On the evening of 7 June the 2017 Sandford St Martin Awards were handed out during a gala ceremony held at Lambeth Palace. Again this year, the Trust had the honour of hosting some of the most talented programme-makers, broadcasters and journalists engaging with the subject of religion, belief and ethics in the UK today. Among them was the TV producer and writer Angela Graham who has written about the Awards in her blog.
Photos below are by Charlie Fordham-Bailey
Angela’s profile photo on the ‘Latest Posts’ page is copyright @HirstPhotos
Meaning and the Media – the Sandford St Martin Awards 2017
by Angela Graham
The Sandford St Martin Awards made me greedy. How could they tempt me with such a rich list of nominations and not expect me to want to indulge in all of them as quickly as possible!
Marian Partington on forgiving Fred and Rose West who killed her sister, or the great Marilynne Robinson on Fear, both in the Interview of the Year shortlist, or ‘Muslims Like Us’ with its reality-tv take on a major faith’s diversity and unifying core or, ‘The Selfless Sikh’ about a faith impelling humanitarian action … Could you blame me for wanting to absorb them all straight away?
Despite the range of topic and approach across the 30 finalists there is a prominent common factor, and it’s what makes the line-up such an attractive one: engagement with why people are making particular choices; helping or damaging others; living as they do. The programmes examine not only who’s doing what, when and where but the deep motivations that push them to grapple with the tangibles and intangibles of life.
Such interrogation is not confined to Religious Programming but this genre steps out into that intriguing area of an individual’s relationship to a Being or a Universal Agent and the ramifications of that for a person’s relations with others: the religio part of religion, the One with the Many. And the Absolute – it takes that on too.
The truths we live by appear to be increasingly various. Even those who live within the parameters of the most established of creeds must attend to a multiplicity of belief positions around them. I will definitely be looking out for the radio documentary, ‘Canada’s Atheist Minister’ (BBC Production North for BBC World Service) which offers insight into the experience of a pastor who found herself delivering a sermon in which she stated that she didn’t believe ‘in a God who answers prayer’ or fulfil many of the requirements usually expected of a deity and certainly not a Christian one. Radio can put me in touch with this fascinating experience.
I’d say it’s easier to get below the surface of atheism in Britain via the media than in face-to-face encounters. There is a substantial amount of ecumenical and inter-faith activity but far fewer opportunities for dialogue in depth between those of religious faith and those without it. This is the Cinderella dialogue in my own Church, the Catholic, despite encouragement from the Vatican.
Several years ago I trialled such an encounter group in Cardiff, calling it Meaning To Live because that name seemed to me an indication of the common ground. I don’t think we hit on the perfect methodology but we found a way to have the sort of open, mutually respectful, willing-to-learn, robust conversation we hadn’t found the opportunity to have anywhere else.
It concerns me that we don’t have many arenas in which we can examine belief in the sense wider than, but including, the religious. This is one reason why the media are so important and why it’s equally important to provide media professionals with the tools to handle issues of belief and faith well.
On the Sandford St Martin site are two blogs I’ve written about an initiative for journalists run by the training arm of the NUJ in Wales. This aims to give journalists access to expertise and resources which can enable them to improve their coverage of news and current affairs that have a religious or belief aspect. In Wales, until I gave a modest class on the subject this January at Cardiff University, no School of Journalism had offered any teaching at any level on religious literacy and, before these workshops, there was nothing on offer for professionals either. I’m glad to say the interest has been significant and we’re in discussion about a third event.
The profile of religious literacy is rising and, as it does so, critique of justification for it and of its worth relative to that of sociology is needed. Prof. Adam Dinham’s work at Goldsmith’s is prominent. His book, Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice Bristol: Policy Press Dinham A & Francis M (eds) (2015) is essential reading.
It’s good to see the current BBC review of its Religious, Ethics and Philosophy programming under Mark Friend. If the Sandford shortlist is anything to go by, it’s the PSB BBC that is doing the heavy lifting in these fields.
