Has the BBC Kept the Faith? (An update)

Five years ago, the BBC pledged to ‘raise its game’ in religious broadcasting. In a ‘Review of Religion and Ethics’ programming, it said it would: increase coverage of religion, particularly of non-Christian faiths; introduce faith-related storylines into popular drama and greater religious understanding into news reporting; and create a global team of reporters with religious expertise, under its first religion editor.

Torin Douglas was the BBC’s media correspondent for 24 years. He is now a Sandford St Martin trustee and is actively involved in the development of the Trust’s broadcasting awards and its strategy. He is also a member of the BBC Pensioners Assocation (BBC PA) and was asked by them to reflect on and review the BBC’s latest religious and ethical output for their most recent newsletter, published just before Christmas 2022. With their permission, a slightly amended version of that column is published below.

by Torin Douglas, first published December 2022

Last  Christmas, I asked if  the  BBC  had  realised its strategy for religious and ethical programming and concluded that its 2017 Review had been a false dawn. So, I’m pleased to report that in 2022 the BBC made progress on several fronts.

Most visibly successful was its TV and radio coverage of the death of the Queen, which in 10 days of sustained wall-to-wall programming was steeped in faith, culminating in the flawless coverage of the funeral. This was widely praised as a triumph, even by newspapers that are normally the BBC’s biggest critics. Opponents of the monarchy argued there should have been more questioning of the institution but the BBC said this was not the moment – and millions agreed.

The BBC’s new religion editor is the well-qualified Aleem Maqbool who has worked for the Corporation for nearly 20 years, most recently as the North America correspondent since 2014. He has also been Pakistan correspondent and Gaza/West Bank correspondent. BBC critics complained he was a Muslim, like several of its appointments in religious broadcasting in recent years; they asked whether a Christian could not have been found for the job? But the Revd Dr Christopher Landau, a former religious-affairs correspondent for the World Service, wrote on Twitter: “After many months of waiting . . . a trusted, experienced and admired correspondent has been appointed to this vital role.”

Last month, the Radio 4 Today programme was praised for its coverage from the Hindu temple in Southampton, where Rishi Sunak, the UK’s first Hindu prime minister, grew up. Veteran defence correspondent Robert Fox tweeted: “Terrific last segment of BBC Today this morning — serious but not depressing ! Amol on Rishi’s faith, Martha with Maggie O’Farrell on Hamnet — provoking and uplifting. Great listening — please Listen Again if you have time.”

The BBC’s 2022 Easter programming this year also showed greater ambition to reacher a wider audience than last year, marking not just Easter but other key faith festivals, including Holi, Ramadan, Vaisakhi, Passover, Eid and Vesak Day. Special editions of Celebration Kitchen, to mark Holi and Eid, continued this series’ exploration of the importance of food in many faiths, in a deep but very accessible way. And the powerful Pilgrimage series returned to BBC Two with seven new pilgrims following in the footsteps of the sixth century Irish monk, Saint Columba.

A new five part TV series called A Believer’s Guide, followed people as they navigate major moments in life, such as dealing with loss, becoming a parent or growing older, exploring what faith has to offer during such significant times of change. Digital cut downs of the series were made available across the BBC’s social platforms, to reach a wider audience.

The BBC dominated the Sandford Awards, winning the TV/ Video award with Brotherhood: The Inner Life of Monks on BBC Four, the Journalism award with Panorama: Is the Church racist? (BBC One and BBC iPlayer), the Young Audience award with This Girl’s Changed (BBC Three and BBCiPlayer) and the Radio Times Readers award with Jimmy McGovern’s Time (BBC One). https://sandfordawards.org.uk/2022-award-winners/

But it still could do more. There is a stylish ‘Faith and Hope’ section on the BBC iPlayer showcasing 25 of its religious programmes – but it omits dozens of potential candidates, including ‘Songs of Praise’ and many excellent films from the archive. It is underpromoted and hidden in the ‘Lifestyle’ section – and there is no equivalent ‘one-stop-shop’ on BBC Sounds as there used to be on BBC Radio Player.

Five years on from the pledges of Christmas 2017, there is progress – but potential to do so much more.