The BBC must improve its religious affairs coverage

The BBC looks set to keep its religious coverage, but in a society where people increasingly identify as irreligious, how can it remain relevant?

Hussein Kesvani
5 October 2016

Religious leaders discuss the refugee crisis. Picture by Daniel Leal-Olivas PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.When the BBC white paper was released earlier this year, much of the national discussion concentrated on the fairness of the broadcaster’s political coverage. Whether it was giving attention to under-reported social issues, or reporting on the ongoing issues in the Labour party fairly, the case for both reforming, and privatising the broadcaster seemed to rest on its benefit to the public on a political level.

There was no doubt that the white paper had made some feel alienated. And one of those just happened to be a national institution : The Church of England. A few days after the white paper was published, the CofE expressed “concern that the coverage of religion and other beliefs is barely mentioned in the White Paper and only in passing in the draft Agreement”  adding that “Christian churches and other faith communities play a key role in our national and international life. “The BBC needs to depict this contribution fairly across its output, including by recognising the role religion plays in world affairs and reflecting this in news, current affairs, documentary and drama.”

The role of religion at the BBC has always been a contentious one, and in recent years, the case of cutting- or even scrapping- the department for religion and ethics has gotten stronger. According to the BBC Charter, the organisation is bound to broadcast at least 110 hours of faith-based content per year, spanning across television and radio- considerably larger than it’s rivals at ITV and Channel 4. And while BBC religion coverage has been criticised in recent years by many Christian bodies, not least the Church of England, for treating Christianity as a “rare species”, others have argued that the department is “too Christian,” leading its current head Aaqil Ahmed to announce his desire to produce more content focusing on Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and other minority faiths.

Around half of Britons declared themselves to be ‘irreligious’, outpacing the number of those identifying as Christians.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey published this year, around half of Britons declared themselves to be ‘irreligious’, outpacing the number of those identifying as Christians for the first time. At the same time, many religious institutions claim that restrictions on their ability to broadcast information has ultimately hindered their ability to prove themselves to be a public good. Just last year, the Christian Institute think tank criticised OFCOM’s strengthening of the communications act 2003, which it claimed had  “banned [religious organisations] from holding many types of broadcasting licences,” adding that the OFCOM code “singles out specialist religious channels for targeted prohibitions against “exploitation” of audience susceptibilities and “abusive treatment” of other beliefs” - a condition which “didn’t apply to secular organisations”.

The apparent double-edged sword puts the BBC in a precarious position when it comes to broadcasting issues of faith: How should the broadcaster cover issues to do with religion, in a society that is becoming increasingly irreligious? Is there a justification behind cutting faith-based broadcasting, even as a portion of license fee payers believe faith is core to their identity? And, if the BBC does continue to devote part of its budget to faith-based broadcasting, how does it go about this in a way that benefits both the religious and non-religious?

In the course of writing this article, I spoke to a number of current and former BBC employees familiar with the religion and ethics department. Naturally, few would speak on record, but nearly all said that the department had long struggled with these questions. “You have various problems when it comes to delivering value-for-money on religious programming,” one staff member told me. “When people talk about getting value for money, it’s generally rooted in their own opinions or values, and in religion its very much the case. You’ll have Christians who’ll say there isn’t enough Christian content, Muslims who say there isn’t enough Muslim content and so on. And then you have the second issue of more people becoming sceptical of religion itself, and wondering why the BBC, which in their mind is often a ‘progressive’ institution, is giving airtime to what they consider to be regressive belief systems. And the third is a bureaucratic problem- ie. as a state broadcaster, complaints from license fee payers must be addressed - and [Religion & Ethics] gets a considerable amount of complaints- not just about the nature of the content, but the perceived value of the content itself.”

For other media personalities in Britain’s faith based circles, the problem isn’t with the department representing religion, but a lack of diversity or intellectual conversation when entering conversations about faith. One of the programmes that receives this criticism the most is the BBC’s “Big Questions”, a Sunday panel show that discusses issues to do with religion in contemporary British society.  After appearing on the programme in May, TLS religion editor Rupert Shortt wrote: “While not censored entirely, faith-based perspectives [on the BBC] tend to be confined to special zones such as Songs of Praise and “Thought for the Day,” adding: “The unacknowledged assumption here is plain: atheism is the default neutral stance for grown-ups; religious voices, even highly self-critical ones, are biased.”  Meanwhile, In the New Statesman, Willard Foxton calls the show “the worst thing that the BBC airs.” Later in the essay, he highlights the criticism that many viewers- and even those working in the department- have about faith based broadcasting: “The Big Questions format is just terminally broken – answers to these points, by definition, are big, complicated ideas – and you can’t articulate a complex, nuanced position in a 30-second soundbite.”

Could more intellectual, high brow broadcasting be the key to making BBC religion and ethics have more value for money?

Could more intellectual, high brow broadcasting be the key to making BBC religion and ethics have more value for money? Elizabeth Oldfield, a former BBC journalist and now director at the Christian think tank Theos, says that ‘devotional content’ - programmes like Songs of Praise, are of “High value to older audiences and will continue to be part of the BBC’s charter obligations.”

“However, factual output has seemed to decline somewhat in recent years, both in prominence and quality. It is one of the few areas which could have the resources to cover religion in a world class manner, but too often treads predictable paths- probably due to under resourcing and a continuing lack of understanding of its importance across wider management.”

Though Oldfield says the department could prove its worth by “taking more risks”, she admits this could be challenging under the charter- especially as religion has the capacity to “offend people more than other areas of public life”. More importantly, she says that delivering high quality religion broadcasting- be it in devotional or factual content, requires more religion-literate journalists:

“The media industry is slowly waking up to the need to cover religion as part of general news, although pressures on resources have meant most specialist reporter posts have been cut. This means huge pressure on already stretched non-specialist journalists to cover a complex area well. Compared with the 2011 census, where  28% of Britons declared they practiced no religion, 61% of journalists claimed  no religious affiliation. This may make it more difficult for them to build understanding and contacts quickly, and to comprehend the role it plays in people’s lives. The combination of these things means much religion coverage is ill-informed and lacks depth.”

These could be addressed if programme production was all in house. But as a number of BBC staff members told me, decentralisation and the inclusion of independent production houses “has made addressing these problems even more difficult”, as production companies bid for money using “glossy pitches appealing to mainstream vices- some of them are really interesting programmes, but programming that attempted to appeal to actual religious communities were pitched considerably less. I can only imagine it’s because they knew they were unlikely to recieved the funding they needed.”

A report commissioned by the University of Glasgow in 2008 hits on how some of the wider BBC changes have affected the department too : “As the definition of the ‘public interest’ changes, and there is a subsequent change in the organisational culture [of the BBC], these have affected the position and formed many of the disputes at the heart of public religion broadcasting”. While the research showed the BBC was still committed to producing religious based content, it added that, in an effort to appeal to the mainstream, religion and ethics programming had undermined “traditional worship formats, serious journalistic approaches to religious themes particularly on television and institutional representations of religion. The cumulative effect of this is that although certain religious programmes may still be viable it is from an increasingly narrow range of entertainment-based formats.

Despite these structural changes though, it’s unlikely that commitment to religious broadcasting will be removed from the BBC charter, and if the white paper is anything to go by, there is a chance that its budget may increase. It’s also likely that the BBC will continue to lead its competitors in faith-based coverage, especially as many channels face greater cuts and more demand for viewers. But if it is to assert relevance to a society that becomes increasingly suspicious of religious institutions, it won’t just have to be innovative with its programming - it will also have to embrace taking more risks than its counterparts.

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