As a broadcaster in Wales it was an especial pleasure for me that the Radio Award was won by ‘Aberfan 50 Year Anniversary’, a programme within the long-running, weekly religious affairs series, ‘All Things Considered’. Director, BBC Cymru Wales, Rhodri Talfan Davies tweeted last night, ‘Quality counts − a superb team who deliver each and every week’. They certainly do. Producer, Karen Walker and Presenter, Roy Jenkins are ‘modest beyond’, as the Welsh say. Karen would never tell you that the walls of her office are invisible beneath the array of awards acquired over the years. Now they have a trophy to find a spot for.
For a full list of the 2017 Sandford St Martin winners click here.
Find out more about Angela on her website: http://angelagraham.org/
Given current geo-politics and the nature of conflict and social strife across the globe, religious literacy has become more important than ever – and journalists and broadcasters have a key role to play. Because religious literacy is not only an understanding or familiarity with religious texts or practices, it’s also an understanding and appreciation of how people’s beliefs or religions shape their politics, their communities, their relationships and their hopes for the future. And so for journalists, if you’re lacking the tools or experience to understand the role religion or belief plays in human affairs, you’re unequipped to properly understand or communicate to your audience what the story is. Religious literacy matters. Increasingly so.
In Wales, NUJ Training has been energetic in helping journalists engage with belief (and in helping belief communities to engage with journalists) by offering participants expertise, resources and the opportunity both to examine their own personal viewpoints while honing their professional skills.
In November 2016, two young Sandford St Martin interns blogged for us about “When Religion Makes the News” the first NUJ Training workshop held with ITV Wales. Below the Welsh journalist and trainer Angela Graham, writes about their latest event “Reporting Belief 2017” held in May.
This blog was first published on the NUJ Training Wales website and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Photographs are by Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos
Reporting Belief 2017: an appetite for engagement
By Angela Graham
What a day! At Reporting Belief 2017 on May 10th (#RB17) two ‘communities’ who often clash − journalists and ‘believers’ – came together to understand one another better. Of the 88 people who attended, 44 were journalists from press, broadcast and online media.
An immediate, ground-breaking result is ITV Cymru Wales’s offer to do a series of feature reports of around 3 minutes on their nightly news show Wales At Six on a range of belief groups in Wales over a period of around a year.
In the context of the BBC’s current review of its output in Religion, Ethics and Philosophy this commercial broadcaster’s imaginative initiative – beyond the terms of its licence − raises the profile of belief on English-language TV in Wales at a stroke given the scant provision by BBC Cymru Wales of English-language factual TV output in these areas.
But this was a day focused on news, and on quality of engagement rather than breadth of output.
Two ‘communities’ wanting to engage: understanding ‘those who are not like us’
Reporting Belief 2017, held on 11th May at BBC Cymru Wales’ Cardiff centre, followed on from When Religion Makes the News (#ReportingBelief16) last November, a workshop for journalists and representatives from the spectrum of beliefs and ideology in Wales about religious literacy and the reporting of belief.
At #RB17, representatives of religions, and of belief systems such as humanism, shared with journalists ways in which they feel misunderstood and misrepresented; journalists, in turn, explained their frustrations with belief communities who don’t engage well with the realities of the media.
This was a bold example of collaboration to address a challenge that affects us all: how to understand those who are not like us, in this case in the area of faith and belief. The mutual willingness to overcome these gaps demonstrated a readiness for a new kind of relationship.
Wales leading the way
Reporting Belief 2017 is at the forefront in meeting a need that is felt ever more acutely by communities around the UK. Dr Sheila Gewolb, Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, recognised this warmly in saying, ‘We applaud your event. This particular kind of encounter and dialogue is not happening in London. The Board of Deputies is taking a keen interest in it.’
There can be no doubt now of the appetite for training and resources – journalists need input which helps them both understand the complexities of belief (whether religious or secular) and the journalist’s role in interpreting the effects of belief on society; ‘believers’ need opportunities to learn how to engage productively with the media.
Filling the training and research gaps in religious literacy
How can such training for journalists be resourced and provided? A case is building for universities in Wales to bring religious literacy into the curriculum for journalism courses, at least at post-grad level. Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies is ‘actively discussing’ this option.
But it is essential, in such training, to have objective expertise in religion and belief that is independent of institutional or credal claims. There is a pressing need for research related to Wales, currently under-represented in resources in this area.
Media organizations themselves can examine the adequacy of their in-house training.
A case-study in journalistic practice
The day began with a session for journalists: Muslim Communities – connecting with the grassroots. Three experienced BBC journalists offered best practice advice, chaired by Dr Michael Munnik from the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University.
Sajid Iqbal, a senior broadcast journalist with BBC News in London, advised, “If you don’t understand Pakistan you don’t understand the Muslim communities in Britain.” Muslims of Pakistani origin represent the largest single ethnic group among Muslims in the UK.
He recommended getting to know the networks of Pakistani journalists in the UK, explaining that many are not full-time but are resourceful and well-connected at local levels, aspiring to do good journalism. “Stories come from relationships”, he said. The centrality of relationships was a mantra throughout the day.
Yasminara Khan is a journalist at BBC Newsnight who has done much work on Asian women’s issues. She stressed the importance of ‘talking to everyone’ and of getting strong case studies which only come if you show you are trustworthy: “If people feel you can deliver that story accurately they will give it to you.”
Innes Bowen is the author of Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, about the networks behind the UK’s mosques. She is in charge of investigations at BBC Newsnight. She encouraged journalists to make good use of their personal strengths to create connections widely with people. She is “into analytical journalism, the detailed stuff” and this had led her to spot novel angles such as a story about the inadequacy of the census returns concerning Somalis which led to them being under-represented and their interests under-funded. But, she stressed, this needs to be supported by a willingness to invest time with people, to spot a story in what, at first glance, appears to be a Public Service Announcement.
The need for open fact-sharing
A lively plenary session followed in which the broadcasters’ records on diversity and portrayal were challenged, as were some of Innes Bowen’s statistics about the managements of mosques in Wales and inferences that can be drawn about the denominational allegiances of worshippers from those of mosque management committees. This exchange underlined the need for both open fact-sharing and discussion of perceptions and experience.
Emma Meese and Matthew Abbott of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (C4CJ) delivered excellent afternoon workshops on social media use and the writing of press releases.
“Above and beyond the frustrations with each other is a common desire to communicate things that matter”
This was an event full of variety and of life. The ‘believers’ who attended, whether religious or secular, are engaged with living meaningful lives; journalists thrive on the vital, the real, the now. Above and beyond the frustrations with each other is a common desire to communicate things that matter.
The NUJ Training Wales website will shortly add to its religious literacy resources some additions arising from the day.
The event was free due to NUJ Training Wales’ funding from Welsh Government and support in kind from BBC Cymru Wales and C4CJ. Currently, the NUJ is exploring funding sources to continue this important, innovative work.
Feedback from the event shows an appetite for greater in-depth encounter between journalists and believers.
Beyond News, the ways in which broadcast genres engage with Religion and Belief, Ethics and Philosophy (via news, current affairs, documentary, factual formats, drama etc) across radio, TV and online require careful distinction and consideration; as do the claims of these areas within a Public Service Broadcasting and a Commercial media menu. But that’s another chapter in the story.
Photographs by Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos
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For more information about NUJ Wales Training and their work, visit their website or follow them on Twitter @NUJTrainWales
With the ever-increasing number and quality of entries received by the Trust year on year, judging the Sandford St Martin Awards has become more and more of an immersive experience. Not least for our shortlisters who are charged with having to negotiate long lists of sometimes very different programmes, made for very different audiences with hugely varying budgets. Agreeing a final few for the shortlist is never an easy task and, what shortlisters tell me is that, even after the final list has been agreed, they’re often “haunted” by a programme that personally resonated with or inspired them but isn’t in the final running for an Award.
Such is the case with Bryony Taylor, a priest and the assistant curate at St Michael and All Angels Church in Houghton-le-Spring, who helped shortlist in this year’s Interview category. In a vlog, originally posted and which you can watch on her own website, Bryony drew inspiration from “A Thousand Words” with Iain Campbell, a programme made by GRF Christian Radio for the smallVOICE podcast.
