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How should TV portray people of faith?

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.

 

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?