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Anna McNamee

Not sure you’ve got what it takes to win a Sandford St Martin Award in 2017? Read this…

 

lyse-hejira

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.

And if you need any further proof that religion is interesting, just have a look at the programmes that were shortlisted and what went on to win last year’s Sandford Awards.

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.

Is Religious Broadcasting Fit for Purpose?

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.


ON AIR

“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.

ABROAD

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.

HOME

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 RECORD

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?

THE BBC

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.

  1. Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quality, and quantity of religious coverage?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

 

What I learnt watching telly for @sandfordawards

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.

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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.

Torin Douglas

Why is the BBC so uninterested in religion?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Anna McNamee

Interesting Times: the results of our online “religious, spiritual and ethical broadcasting” poll are in

“May you live in interesting times!” are the words ancient Chinese sages apparently used to curse their enemies. Somewhat inauspicious then, perhaps, that they’re also the words that sprung most readily to mind when I reviewed the results of the Sandford St Martin Trust’s first public survey on the state of religious, ethical and spiritual broadcasting today. “Interesting times”, after all, are rarely peaceful or settled times. Rather, they are periods prone to insecurity, instability, confusion and change – which pretty much sums up the dilemmas facing contemporary broadcasting – not least, those facing what’s identified as “religious” broadcasting.

Recent years have seen religious coverage and programming evolve radically both in form and content. Propelled in part by a rash of geo-political conflict where religion and religious issues are being used around the world as rallying calls for violence, the average citizen is probably exposed to more news broadcasting and media about religion and religious identity now than ever before.   Consider this alongside the revolution in broadcasting technology which means that “traditional” media now competes for audiences with rapidly growing satellite, cable, online, user-generated, user-propagated, non-regulated, 24/7, niche broadcasting services – among others – and it becomes clear that the familiar and comforting broadcasting “auntie” of old has got some very young and noisy upstart nephews and nieces.

“Interesting” times, indeed.

Will the current climate form the basis for a renaissance in religious broadcasting? If the response to our recent “Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?” session at Sheffield Doc/Fest is any indication, then there are some programme-makers, producers and commissioners who think so. Others are more cynical and believe that their practice is being steadily undermined by both an increasingly competitive broadcasting ecology and a culture that denigrates the spiritual. Listen to the vox pop recorded by the student-journalist Lucy Wilson at Sheffield and you’ll get a sense of the mix of opinion out there.

Which brings us back to our survey. Response percentages have been published here in our Briefings section, and, while the survey sample was small and can only begin to tell part of a story, I think what appeared under the “any other comments” section was particularly telling. These comments, I believe, raise some very pertinent issues – issues that should be at the heart of any discussion about whether or not the UK needs more or less religious broadcasting. Many respondents wanted to talk about the mixed quality of religious broadcasting as well as about quantity. Some lamented what they identify as a general decline in religious “literacy”. And there was a call for religious programme-makers to “drag religion up to date using new media”. “Grey hair can mean grey opinion”, one respondent wrote.

Another comment in response to the question “Should religious, ethical and spiritual programming be ring-fenced within public sector broadcasting?” echoed a chord. It went: “My answer… depends on how you define a religious programme as compared with a programme that has religion in it. For example, is it more powerful to have a Christian boy band win Britain’s Got Talent (watched by millions) than to have a programme about the Bible/Torah/Koran? Or have Corrie deal with religious discrimination rather than a programme about religious discrimination?”

Good question.

When Ralph Lee, Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer, was asked to name a good example of religious broadcasting at the Trust’s Edinburgh TV Festival debate last year, he chose Gogglebox. Gogglebox regularly features the bubbly and loquacious Rev Kate Bottley on one of its sofas and Ralph’s point was that programmes like this give a new, different, colloquial or even mundane perspective on the Church and/or someone living a life of faith that is often missing from loftier-themed religious programming. Polly Toynbee, who was speaking at the same event, claimed calling something like Gogglebox “religious” was cheating.

What do you think? How broad a church (if you’ll forgive the obvious metaphor) should what we call religious or spiritual or ethical broadcasting be? In these “interesting” times, which for broadcasters and programme-makers are full of instability, insecurity, confusion and change, we’d like to hear your opinion.  Drop us a line by commenting here or e-mailing admin@sandfordawards.org.uk