Iain Campbell is a portrait painter and Artist in Residence at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow city centre. In this interview he talks about his painting ‘Our Last Supper‘.
Inspired, Bryony used the painting to inform her own meditation for Lent.
This is a painting imagining a modern day Last Supper – Jesus with his disciples around a table. The figures in the painting are the men that attend a homeless charity in Glasgow. Our images of Jesus and the disciples are often sanitised. We have images of men in long flowing robes with beards and halos walking around. In reality, Jesus based his ministry in the forgotten North East of a forgotten part of the Roman Empire. The back of beyond, literally. He chose as the people to spend his time with, those on the edge of the community. The people excluded by others. The poor fishermen scratching a living on the shores of Lake Galilee. A young man that was part of a terrorist cell seeking to resist the Roman occupation. A hated employee of the government, a tax collector. Not to mention various women, some of whom had a history of mental health problems, others who were wealthy widows who put the lads up when they were visiting from town to town.
Look at this painting.
Many people ask which one of the men is Jesus. But the artist deliberately left it unclear. Judas had to go over in the Garden of Gethsemane and embrace Jesus to let the guards know which one Jesus was; it wasn’t obvious which of them was Jesus.
Where do you see Jesus?
Do you see him in different places, in different people?
The artist chose to paint the Last Supper because Jesus said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – share a meal together to remember me. Don’t remember me in the isolation of the cross, all alone. Remember me among friends, around a table, enjoying food together. This is how I want you to remember me.
Our thanks to smallVOICE, Iain Campbell and Bryony for sharing their work with us. It’s worth knowing both that you can see the original of Iain’s painting at The Wild Olive Tree café in Glasgow and that Bryony is the author of the book ‘More TV Vicar?‘ a enthusiast’s romp through the annals of British television to discover what Christians on television say about our attitudes to religion and the religious.
I’ll never forget the first ever conversation I had with the nervous man who would end up editing a series of documentaries about religion I was making.
“Nice to meet you”, he said before apologising, “I’m afraid I’m not very religious.”
“Not religious” I replied, “or not interested in religion.”
Because, while I can understand why people might make a connection, they’re not exactly the same thing are they?
And yet, years later, I still find myself having versions of the same conversation with colleagues. Which surprises me because how can a journalist, documentary or factual programme-maker NOT be interested in religion? What a person believes – or doesn’t believe – so often directly informs the decisions they make, the places they live, the people they know, who they vote for, what they’re willing to fight for, how they identify their sense of ‘self’ even, sometimes, the football team they support.
Open any newspaper and whether it’s a story about how evangelical churches and the right-to-life movement helped secure the presidency for Trump, fears of how anti-Semitism has infected UK party-politics, a story about why ISIS have been targeting Yazidis or why so many North Nigerian schoolgirls remain in captivity, religion matters. And these stories cannot be properly told or understood unless the people who are reporting on them properly consider religion.
There were programmes about the big stories like the war in Syria or the European refugee crisis, but smaller, more personal stories, too, about coming out or the death of a loved one. What all these programme had in common was that none of them shied away from the fundamental journalistic questions: Who are we? How do we identify our place in the world? What do I believe or choose not to believe? And how has this informed the life I live? Questions bound up with religion, ethics, morality, spirituality, call it what you will – they’re all interesting.
Fortunately for me (not to mention the broadcaster we were working for), it turned out that nervous editor was, in fact, very interested in religion. And, if I dare say so myself, we made some good, thought-provoking, timely programmes together.
So… What about you?
Have you made a great programme that explores some of those fundamental questions? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you should probably enter for an Award.
And: are you interested in religion?
If so, then you’ve probably got what it takes to win one.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the BBC. What with BBC Charter renewal and the government’s proposed “major overhaul” of how the nation’s broadcaster is run and regulated, rumours about the future of in-house production, digital platforms and fears over the practicality of the BBC licence fee – the BBC’s is being forced to articulate it’s vision for the future. So where does religious broadcasting fit in? And how seriously do BBC managers take religious literacy? Roger Bolton is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “Feedback” programme and a Sandford St Martin trustee. In his blog, below, a version of which was first published on the Royal Television Society’s website, he argues that if the BBC and other broadcasters don’t improve their coverage of religion, they’ll be missing out on modernity.
