Torin Douglas

Escaping the religious ghetto

When was the last time God was discussed at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

Don’t wrack your brains too hard. It was August this year.

That may come as a surprise to some TV producers and broadcasters, but the topic of religious broadcasting – and its growing importance for any understanding of foreign affairs – has come back into the mainstream, after years when the TV world, politicians and regulators preferred not to think about it.

The Edinburgh debate, God: TV’s Holy Grail?, got one of the best audience responses at the festival. It was sharply produced and had a great panel. Radio 4 Feedback presenter Roger Bolton was pitted against Polly Toynbee of the British Humanist Association, with expert comment and strong views from the BBC’s head of religion and ethics Aaqil Ahmed; Channel 4’s deputy chief creative officer Ralph Lee; and Tony Jordan, who, in addition to EastEnders and Ashes to Ashes, has adapted Bible stories for The Nativity and upcoming series The Ark.

If you wondered how religion forced its way back onto the agenda, you can thank – or blame – the Sandford St Martin Trust, which sponsored the event.

The Trust has been giving awards for excellent religious broadcasting for more than 35 years. Winners have included Professor Simon Schama for his BBC2 series The Story of the Jews, Danny Boyle, Ian Hislop, Howard Jacobson, David Suchet, Rageh Omaar, Melvyn Bragg, Sally Magnusson, Mark Tully, Tony Robinson and the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The Trust now campaigns for a greater understanding of the importance of religious broadcasting, helped by its winners and judges.

In an article headlined ‘Broadcasters must have faith in religious TV’, Ian Hislop wrote recently in Radio Times: “There are few richer repositories of stories than the world’s faiths and the extraordinary ways that human beings have attempted to find meaning through them.”

Simon Schama, who won this year’s Sandford TV Award, says views towards religion in the UK are changing. Having growing up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, he has now been proved “more and more wrong”, he claims,

Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, who chaired this year’s Sandford TV panel, praised the entries for taking religion out of the ghetto and, instead, reflecting the way that it touches history, current affairs and ordinary lives.

But he said the British media suffered from a “blind spot” about the importance of religion around the world and this damaged its news coverage. “Religious illiteracy” could, he said, lead to serious journalistic mistakes and warned programme-makers: “Never ignore the power of religion – you don’t have to like religion, but do take it seriously.”

Entries have now opened for the 2015 Sandford Awards – and, for the first time, there will be an award for children’s programmes which improve understanding of religion or moral or ethical issues. There should be no shortage of entries.

First published in 14 November 2014

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