Religious broadcasting in a changing world

The face of religious Britain is evolving. Research suggests over the last two decades there has been a dramatic decline in the proportion of people who identify with Christianity, a substantial increase in those with no religious affiliation, and a steady increase in those belonging to non-Christian faiths. Against this back drop we’re producing a panel discussion What is the point of religious broadcasting?  in partnership with the Bradford Literature Festival. As a taster the column below was written by Aaqil Ahmed: Professor of Media at the University of Bolton, media consultant, a former head of religion and ethics at the BBC and commissioning editor of religion at Channel 4 and a Sandford St Martin trustee.

by Aaqil Ahmed, 17 June 2022

EUROPE is described by many today as in a “post-Christian” period, when the importance of religion in society is being eroded, the number of adherents is dwindling, and there are shockingly low levels of religious literacy. Whether you accept this or not, however, much of the rest of the world is not in a post-religious period: for many, it is as important as it has always been.

Through technology and migration, the rest of the world is with us in Europe, creating a diversity of faiths and a fast-growing Muslim presence. Most migrants are from countries where religion is still firmly in the public space, and is not seen as a bit weird or as the preserve of people who seek to ram it down others’ throats.

This raises the question to what extent broadcasters in this country understand this and relate to it. Do the programmes on offer reflect the changes in diversity of Christian congregations, or accept the fact that the numbers of Muslims in this country probably mean that it is untenable for them no longer to have their own programmes, particularly on a public funded network such as the BBC?

Do programmes help to deliver better religious literacy to a society that is proud of its religious illiteracy, and do they help to diffuse conflict or ultimately make it worse?

OPINIONS vary, and balancing all of the various interests is difficult. But to hide religion, downgrade it, and not smell the coffee when it comes to demographic change is not an option.

In a few decades, about 30 per cent of the UK population will be from migrant backgrounds — and broadcasters need to catch up with the fact that religion is important to many of these people. Will these groups feel the need to support the licence fee if they feel that they are not treated equally, or join in and chant the mantra that Channel 4 is the home of minority programming?

During my time, I have seen the changes in approaches to religion at various networks. Today, as in the past, they say that they want more flexibility about how and when they cover religion. I understand this, especially for popular commercial channels. Public-service broadcasting, however, has a duty to reflect the fact that religion remains important to a significant proportion of the population. Instead of a dilution of religious output in the pursuit of ratings, I would like to see more programmes that explore the difficulties that many face in being religious in a country that is increasingly hostile to religion.

Besides, I have never understood the ratings argument. Yes, there are shows that are not ratings winners, but, generally, good-quality religious programming does no worse, if not better, than other similar areas; this is especially true of documentaries that address big stories, or have great access and characters. When industry folk talk about religion as being a failing genre (which I do not believe it is), it needs to be asked whether they apply the same thinking to other genres.

The demographic issue is, of course, not UK-wide, but more acute in specific localities. Again, rather than cut back religious programming, broadcasters should target it at specific areas, to make it more relevant

ACROSS all faiths, technology is stepping in where mainstream broadcasters seem reluctant to tread, with bespoke channels, social media, and digital offerings. Advances in digital technology mean that, on radio, TV, and online, people can be served in ways that they want, be they ethnically specific or as part of global religious communities. The offerings on the variety of platforms range from current affairs to religious services or drama. Education is often at the core, as is charity.

This is not the future: it is now. Broadcasting networks should follow the example of technological platforms by giving a voice to those who are qualified to comment on religion, but do not seem to get the bookings on mainstream TV, and by addressing subjects in a manner that does not sensationalise to attract an audience who, it is said, “don’t care or understand religion”.

The recent car crash of an item on Newsnight on the film The Lady of Heaven is a case in point. The film, which claims to tell the story of Lady Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, has sparked protests in the UK and other countries.

On Newsnight, the level of analysis amounted to two people trading insults that will have left the general audience thinking, once again, that religion is weird and irrelevant. The story of people demanding boycotts of a film that they feel is sectarian and likely to sow division is important on several levels, but, to me, it was handled in completely the wrong way, with at least one questionable booking.

That said, religious groups’ talking to themselves in silos is not an option on its own. We have to have a variety of offerings, especially to counterbalance the vitriol to be seen in some newspapers, which is now creeping in via new channels.

For more information about the “What is the point of religious broadcasting?”, at the Bradford Literature Festival, on Saturday 25 June, click here.

This column first appeared in The Church Times on 17 June, 2022.