“My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong”. Simon Schama, historian.
In this, if in little else, Mr Schama and I have something in common. Born in the same year, I was also carried along on the wave of 60’s optimism which assumed everyone was basically good, life was getting better for all, and reason would triumph. As an historian, and a Jew, Simon Schama of course knew this was an illusion, yet even he misread the importance of faith in the modern world.
When I became a BBC journalist I was encouraged to read books about subjects like Ireland and the trade unions and learn about the City. No one ever mentioned the Shia/Sunni split. Indeed in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after exile, I did not know which branch of Islam he belonged to or why it mattered so much. (Shia, since you ask, and what followed his return was the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and just about everything that has happened in the Middle East since.).
Today religious literacy is vital for everyone involved in broadcasting.
Lyse Doucet BBC News’ chief international correspondent says this. “Sadly, distortions of religious belief and texts are used as political weapons in many conflicts as well as clashes over traditional beliefs and practices. That requires us to know more about the tenets of major religions and systems of belief, to be able to assess and analysis different interpretations”.
In the Sunday Times the journalist A A Gill wrote, “Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life. Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity”.
In June this year, in a keynote speech at the 2016 Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called on the BBC to treat religion “with the same seriousness as other genres like sport, politics, economics or drama”. He went on, “The promotion of religious literacy should be a specific duty for the BBC across its broadcasting services”.
The BBC has six public purposes set out by Royal Charter. For some of us the promotion of religious literacy ought to be a seventh such purpose.
Such literacy is not only necessary to understand the world beyond our shores.
Christianity made this country. It is impossible to understand fully our politics and our culture, painting, sculpture, poetry and drama, indeed our new Prime Minister, without understanding the Christian faith.
And it impossible to understand the country we are becoming without understanding the beliefs of those who have immigrated here. The 2011 census recorded that there were 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, or 4.4% of the population. (Those figures will have increased in the last 5 years.) For many, perhaps most Muslims, their faith is the most important thing in their lives. How must they regard journalists who know little of their most cherished beliefs and who do not have the knowledge to challenge those who distort their faith?
So, how well are we broadcasters doing?
The picture is decidedly mixed. There are some cracking programmes being made, as the shortlist for this year’s Sandford St Martin Awards showed, but fewer of them. Entries were welcome from news, current affairs, factual, arts, music, drama, children’s and comedy genres – as well as from teams producing specifically “religious” commissions. This year’s TV winner was “My Son the Jihadi” made by True Vision Productions for Channel 4 . In 2011 Sally Evans made a devastating discovery: her son Thomas had left their home in a Buckinghamshire village and travelled to Somalia to join a deadly Islamist terrorist group. The film charted, with immense sensitivity, her subsequent attempts to understand what had happened to her son and to come to terms with his death. Had it been better if he had never been born?
The Radio Times Readers’ award went to a very different sort of programme, BBC1’s “Call the Midwife”, and the Trustees award to Joan Bakewell for her lifelong commitment to ethical enquiry in programmes like “Heart of the Matter” and “The Ethics Committee” which enabled her to explore, with judicious impartiality, the most interesting ethical dilemmas of our age.
But if the quality is high the volume is getting lower.
Take Channel 4. According to OFCOM, its spending on religious broadcasting dropped from £49 million in 2008 to £20 million in 2013 (the latest figures we have). This period coincided with Channel 4’s decision to dispense with the role of Commissioning Editor for Religion and the elimination of any religious programming quota.
At ITV the position is even worse. Spending on religious programme commissions dropped from £40 million in 2008 to £2 million in 2013. (Yes £2 million.)
So much therefore depends on our main public service broadcaster, the BBC. How well is it doing?
It makes some good programmes, and has outstandingly well informed journalists like Lyse Doucet and Ed Stourton, but it seems to have little or no strategy, is in an organisational muddle, and seems to place religious broadcasting well down its list of priorities.
This may be a harsh judgement, and it would be wonderful if the BBC would produce the facts to contradict it, but consider the following, worrying, evidence.
