ensure informed coverage of the range of religious beliefs and practices in the UK?
  • Regarding BBC news, does the BBC agree that, in order for good journalism to flourish in this sensitive but crucial area, the same resources and expertise are necessary as in other areas? If so, why is there no editor for religion?

Perhaps the BBC has detailed answers to these questions. If so, could it let us know?

Roger Bolton is a broadcaster and a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust.