The BBC admits failings in its treatment of Christians

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.

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Categories: Faith in society, Media

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15 replies

  1. Interesting. I note Channel 4 is broadcasting the muslim call to prayer during Ramadan and this has caused controversy. I have read, and I don’t know the veracity of this, that every day the muslim prayers call for death to all infidels, that’s Christians among others.
    This is jehadi isn’t it? Not one muslim leader has yet denounced jihadi to their followers even after 7/7 or the atrocity of Lee Rigby’s murder. This was pointed out by a muslim Canadian journalist in the Huffington Post recently.

    I think it is our responsibilty to find out just what their proclamations consist of.

  2. Faith, including Christianity should be better dealt with in the media and I like Krish K’s 3 suggestions in the article you reference and the EA education programme is an excellent idea. Mark Thompson says that Christianity is ‘broad shouldered’ and so it should be. We don’t want journalists to feel the need to ‘tip toe’ round our faith because they are scared of us and we need to be careful not to fall into this trap. If someone wants to write ‘is Christianity a joke?’ let them. We can get on with bringing God’s kingdom with our actions and words.

    • “We can get on with bringing God’s kingdom with our actions and words.” the key question is ‘do we?’ I see no good reason for NOT objecting to ‘is Christianity a joke’ We are falling into that same trap of ‘tip-toeing’ round our faith, if we feel either embarrassed or intimidated into accepting comments like that. We might feel it is water off a duck’s back, but in terms of our faith we can so easily be seen as accepting those remarks as some aspect of truth.

      • The important thing with challenges such as this is that we shouldn’t be afraid to criticise poor journalism and factual inaccuracy. If broadcasters such as the BBC choose to put on such a programme, they should be willing to make sure that those who disagree get a fair hearing and are allowed to make their point properly. This doesn’t tend to happen.

      • Hi Lavender,
        I’m not embarrassed or intimidated (or at least I aim not to be!) There is a place for challenging attitudes, but not for defending our right to be listened to or treated respectfully. If there’s one thing that Jesus didn’t do it was defend his right to be treated fairly! However, He did heal the sick, raise the dead, challenge the powerful and bind up the broken hearted and then preach the Kingdom of God is near. Let’s do the same and not get caught up in being upset about what other people say or think about us.

    • I agree with you Jonathan. It’s actually a very good thing that Christianity has broad shoulders a can put up with a good deal of adverse opinion. If we feel we need our faith to be protected from criticism then it shows how weak our faith actually is. Instead Christianity is probably the most robust faith of all and we shouldn’t be afraid. Having said that having broadcasters putting on controversial religious programmes close to or on the days of Christian festivals unhelpfully demonstrates a lack of respect and tact that inevitably puts people’s backs up.

  3. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    WELCOME news! Thank you Gillan for your hard work producing a commendable summary and for quoting EA’s Dr David Landrum. I won’t hold my breath, however, for BBC to review their Middle-East reporting!

  4. How far should BBC’s treatment of Christianity be isolated from secular society’s attitudes? There’s a widespread view that BBC is biased anyway – a complaint regularly coming from both the political Left and Right! I find atheists view Christianity as unethical, illogical and mythological, even ‘there’s not a word of truth in the Bible’ and ‘Christianity has had a damaging effect on the world”. But they don’t seem able or willing to engage in logical and factual discussion about it! And yet contemporary animosity towards Christianity often seems very Biblical (Jesus first warned we would be hated and then on the cross had insults heaped on him). So the point made about being broad shouldered may seem realistic, inevitable and even perhaps following the example set for us.

    That God the Father and the Son share a sense of humour is to me evident in the Bible but the BBC’s jokes on Christianity that I’ve often heard on radio 4 are simply rude and offensive, whilst not similarly targeting Muslims. TV policy seems to relish discrediting the Bible’s historicity from the 10 plagues of Egypt never happened (followed by another programme then showing how it was all from natural causes) right through to why the Gnostic and Judas gospels are somehow the real thing. Radio producers seem to direct or select broadcast church services to be as outmoded as possible, with an antiquated Lord’s Prayer just about mandatory.

    Anyone whose contact with and knowledge of Christianity has come only through the BBC is likely to conclude that Christianity is irrelevant and socially harmful. The lack of Christian unity and focusing on issues which aren’t high priorities don’t help. Moreover,
    Christians could doubtless do much better in getting across the reasonableness of the faith and the huge contribution to the good of society that Christianity has made in the past and continues to make in the present.

  5. On http://www.prodigyspirit.com Lena Pinkas has a gift from God, she treats by hand. Cancer, psoriasis, infertility and much more. She is awesome!

  6. It would make more credibility if the BBC permitted Christian Evangelicals to openly present non-religious programmes on TV such as the News, permit criticisms of all forms of modern lifestyles and place Evangelical representatives on their different editorial committees to ensure it does not keep on being Christianophobic. Until then this is purely another PR exercise, an expensive one at that to the licence payer.

  7. As Christine Morgan, the BBC’s head of Radio, Religion and Ethics, says, Thought for the Day, is one of the rather few areas where people who do not have extreme views are allowed to express their opinions.

    And this I am afraid is part of the problem because believing that there is a magic man who lives in the sky who watches everything we do and knows everything we think and we should live our lives on Earth as if we were in some kind of supernatural North Korea is an extreme view when compared to reality and logic and reason. And if we do not do what some humans think the magic man wants us to do those who do not do it will be consigned for eternity into a pit of fire and flames but he loves you. And because they believe this they want a special place in our society above everyone else. This is extreme.

    It only does not seem an extreme view because we have been taught this as fact by these people since we were children with the emphasis on the nice bits of religion with the nasty stuff kept hidden from view in case it queers their pitch. And when this special status in society is challenged the ones seeking a fair and level playing field are called aggressive or militant.

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