(a) OFCOM described religious programming as one of several “immediate issues” of concern in its July 2015 report “Public Service in the Internet Age”. The reference was highlighted in the BBC’s own Charter Review report of September 2015, “British Bold Creative: the BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter”. But the 99 page Corporation document made no further reference to religion – the only programme genre of “immediate issues” which got no mention in its proposals for the next Charter period.
(b) Aaqil Ahmed. officially the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, has had his commissioning power taken away from him. TV religious programmes are now commissioned by a non specialist responsible for several other genres, science, business and history.
(c) In BBC News there are Editors for a vast range of areas including consumer affairs, the arts, and sport as well as politics and economics and a host of others. Religion does not have such a senior figure able to influence editorial policy, and its correspondent has to make do with a part time producer, though that may change.
QUESTIONS FOR THE BBC
In the light of this apparent vacuum, the Sandford St Martin trust has been trying to get answers from the BBC to three key questions.
- Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quality, and quantity of religious coverage?
- Are BBC commissioners and programme makers issued with specific objectives or goals aimed at helping ensure informed coverage of the range of religious beliefs and practices in the UK?
- Regarding BBC news, does the BBC agree that in order for good journalism to flourish in this sensitive but crucial area, the same resources and expertise are necessary as in other areas? If so why is there no Religion Editor?
Perhaps the BBC has detailed answers to these questions. If so, could they let us know?
For 2016 the Sandford St Martin Awards have benefitted from the expertise and enthusiasm of a particularly distinguished group of judges and short-listers. Bryony Taylor, the author of ‘More TV Vicar‘ (a book that gets under the dog-collar of some of the best known religious characters on television) and a curate in Durham is one of them. Such is her dedication to duty that she not only cheerfully watched each and every TV programme entered for an award this year but she agreed, in the run up to the Awards ceremony on 8th June, to share with us (and you) some of her highlights. Our deepest thanks to her and her fellow adjudicators. This blog first appeared on her own website where you can find out more about Bryony and her work.
This year I was invited to help shortlist for the Sandford St Martin Awards – an awards scheme for excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion, ethics or spirituality. The shortlisting process involved watching a lot of television (obviously) that covered themes as wide ranging as Joan of Arc, Muslim Drag Queens and Srebrenica.
I think broadcasting that covers themes of religion, ethics and spirituality is only going to become more important in our current times. You have only to see some views espoused on social media or down the pub about religion and belief to realise how ill-informed most people are (and I include myself in that). Despite the decline of print media and even the decline in live television viewing – most of us still consume a lot of television – we simply do this via catch-up now or streaming services or saving up for a box set. Levels of religious literacy in particular are at an all time low, we don’t even understand our own religious background (which floats around like a ghost in the back of our mind with a refrain of ‘he who would valiant be’ from Primary School) – let alone understand what makes a Muslim tick. Most people wouldn’t get the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ joke from the Life of Brian any more – or at least wouldn’t be able to say where the joke comes from in the Bible. So we need good religious broadcasting. We need to understand the ‘other’ better in our world of angry tweets and incendiary Facebook posts.
Fascinatingly, a lot of the programmes I watched for the shortlisting were about extremism – either Islamic extremism or forms of fascism and white supremacy. Whilst I found these quite interesting, they didn’t teach me anything new, but perhaps even hardened my view on extremism.
The programmes I found most affecting were those in which we saw ordinary people trying to live out their faith. I particularly enjoyed the Irish documentary series ‘Baz the Lost Muslim‘ about a man who had grown up in Catholic Ireland with a Catholic mother but Egyptian Muslim father who decided to explore the faith of his father for the first time at the age of 40 – he had some profound moments along the way – particularly the first time he prayed.
Another wonderful programme was a short film about Muslim style vlogger Nabiilabee meeting with ex-Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – they were sent on a mission to buy each other an outfit that worked with their own preferences – of course with modesty for the Muslim woman. This is a lovely programme which you can watch here – I particularly loved hearing Nabiilabee talking about ‘bad hijab days’! This was a really honest conversation about clothes and religious beliefs.
