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BBC’s Religion and Ethics review

January 17, 2018

BBCIn the foreword, the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, wrote that the plans “will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.”

The review points out that, although in the UK only about 50 per cent of the population is affiliated to a religion, the global figure is 84 per cent, which is predicted to rise above 90 per cent in the next few decades.

Under the new plans, more religious voices, drawn from a wider range of ages and backgrounds, will be heard on existing BBC programmes, and new drama and documentary programmes will be sought. The religious themes and a wider range of religious festivals will be marked on flagship shows such as BBC1’s The One Show, or Chris Evans’s Radio 2 breakfast show.

There is also a commitment to making religion more explicable. The review states: “We want to do more to help people understand the role of Christianity in today’s world, and more to understand other faiths and beliefs as well.”

The existing items Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought “will continue as religious slots in primetime radio”. Although there will be occasions when these can relate to news stories, the review also states: “It is important that these slots are grounded in different lived experiences of faith . . . so that the item is not just a reflection of current events, but also a chance to learn more about other religious beliefs.”

More than 150 faith groups and experts were consulted as part of the review, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. The review reports: “Many stakeholders feel that the BBC doesn’t reflect the everyday role of faith or diversity of communities in our mainstream drama and comedy, and people of faith are often absent, poorly presented, or satirised.”

Recommendations include:

  • elevating the post of religious-affairs correspondent to a religion editor within BBC news;
  • the creation of new global team focusing on religion made up of specialist reporters;
  • a “slow news” approach to big stories to give time to reflect how religion affects them, “i.e. why things happen rather than simply what is happening”;
  • new “landmark” series and programmes “that explore religion in all its forms”;
  • a biennial “Belief Summit”;
  • a “Year of Beliefs” in 2019;
  • a greater diversity of contributors across all channels and programmes;
  • improving religious literacy both inside the BBC and outside in the general public;
  • specific features and content for all religious festivals on flagship programmes;
  • tackling religious issues in mainstream BBC dramas on TV and radio;
  • new religious programming targeted at under-45s;
  • working more closely with other “stakeholders”, including “faith and secular belief groups”, and organisations such as the Scottish Religious Advisory Committee and the Sandford St Martin Trust.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, the Church of England’s lead bishop for media matters, said: “We welcome the collaborative, open-hearted way in which the BBC has engaged with leaders from the different Churches and faith communities as well as broader society to inform their perspective.

“We look forward to seeing how their commitment to first-class coverage of religious affairs develops in its sophistication and scope in the months and years ahead.”

Another of those consulted for the review was the Sandford St Martin Trust, which awards excellence in religious broadcasting. The trust’s new chairman, the Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, said on Wednesday: “The trust strongly welcomes this review, in that it emphasises the importance of religious literacy in understanding our world.”

The trust’s patron, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, was similarly encouraged, but wrote on his blog: “My questions are the usual ones: who, when, how, and how much. In other words, when will we see the plan that clarifies who is responsible for establishing clear means to achieve these important aims, what are the timelines for delivery, and how much resource will be committed to making sure the promises are realised?”

The BBC announced that it is to air more religious programming after conducting its religion and ethics review, which followed a set of new regulations laid down by Ofcom in September 2017.

It was greeted enthusiastically by religious organisations, being applauded by a Church of England bishop and welcomed by Jewish groups – though whether the increased coverage will be as much as they expect is another matter.

Ofcom stated that BBC1 and 2 together have to broadcast 115 hours of religious programmes per year, which amounts to fewer than five full days of religious content across the two channels over the course of 12 months. And whether the increased coverage will be what religious groups themselves want to see is also uncertain, since the broadcaster is not seeking to deviate from its policy of impartiality – so it won’t be actively promoting any faith or belief system.

It will make the BBC more relevant to its audience. While 53 per cent of adults in the UK say they have no religion, the institution still has a responsibility to the other 47 per cent – which, of course, pays precisely the same licence fee as the non-religious majority.

The BBC is not intending simply to focus on the major world religions, but also to cater to those who are not religious but have spiritual beliefs. Such people are easily overlooked because they don’t fit into a neat box the way members of an organised religion do. Also, despite the howls of protest by humanists after the BBC’s announcement, the broadcaster’s religion and ethics review makes it clear that it will be seeking to reflect the beliefs of atheists and humanists, too, though how it intends to serve them is not clear at this stage.

An increase in religious programming will help to promote greater religious literacy. This is desirable given that misunderstandings about religion lie behind a good number of the world’s problems. The recent increase in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and sectarianism no doubt has multiple and complex causes, but poor religious literacy is surely one of them.

As one journalist noted: “A failure to understand religion is a failure to understand humanity and culture.” Anything that tackles this is to be welcomed.​

The BBC is there to inform, educate and entertain – and, as one of the key providers of information, education and entertainment in the UK, it has an important role to play in combating misunderstandings about religions.

There is a definite focus on young people and enabling them to access high quality, age-appropriate information about religions and beliefs in an accessible way. Naturally this will be of interest to schools as is the continued commitment shown to supporting Religious Studies GCSE.

To improve religious literacy the ‘mainstreaming’ of religion in drama is seen to be important – putting religion back into the mind of viewers in a positive way.

Some interesting points of action from the review include recognition that journalists need to be trained in religion and belief and that editors should be much better educated about religion so that it can be appropriately represented.

But the devil is in the detail – and how the BBC intends to increase coverage of religion in its programming will be crucial. As a headline in The Spectator cautioned, the BBC’s religious programming shake-up could easily make things worse, for example if it simply meant twice as much Songs of Praise.

But this is not the sort of increased coverage the BBC has in mind. The broadcaster has released some details about what we can expect, for example there will be more airtime devoted to non-Christian religious festivals, programmes about the world’s sacred sites and a Radio 4 series on morality in the 21st century.


We can also expect characters in mainstream programmes dealing with religious issues, as we saw last year in the series Broken featuring Sean Bean as a brooding and troubled Roman Catholic priest. And perhaps most notably, the BBC will designate 2019 “a year of belief” marked by specially-commissioned programmes and documentaries that examine “how people make judgements about the big decisions in their lives and where they get their moral values from”.

But of course there is a big difference between the BBC simply increasing its coverage of religion and actually enhancing it, which is what faith groups themselves want to see. Certainly, the BBC has sometimes been insensitive in its handling of religious matters. For example, in 2012 it described the Hindu festival of Holi as a “filthy festival” – and the institution will want to avoid a repeat of anything similar happening again.

To achieve this, the BBC intends to revamp its training programmes for its journalists to promote religious literacy and reduce unconscious bias, create a global team of reporters with specific religious expertise, and to have more involvement with stakeholders such as faith and secular groups. It remains to be seen whether all these measures will lead to deeper, more informative and more sensitive output, but the intention at least is praiseworthy.

The BBC pledges to make 2019 a ‘Year of Religion’ across all of its platforms. SACREs could certainly capitalise on this and make 2019 a ‘Year for Religious Education’ for all children and young people in schools in their geographic area irrespective of whether they are LA schools or not.

It’s online here

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