The Church of England has just published its response to the BBC Trust’s consultation regarding its review of Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 7. The element of the response that has caught the eye of the media is the appeal for the creation of the post of BBC Religion Editor to cover radio, TV and online news output, arguing that there is “no logical distinction between the genre of arts, science and business and that of religion, the landscape of which likewise demands a ‘trusted guide’ for both internal and external stakeholders”.
We urge the Trust and Executive to give serious consideration to this proposal; one that is intended as much for the benefit of people of no particular faith as for those of faith.
This is not an original call. Roger Bolton, BBC presenter of great renown, articulated an identical call in his speech to the Sandford St Martin Awards back in May 2010 - a speech that provoked a great deal of media interest both in and beyond the BBC itself. Roger said:
When the much maligned John Birt (I never thought I would utter those words) set about restructuring BBC news and current affairs in a somewhat blunt and perhaps unnecessarily bloody way, he correctly identified a real weakness in the coverage of finance and business. His solution was to create BBC Editors with real budgets and power at the heart of the news machine and with guaranteed access to the airwaves. Hence Jeff Randall and now Robert Preston, who have transformed the coverage.
I believe BBC News similarly requires a Religion Editor, able to appear on the networks to interpret the latest religious story at home and abroad, but more importantly to bring a religious perspective to the vast range of areas such as foreign affairs and medical dilemmas where that perspective is so often, and so bafflingly, absent, both on air AND behind the scenes in internal editorial discussions.
Now, no doubt this will provoke the secularists again as it appears to represent special pleading by Christians for more ‘religious’ programmes. This, however, is a big mistake. In the same way that the BBC decided that some elements of the world’s news need to be understood and explained – interpreted – , so the religious perspective needs similar treatment.
Whatever one thinks about the ‘content’ of any religion – or, indeed, its validity – what cannot be disputed is the impact that religion (as a phenomenon), religious world views (as lenses through which billions of people interpret the world and human experience), and religious practice have on that world. I might think some of it is loony or perverse. I might find it incredible that people can think and live the way they do – or treat other people as they do. But not liking it is not the same as understanding it or acknowledging it as a reality.
A Religion Editor would not be there to propagate or evangelise (thank God), but to explain, interpret and educate. Think how different things might have been if the 9/11 media coverage had had such a person who actually understood Islam before the crime was committed.
Such a person might also offer some advocacy for those who feel constantly misrepresented by media coverage of religion or of religious perspectives on world events. I know this will raise temperatures among those who believe Rchard Dawkins is infallible and fundamentally inerrant (and I know his current programmes are broadcast from the Channel 4 stable, not the BBC), but we might be spared some of the nonsense that gets through the editors’ desks when it comes to religion.
During the making of his latest programme (against faith schools) Dawkins was apparently surprised to visit a Church of England school comprising 95% Muslim children. Despite a full interview with Jan Ainsworth (Church of England Director of Education), he omitted from the final cut any evidence that contradicted the conclusions from which he had started his programme. That’s fine as evangelistic polemic, but it isn’t very ‘scientific’ – which involves looking at the evidence and deriving conclusions (however provisional) from that. (Jan Ainsworth writes about this on a blog.)
OK, I have confused two things here. The call for a Religion Editor is about helping all people understand the world and the news better (regardless of belief about it); the Dawkins stuff is a call for more intelligence and evenhandedness in what is commissioned. The God Delusion is about to hit our screens; I wonder if The Dawkins Delusion would ever be commissioned to follow or accompany it?
This is not about ‘my’ worldview being vindicated in the media – or even being ‘given space’; rather, it is fundamentally about treating the viewing public as intelligent people capable of (a) listening to a proper debate before making their minds up, (b) having their prejudices and assumptions challenged and (c) being shown the best of such intelligent debate rather than the worst of lazy polemic.