We watch a LOT of TV concerning religion, ethics or spirituality here at the Sandford St Martin Trust and so are particularly attuned to any buzz in the Twittersphere or the wider media around the portrayal of faith or the faithful on air. So it was that one of our trustees came across an open letter to the BBC from the Christian evangelist Canon J John and published on his website. Now, before you go any further, please note that at the Trust we don’t share the Canon’s opinions of the BBC’s output. Take a quick look at the shortlist for this year’s Sandford awards and you’ll find several bishops, one priest and many nuns. They appear across genres in dramas, factual and reality programmes – most of them broadcast by the BBC – and, we’d say, all of them realistically and sympathetically portrayed – which was no doubt a contributing factor to how they ended up on the Sandford St Martin shortlist in the first place. If you widen the scope of your survey even further to include people and practitioners of any faith, then you’ll find an even greater number of often nuanced and sensitive explorations of belief.
Bryony Taylor is the author of the very readable and informative “More TV Vicar?” which examines how Christians are representing on popular TV programmes and the soon-to-be Rector of Barlborough and Clowne in Derby Diocese. She has also been a stalwart of our awards shortlisting team for several years now and is something of an expert when it comes to how faith is portrayed on the telly. Her thoughts about how Christians are represented by the BBC, written in response to J John’s letter, below, was first published on her own website. She has generously given us permission to reproduce it here. If you want to read more about how “ordinary” Christians have been represented on TV then I’d recommend that part of her book dedicated to EastEnders’ Dot Cotton in addition to this blog and the readers’ replies on the Accultured website which also examine how mainstream programmes like “Suits” or “The Simpsons” deal with faith.
Representation of Christians on the BBC – my response to J John’s open letter
By Bryony Taylor
A few weeks ago Canon J John published an open letter to the BBC about its poor representation of Christians and Christianity on the BBC. He chooses two very obscure examples (a 4 minute film about motivational speaker Nic Vujicic on the London local BBC website and a documentary about Usain Bolt) to decry the fact that their Christian faith is not referred to in either programme. J John then goes on to say:
“So we come across the bumbling and inoffensive ‘More Tea Vicar’ cleric who is clearly related to Mr Bean; the sort of edgy figure apparently portrayed in the current drama Collateral who is a lesbian vicar in a relationship with a drug-taking illegal immigrant; or (perhaps increasingly) the naive ‘happy-clappy’ charismatic, untroubled by reality of any form. Where are the mainstream figures? Those people – doctors, teachers, MPs, mothers, even vicars – who have a conventional, thoughtful Christian faith and who happily live it out in their daily lives? I’m not asking for perfection but I would like representation.”
This is entirely the territory that I explore in my book More TV Vicar? I did argue at the time I wrote it that the reason we don’t see ordinary Christians portrayed on television is largely because they’re not that entertaining to watch! I’ve had to eat my words, however, a fair bit in the last year or so as we’ve seen TV series like Broken (about which I have written with some friends a forthcoming discipleship course) that not only portrays Christians but Christian worship in every single episode. Call the Midwife (to which J John does refer, somewhat reluctantly I feel) is also one of the best portrayals of ordinary people of faith on television – and this has a very large audience. We had A Vicar’s Life – a four part documentary about the lives of 4 priests in rural Herefordshire on the BBC in January. This last year we have seen quite a high proportion of Christians on the BBC and largely from a very positive perspective. It makes me wonder what J John is watching. I’d like to know the programmes in which he’s seen the bumbling vicar stereotype recently – I haven’t seen one for years. J John also complains about Thought for the Day suggesting that the (Christian I presume) speakers believe less than their listeners (which is just an absurd claim). Thought for the Day is not a spot for evangelism: it’s a privileged 3 minutes taken out of a 3 hour programme to allow for just that: something that will stimulate thought about the things of the spirit
The BBC are actually working quite hard (as outlined in this article here) to respond to the perceived ‘anti-Christian’ bias through their Easter programming which includes Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago – about some celebrities walking the Camino together.
I’m not quite sure where J John is coming from in writing this open letter. He refers (slightly skirting around the topic) to LGBTQ issues and Christianity – I think implying that he thinks that Christians who are not affirming of LGBTQ people should be able to have a voice and treated with respect. What he perhaps is feeling uncomfortable about is that non-affirming Christians are beginning to be in the minority now, even in evangelical circles. He also brings out the old chestnut ‘you wouldn’t say that about Islam’.
I can’t help but feel that there is an element of the adage ‘when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’ about this open letter. Just because other religions are handled on television too doesn’t mean that Christianity is being ‘airbrushed out’ or deliberately ignored. It reminds me of how when I began my ministry coming into a parish with a female rector and associate priest (meaning that I’m in an all-female ministry team) of how some people said to me ‘that doesn’t sound very healthy’ – completely forgetting the fact that for centuries every single ministry team has been all male and no one ever felt that would be ‘unhealthy’.
J John’s demands at the end of the letter are as follows:
“To conclude, what would I say we Christians are asking for from the BBC? I think we are asking for three things. First, we would like fairness: can we be treated in the same way as other faiths are treated? Second, we would like courage: a decision to present both Christianity and Christians as they exist in reality (past and present) rather than by ignoring or stereotyping them. Third, we would like to see an earnestness that would look at the issues of faith with intelligence and insight. Can we be treated seriously? Please?”
I would suggest that the BBC are already doing most of this. Being on the shortlisting panel for the Sandford Awards has given me a great opportunity to view some superb religious programming – much of it from the BBC. I would suggest J John and those who agree wholeheartedly with his letter have a look at this year’s nominees for the Sandford Awards and see how Christians are far from being ignored and how issues of faith are looked at with intelligence and insight on British television.
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/
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?
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
- Researching religion under lockdown December 1, 2020
- How have broadcast and social media been used to support faith during the COVID-19 pandemic? November 12, 2020
- God on TV October 24, 2020
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