The BBC has had a problem for some time regarding how it deals with religion. It has regularly been accused of giving Christianity in particular a tough time. What gives these accusations substance is that they have not just come from churches and individual Christians complaining about the treatment they receive, but also from within the BBC itself.
Back in 2011 a survey was conducted as part of the BBC’s ‘Diversity Strategy’ involving 4,500 people, including some BBC staff. The consultation concluded: ‘In terms of religion, there were many who perceived the BBC to be anti-Christian and as such misrepresenting Christianity… Christians are specifically mentioned as being badly treated, with a suggestion that more minority religions are better represented despite Christianity being the most widely observed religion within Britain.’
Then last year Mark Thompson, the then director-general of the BBC admitted that Christianity gets treated less sensitively than other religions because it is ‘pretty broad shouldered’. He suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities’, and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters.
To its credit the BBC hasn’t ignored these criticisms. In the summer of 2012 it decided to launch a review of the breadth of opinion reflected in its output focusing on key areas including its treatment of religion. The report was published last week.
Much of the analysis of religious broadcasting is affirming especially when it comes to the BBC’s attitude to Christian worship. Programmes such as Songs of Praise, Sunday Worship and the daily service both on Radio 4 are described as ‘deeply embedded in the BBC tradition’. The report dismisses the criticism from secularist and atheist groups that there are two many religious programmes given the number of people with no religious belief in this country. In particular it defends its decision to keep Radio 4’s Thought for the Daily solely for contributors who have a religious faith.
However it is not simply the BBC which thinks that it has to have belief as part of its output –it is required to do so by the Agreement with the Secretary of State which sets the BBC Trust the requirement to have regard “to the importance of reflecting different religions and other beliefs”
Christine Morgan, the BBC’s head of Radio, Religion and Ethics, argues persuasively against the contention that the sheer volume of programmes from her department is disproportionate to the number of people describing themselves as religious. More and more young people are interested in religion whether or not they are religious –because they know it is arguable that they cannot understand the modern world unless they understand religion. Thought for the Day, she says, is one of the rather few areas where people who do not have extreme views are allowed to express their opinions; a place, indeed, for a wide range of nuanced and thought-provoking ideas. She would regard the introduction of Atheists as altering the fundamental basis of the slot, which is to be religious, into something entirely different. It would culminate in the dilution and eventual demise of a unique and valuable part of the BBC’s service.
Alongside the positives, the report finds that the treatment by the BBC of those who have religious beliefs is less than satisfactory. It is not only the minority religions in the UK who feel that sometimes the BBC treats them as if they are rarified and slightly deranged outsiders to mainstream thinking. It is a theme taken up by Roger Bolton, presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, who claims that, for example, if a Christian is interviewed by the BBC about their objections to abortion on religious grounds, they are treated as though they are just a bit barmy. He believes that BBC journalists tend to see the debates over gay marriage and women priests in the context of equal rights, while from the religious perspective they are matters of scripture and theology. Bolton and others felt that conservatives on these subjects tend to be treated by interviewers as throwbacks who are damaging the Church and dragging it back into the past, rather than people who simply have a different view about the tenets of their faith.
These are examples of areas where the arguments for and against can be subtle and nuanced, and for which a “Punch and Judy” adversarial approach can be wholly unsuitable. It is part of the ongoing challenge facing the BBC to ensure that such coverage is conducted with intelligence and decorum, and that all sides of the debate need to have an appropriate airing.
The report finds that BBC editorial staff at all levels struggle between the need to try to treat all religions and beliefs fairly and equally, while taking into account what may be the greater sensitivity of some believers versus others. Christians frequently complain that while broadcasters and journalists tip-toe around the sensitivities of Muslims, it seems perfectly all right to the BBC to run a programme in Holy Week entitled Are You Having a Laugh? Comedy and Christianity, and promote it in the press release by asking “Is Christianity a Joke?”
The complaint made most frequently by representatives of all religions during the review was about what was widely regarded as a disappointingly low level of basic knowledge about their faiths among journalists who contact them from the BBC. The complaint rarely applied to members of the specialist teams who work on regular programme strands in Religion and Ethics, but especially related to generalists working for news and current affairs programmes. Krish Kandiah in his excellent recent article on this issue confirms this has regularly been his experience when being contacted by BBC researchers. There is no excuse for this; it seems reasonable that any journalist employed by the BBC should be expected to have a basic knowledge of the main and larger minority religions, their beliefs and hierarchies.
The Evangelical Alliance was invited to make a submission to the report and one of its key recommendations was for “a substantive programme to develop faith literacy for all staff involved in news, commentary and documentary programmes”, which acknowledges the concerns of its members that a deeper understanding of faiths could lead to more accurate reporting of evangelical Christian concerns and points of view.
The BBC has agreed with this recommendation and one of the report’s key conclusions is that training at the College of Journalism should be used to raise the general level of knowledge about religion and ethics amongst BBC programme makers with the BBC’s editorial director to feedback on progress by the summer of 2014.
Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, said:
“The BBC plays a vital role in reflecting and reporting what is happening in society, so it is important that its editorial integrity is not compromised by secularist stereotypes of Christians as people with old-fashioned, even antiquated values, rather than as the social entrepreneurs, leaders and catalysts of positive societal change that they often are.
“If this review is to be effective, it must hold the editorial directorate accountable and see that it follows through on the recommendation to review training. If its journalists are to maintain their high standard of knowledge in current affairs, the BBC needs to take practical steps in developing religious literacy to help them truly understand and reflect the realities of today’s and tomorrow’s society.”
Along with many other institutions the BBC is having to respond to the challenges created by the changing demographics of belief in our society and a significant decrease in the levels of religious literacy amongst the population as a whole. The BBC’s new report is a welcome acknowledgement of some of its current failings along with its successes. If it is to remain a credible broadcaster it needs to work hard to keep the trust of its audiences. Treating those who hold religious beliefs with respect is integral to this.