The Big Question: Is the BBC failing in its duty to provide religious broadcasting?


Why are we asking this now?


The General Synod of the Church of England yesterday carried a private member's motion which proposed that it "express its deep concern about the overall reduction in religious broadcasting across British television in recent years".

The motion also called upon mainstream broadcasters "to nurture and develop the expertise to create and commission high-quality religious content across the full range of their output, particularly material that imaginatively marks major festivals and portrays acts of worship". It was carried by 267 votes to four.

But has there been a reduction in religious broadcasting?

According to Nigel Holmes, a former BBC senior local radio producer and lay member of the Synod, who put down the motion, the BBC has cut its religious television output over the past 20 years from 177 hours to 155 hours a year.

Is that such a big cut?

Holmes makes the point that the broadcasting environment has changed out of all recognition over those two decades and the BBC, with its large family of channels, has doubled its general programming in the same period. For its part the BBC argues that its charter only requires it to make 110 hours of religious programming and the intention this year is to broadcast 164 hours, including Oxford history professor Diarmaid MacCulloch's ambitious six-part series for BBC4, A History of Christianity. Even Holmes accepts that BBC radio controllers "have been very supportive of religion".

Has there been a trigger for this protest?

It goes back to last Easter, when the BBC was criticised for failing to acknowledge the Christian significance of Good Friday in its coverage last year. The corporation's head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, admitted the shortcomings by promising that this year's programming would be improved, featuring a documentary on Good Friday presented by the historian Bettany Hughes. It will broadcast Easter at Kings, a service from Kings College, Cambridge. Nicky Campbell will host a BBC1 discussion programme, provocatively titled Are Christians Being Persecuted? The programme is intended to examine "the changing nature of how Christianity and Christians are viewed in our society".

Is religious broadcasting just the responsibility of the BBC?

No. All the other publicly supported broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4 and Five – are supposed to make religious programmes as part of their public service remit. But the collapse of advertising in an economic downturn has brought commercial television to its knees and broadcasters are reluctant to commission programming which holds little attraction to advertisers. ITV in particular has all but abandoned religious programming, while also cutting back on children's television and local news coverage. Ahmed suggests that this wider absence of religious content has increased pressure on the BBC. "If you look at what's happening at ITV, channel Five, Channel 4, everybody is turning their back on religion, but we live in a time when the BBC isn't doing that," he recently told the Radio 4 Today programme. Holmes is also critical of Channel 4, which he says is "unduly critical" and "sensationalist" in the way it covers Christianity.

Who is Aaqil Ahmed?

He joined the BBC last spring from Channel 4 where for six years he was commissioning editor for religion and head of multicultural programming. His major commissions at Channel 4 included Inside The Mind of a Suicide Bomber, Christianity: A History and The Qur'an. Ahmed, who is Muslim, previously worked as a programme-maker in the BBC's religion and ethics department, where he worked on productions such as Richard Gere on Buddhism and on the long-running current affairs and religion strand Everyman.

His appointment has angered conservatives such as The Daily Telegraph religious commentator George Pitcher who said his previous work was "lightweight" and he wasn't "up to" doing the top job.

Will anyone else address the criticisms?

The corporation's governing body, the BBC Trust, is conducting a service review of BBC channels. The consultation is not specifically about religious programming. but in a strongly worded contribution, the Church of England complained that Songs of Praise no longer has a regular slot, while the main discussion programme on belief, The Big Questions, is shown at a churchgoing time. A submission from the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, included the memorable observation that "there is also the danger of the 'David Attenborough effect' – religion always reported from the point of view of an observer of a fascinating and increasingly rare species".

Some of the BBC's own staff are unhappy with the lack of the coverage, including the radio presenter Simon Mayo who complained last month that "religion is increasingly driven to the margin". He expressed shock that a BBC News bulletin in Easter 2008 had referred to "services to mark the rebirth of Christ". Mayo said such a line was "written by someone who had no contact with or understanding of the concept of resurrection".

How about the DG?

Mark Thompson is a devout Catholic. As such he sometimes attracts criticism from secularists who suspect that he has an agenda for filling the schedules with religious programming. When Thompson recently had the opportunity to meet the Pope at a reception in Rome ahead of a Papal visit to Britain in September, the National Secular Society responded by asking on its website: "Is the BBC preparing to go into propaganda mode for Pope's visit?" A comment in that report, from the society's executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, demonstrates the tightrope that Thompson walks. "We fear that this [visit] may herald a massive propaganda push by the Vatican, which it expects its highly placed adherent to facilitate. Mr Thompson has made clear his own religious leanings, but these must not be allowed to drive the BBC into overkill when the Pope comes here. Very few people are interested in religious broadcasting, as all the research shows, and licence payers' money should not be used to give disproportionate coverage to this visit."

What about other religions?

The BBC's journalism is under constant attack for its perceived religious bias. Hindus claim they are ignored, Jewish groups complain that coverage of the Middle East is anti-Israeli, while reporting of Muslims has been attacked in right-wing blogs as "gutless", with Thompson himself admitting "a growing nervousness about discussion about Islam". The BBC's Asian Network radio station has in turn been accused of being anti-Islam by Lord Ahmed and, according to Sikh groups, being biased against Sikhism.

Is the BBC likely to change policy?

Unlikely. Despite Ahmed's acknowledgement of the shortcomings of coverage last Easter, the BBC responded to yesterday's conclusive vote by the Church of England by saying it was "encouraged to hear so many supportive views expressed in the General Synod". In classic corporation speak it promised: "We will continue to engage with all religions in our quest to produce the highest quality religion and ethics content across TV, radio and online."

Should there be more religious shows on television?

Yes...

*The BBC uses digital media to vastly increase output in almost all genres, while leaving religion at the margins

*Publicly funded broadcasters have an obligation to provide some moral guidance within schedules

*More than 77 per cent of Britons have a religious belief; more than 71 per cent call themselves Christians

No...

*Specialist religious programming strands increase tensions between minority belief groups

*All broadcasters are struggling with reduced budgets and must focus on shows that attract big audiences

*The corporation already exceeds the requirement for religious programming laid down in its charter

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