2019 has been singled out as the BBC’s Year of Beliefs. In this blog Torin Douglas, Sandford St Martin Trustee and the BBC’s former media correspondent, reflects on the progamme-schedule and asks if anything is missing.
Let us know what you think.
Why the BBC should add drama to its Year of Beliefs
It was one of several pledges made in its 2017 Review of Religion and Ethics, in which the Corporation vowed to ‘raise our game across all output’ and improve religious literacy inside and outside the BBC. The director general Tony Hall said the plans would “ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world and the role that religion plays in everyday life”.
The commitment got off to an unfortunate start last October when Radio 4 cancelled all new editions of Something Understood. Nor did the recent moving of BBC One’s Songs of Praise to a lunchtime slot bode well – though the programme’s makers have welcomed the fact that it now has a fixed place in the schedules.
So, as we approach Lent and Easter when the Corporation traditionally broadcasts much of its most significant religious output, what are the BBC’s ambitions for the Year of Beliefs and will 2019, in practice, be different from any other year in its coverage of religion and ethics?
The launch statement made all the right noises: “BBC strengthens its commitment to Religion & Ethics programming with a ‘Year of Beliefs’ across TV, radio and online.”
It “will bring Religion and Ethics programming to as wide an audience as possible, airing ambitious landmark series, powerful documentaries highlighting big moral questions, spiritual journeys of self-discovery and thought-provoking discussions and debates.
“A major new survey will be launched, exploring attitudes to contentious issues and responses to ethical dilemmas – providing insight into what we really think about the rights and wrongs of the most pressing issues of our time. We’ll also look at differences in attitude according to age, gender and broad geographical region of the UK, to get a unique snapshot of what unites and divides us.”
The Year has been endorsed from the top. Charlotte Moore, Director, BBC Content, said: “Not only do we continue to offer our audiences a place they can celebrate and share their own personal beliefs, but we also want to help them understand better the meaning of other faiths and beliefs as well as exploring important ethical issues that affect so many people’s lives.”
The landmark programmes sound promising, if not especially out of the ordinary. They include Inside the Vatican on BBC Two, “an ambitious new series with privileged access to the people who live and work in this independent city-state”. A different perspective will be offered in Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome, in which a group of celebrities embark on a journey of discovery along an ancient route from the Swiss Alps to St Peter’s Square – culminating in a private audience with Pope Francis.
Perhaps the most ambitious series is the three-part Earth’s Sacred Wonders, on BBC One, which will look at the world’s major religions and “explore the most iconic places on earth, including Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, Masada, site of one of the oldest synagogues on earth and the Sikh’s unique Golden Temple in India”. Closer to home, Welcome to the Bruderhof will offer insight into a Christian community who live together in a village near Hastings as disciples of Jesus, exploring their simple way of life, at odds with mainstream society.
Of course, these programmes weren’t commissioned with the Year of Beliefs in mind – TV production takes longer than that. Earth’s Sacred Wonders was announced several years ago and the first series of Pilgrimage ran last year, when celebrities including Neil Morrissey, Debbie McGee and the Reverend Kate Bottley followed the long road to Santiago.
The Year has started well. Programmes marking 30 years since the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa placed on its author Salman Rushdie have been reviewed enthusiastically. Radio 4’s ten-part series, Fatwa, scheduled immediately after The World At One, explored the forces which led to the 1989 fatwa and its consequences. The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On on BBC Two examined the lasting effect of the book on Britain and British Muslims.
But broadcasters love an anniversary and these programmes would have been made without a Year of Beliefs (remember the outpourings about the King James Bible in the first few weeks of 2011?). Much else trailed as part of the Year – such as Radio 2’s Faith in the World Week, Songs of Praise, The Big Questions and My Faith and Me – is regular output.
So where is the new content, justifying the billing of 2019 as a Year of Beliefs?
Britain’s Easter Story, a two-part series for BBC One Daytime, explores what Easter means to British Christians today and how it has been celebrated in the past. It “travels all over the country from the Holy Island in Northumbria, one of the earliest sites of British Christianity, to Glastonbury, home of the sacred Glastonbury Thorn, whose flower is still sent to the Queen to be used as a table setting at Christmas and Easter.”
Aled Jones takes Songs of Praise to the Holy Land for the first time, presenting two special editions on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and accompanying a choir of young Christians as they visit the key sights for the first time.
On BBC Radio 4 at Easter, Jeremy Irons will read The Psalms, and later in the year Nick Spencer will challenge assumptions about the relationship between science and religion in a three-part series Science and Religion.
The BBC says there will also be thought provoking content around important moral and ethical questions. Too Gay For God? on BBC One explores the place of the LGBTIQ+ community within the Christian faith, and the Church of England in particular. Journalist Adnan Sarwar will take a personal journey to explore the complex issues around male circumcision, and in Surrogacy with Tom Daley, the Olympic diver looks at surrogacy and the debate arounds it, an issue close to his heart as he has just become a father through surrogacy with his husband.
Perhaps the biggest sign of extra activity, alongside the major attitudes survey, is that across BBC Radio there will be ‘youth takeovers’ of programmes and podcasts, working with a panel made up of young people from a wide range of different beliefs. Asian Network’s Big Debate and Mobeen Azhar’s late evening show will look into the beliefs of young British Asians and how those differ from their parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs. There will also be purpose-built digital content across the year, from BBC World Service’s Instagram activity with young believers from around the world to bespoke content across social media and the BBC Ideas webpages.
And, alongside coverage of Easter and Christmas, in 2019 the BBC will mark other highlights from the calendar of religious festivals. Vaisakhi, Ramadan, Summer Solstice, Eid al-Adha, Rosh Hashanah and Diwali will be reflected across TV, radio and online.
So far so good. But is the BBC selling itself short if it really wants “to bring Religion and Ethics programming to as wide an audience as possible”, “highlighting big moral questions and spiritual journeys of self-discovery”?
Where is the drama? In a year that has already brought us the outstanding Les Miserables and Call The Midwife, tackling yet more difficult ethical issues, BBC dramas should form an integral part of the Year of Beliefs. How about a summer repeat for Broken, a double winner in last year’s Sandford St Martin Trust Awards, and for moral-issue dramas such as Care, The A Word and The C Word ?
The BBC should be making more of a drama out of the Year of Beliefs.
Torin Douglas is a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust
You can find out more about the programmes that will make up the BBC’s Year of Beliefs on their website by clicking here.
What do you think of the BBC’s programme schedule for it’s Year of Beliefs?
What, if anything, do you think is missing?
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