Another programme which showed the levels of diversity within a big religion like Islam was Muslim Drag Queens. Initially the provocative name put me off but this was a very moving documentary. The most striking part for me was when one more seasoned drag queen was teaching a new lad some moves in a night club (during the day). It came to prayer time and the younger lad was going to take his prayer mat into the corner to say his prayers. The older drag queen was horrified that his friend was happy to pray in such a place. It was fascinating – the discussion was not about their sexuality or the fact that they were drag queens but about their faith and how they live it out in Western Society. This was such a refreshing surprise – I’d love to see more programming like this. You can watch the programme on All 4 here – don’t let the title put you off!
My favourite programme which sadly wasn’t shortlisted ultimately (but got top marks from me!) was You, Me and the Apocalypse. This was a drama shown earlier in the year on Sky1. It is the most innovative drama I have seen in a long time. It benefits from having very high American drama production values and a very witty British script with a mixture of British and American actors. I think the reason it wasn’t shortlisted was that we shortlisted individual episodes, not whole series, and this is a series that really needs to be seen in its entirety and not one episode in isolation as the plot is complicated. The series is by turns hilarious, profound and moving and generates plenty of questions in the viewer. In my view it would be a great programme to watch over a few weeks as a small group from church or even as an adult confirmation course! The premise of the programme is that there is a meteor coming that will destroy the planet in 30 days and it tracks the response of a variety of characters in the UK and USA and other places whose stories begin to connect as the series progresses. I really recommend it and I was disappointed it didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak so I will sing its praises here!
I have only written here about a few of the programmes I watched. I thought it was a sad indictment of our times that so many were focused on the negative things to come out of religion or extremist beliefs. I hope that programme makers might look a bit more in the future at the more human stories of people working out what it means to live out their faith in the modern world as it is these stories we need to hear more. We all know what happens when religion goes wrong – we have the news for that – but drama and documentary makers have the opportunity to report on the real lives of believers and the complexities of being a person of faith – that is far more engaging and interesting!
If you want to know more about “More TV Vicar? Christians on Telly, the Good, the Bad and the Quirky” you can listen to an interview with Bryony here.
In this blog, the Sandford St Martin trustee, Torin Douglas reflects on the BBC’s Christmas scheduling and, in the run up to BBC Charter renewal in 2016, asks pertinent questions about what the BBC’s strategy for religion. A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Huffington Post UK.
As the Huffington Post reported this week, the BBC is under fire for the lack of original religious programming on TV this Christmas.
“BBC accused of ‘diminishing religion’ blared the headline in the Daily Express – “Only FOUR HOURS of Christian programming over Xmas”.
The paper went on: “In total, just eight hours of Christian-themed television, such as traditional carols and religious messages, is being aired over seven days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This is less than three per cent of the total and four hours of this are repeats. “
It said: “The shows include Midnight Mass, Carols From Kings, On Angel Wings by Michael Morpurgo but also two repeats, Westminster Abbey and David Suchet’s In The Footsteps Of St Paul. “
In fact that was over-generous to the BBC. The paper hadn’t spotted that ‘On Angel Wings’ was also a repeat from last Christmas.
The BBC’s religious output on TV has shrunk considerably from a decade ago, according to Mail Online: “In 2005 the broadcaster aired eight hours of Christian programming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone, the same total that is scheduled over a seven-day period this year.”
BBC TV’s lack of interest in religious broadcasting – even at Christmas – doesn’t surprise me. I’m a member of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics and morality.
In our recent submission to the BBC Trust on the review of the BBC Charter, we took the Corporation to task for its failure to take seriously – or even understand – its obligations in this area, at a time when it is widely acknowledged that religious literacy has never been more important.
We quoted, among others, the historian Simon Schama, who wrote: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong…”
Professor Schama is one of many distinguished programme-makers who have won a Sandford St Martin Trust award for the best broadcast programmes about religion, ethics and spirituality. He was a double award-winner in 2014 for The Story of the Jews on BBC Two.
And despite the apparent lack of understanding among many at the top of the Corporation, there are still some very fine programmes being made at the BBC, as our awards acknowledge.
