Roger Bolton on Broadcasting

Religion on television: some divine inspiration is long overdue
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The Independent Online

If you work in television, that is - not if you live outside the narrow inward-looking world of the modern TV executive. For there is a huge paradox. In almost every recent survey of public opinion on the issue, about 70 per cent of those questioned say they believe in the divine. The search for meaning and purpose is as widespread as ever. Rarely in history have people been more open to other forms of belief or other ways of seeing the world and making sense of our existence.

Books about the Holy Grail, the Cathars and the Templars, which usually have the alleged marriage of Jesus at their centre, dominate the bestseller lists. In world politics, religion has rarely been more relevant, whether it be the Christianity of George Bush and Tony Blair or the Muslim fundamentalism of Hamas and the president of Iran.

Within the United Kingdom more than two million people are Muslims, their entire outlook on life driven by a faith of which most of their fellow citizens know little and understand less. Almost daily the astonishing discoveries of medical science produce endless moral dilemmas to which the collective wisdom of the world's faiths have much to contribute.

Yet, in television, religious and ethical programming is something to be done, if at all, as a duty, a nod to a disappearing world, a public service requirement which, in the case of ITV and Five, Ofcom has been complicit in reducing to the point of virtual non-existence.

Why is British television shooting itself in the foot in this way by its astonishing neglect of a rich and rewarding subject area of crucial importance to our present and future?

I know at this point that the relevant commissioners in Channel 4 and the BBC will be penning their letters of protest. Channel 4 does indeed play some provocative religious programming at peak times, and the BBC can point to Good Friday's exciting and imaginative Manchester Passion which ingeniously adapted the pop songs of Morrissey and others to tell the story of Jesus's trial and crucifixion, on BBC3 and BBC2. But come on chaps, we've sat at the same meetings, listened to the same conversations.

You know, I know, that most people in television don't believe that this is an exciting or a particularly relevant area of production. I would guess that 70 per cent of those in TV don't believe in the divine. What I am saying to those executives who think they are on the cusp of fashion, adept at identifying tipping points, and aware of all the latest trends, is this. Wake up. You are out of touch and failing your viewers.

Of course this is not just a question of there being more religious and ethical programming but that a religious awareness should permeate almost all types of programming, and crucially the news. The lack of such awareness is evident on a daily basis but perhaps most obviously in the initial reporting of Hamas.

Let's set aside the fact that its success in the Palestinian elections took many by surprise. More relevant is the fact that the organisation was treated as if it were a Middle Eastern version of Sinn Fein. OK, some commentators remarked that it has an armed wing, but suggested that once in power it may well compromise with Israel. It took a long time for news programmes to wake up to the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, that it is committed to the elimination of the state of Israel and a restoration of the Caliphate. Its religious beliefs do not allow it to compromise on the recognition of Israel, only on the timetable for its removal.

Just read the book, or at least the website, where you can also find an approving reference in the organisation's founding document to that notorious anti-Semitic fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And in assessing the danger, or otherwise, of Iran's developing nuclear weapons programme it would surely be helpful to know about its president's apocalyptic religious beliefs.

So here are some practical suggestions for the BBC in particular, whose governors have been concerned about the coverage of religion, and, ironically, whose top two executives are Roman Catholics (the two Marks, Thompson and Byford).

First, appoint a BBC news religion editor, on a par with the business and economics editors, someone who will routinely appear on the main bulletins to provide context. Second, ensure that the Today programme's brief is expanded so that its religious coverage and awareness are not confined to priestly paedophilia. TV news may then follow suit. Third, make religion a key element of the curriculum in the corporation's College of Journalism.

Fourth, the present agnostic head of religion and ethics is retiring early from the BBC after a noble innings against overwhelming odds. Appoint someone in his place who is passionate about the subject, as you would in any other discipline. Give them their own budget.

Fifth. Specify to each television channel controller the range, scale and volume of the religious coverage they should provide. And chose authoritative figures, expert in their subject, to present them.

Finally, find a successor to Joan Bakewell's much lamented Heart of the Matter and put it on BBC1.

To Ofcom: stop reducing the public service requirements on ITV and Five as regards religion.

And to all television executives and production staff, may I slightly misquote Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Farewell, Jonathan and Sue. But do come back

The tectonic plates of television and radio presentation moved last week when something extraordinary happened. Two of our leading current affairs presenters voluntarily gave up their jobs, not just to spend more time with their families or to take up more lucrative appointments. Jonathan Dimbleby turned down the offer to continue to present his Sunday politics show on ITV, and Sue Lawley announced she was finally sailing away from her Radio 4 desert island.

I've worked with both but I don't think I enhanced either of their careers. Sue was one of the main presenters on BBC1's early evening Nationwide programme when I took over as its last editor. It is said that my decision to lead the programme on the failure of the Russian grain harvest contributed to its demise. And Jonathan was my presenter on This Week when we made Death on the Rock, which some think hastened the end of Thames Television, and propelled Mrs Thatcher to a state "beyond fury".

I do hope they aren't away from the front line for long. How about Sue doing a straight swap with John Humphrys and presenting Today? And I do hope that Jonathan, one of TV's great reporters, does go on the road again in prime time. Besides, I'm not keen on the precedent this sets.

Roger Bolton is chairman of Flame Television and presents Feedback and Sunday on Radio 4. Greg Dyke is away.