Earlier this year we gave our Trustees Award to Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, for raising the profile of religion and the media. In her acceptance speech at Lambeth Palace, she spelled out exactly why religious understanding is now so important in coverage of world affairs.
In our submission to the BBC Trust, we urged the BBC management to take more notice of its own expert programme-makers like these.
In its July 2015 report, ‘Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age’, Ofcom identified religious programming as one of the “immediate areas of concern”. This finding is recognised and is even quoted in the BBC’s own report, ‘British Bold Creative: The BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter’ which reports on “the immediate issue” relating to
“…news consumption and the provision of news for young people, drama that reflects and portrays British society back to a British audience, content tailored to the specific needs of the UK Nations and their regions, religious programming, children’s programming and investment in other areas such as music and arts.” (emphasis ours)
The BBC goes on to declare on page 49 on that same report that: “We have designed our proposals to address these needs.”
That is the last and the only time religious programming is referred to anywhere in the entire 99 page document. In fact, religious programming is the only genre on Ofcom’s list of “immediate areas of concern” which the BBC neglects to consider, mention or even name-check in its proposals for the next Charter period.
In the Sandford St Martin Trust’s response to the BBC’s report we wrote “The complete absence of any proposals, or creative thinking, relating to this area in its document British Bold Creative does not give us any confidence that the BBC or the BBC Trust recognises its importance.”
The BBC has always held the prime responsibility to provide high-quality religious programming on television and radio in the UK. It is specified in the BBC Charter. At the Sandford St Martin Trust, we believe that this obligation is now even more important because of
(a) the need for greater understanding of religious issues, to deliver proper coverage of world affairs and community issues in the UK, and
(b) the clear market failure in religious programming on commercial channels as a result of the relaxation of the Public Service Broadcasting regime.
In our submission to the BBC Trust, we said: “The Trust believes that the withdrawal of the commercial TV channels from a core element of public service broadcasting increases the BBC’s obligation to provide such coverage; to make good the deficiency as far as possible; and certainly not to reduce its own religious programming output.”
We sent copies of our submission to the Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport and the two parliamentary committees reviewing the BBC Charter.
We identified other areas of concern in the BBC’s attitude to religious broadcasting, including the effective downgrading of the post of BBC head of religion as a result of budgetary cuts (paragraph 48). BBC TV’s Factual Commissioning division announced in January 2015 plans to merge the role of Commissioning Head of Religion with those of Science, Business and History.
We were not reassured by the short responses that our chair, the Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines, received to our letters to the BBC and BBC Trust expressing concern at this decision. We noted that they had no answer to our question: “Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of religious programming?”
We also fear that future cuts outlined in the BBC Charter Review document of September 2015 will put further strain on the BBC’s religious output (paragraph 52). In particular, we are seeking assurances that the proposal to set up a new BBC Studios production centre will not reduce the level of knowledge and expertise in the BBC’s Religion and Ethics department.
There is already seems a lack of expertise among some of those who commission TV programmes about religion and ethics at the BBC. In a recent video aimed at programme-makers which claims to explain the BBC’s Religion strategy for BBC One, religion isn’t even mentioned until 25 seconds from the end!
You can review the BBC’s religious programme schedule for Christmas 2015 here.
And you can read Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about how religious broadcasting is not just for Christmas or Easter here.
Recent blog posts
Exploring Belief: The Inaugural Religion & Media Festival
On March 27th the JW3 Centre in North London will be hosting the first Exploring Belief Festival, billed as “a fresh look at the way religion is reported in the media and new ways to cover the oldest stories at all”. Speakers on the day will include James Harding (former Director of BBC News and editor of The Times before that), Mark Thompson (former Director General of the BBC, now President and CEO of the New York Times), Mohit Bakaya (Commissioning Editor, BBC Radio 4), Fatima Salaria (BBC TV Commissioning Editor for Religion & Ethics) and Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of books, screenplays and so much more). Find out more and get tickets on their website: https://www.jw3.org.uk/event/exploring-belief-inaugural-religion-and-media-festival#.WnrZ2k27KUl