Lambeth palaceLast night I chaired the 31st Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace – the first event since I took over chairmanship of the Trust (set up in 1978 to encourage excellence in religious broadcasting) last year. The awards event brought together writers, producers, presenters and the creative teams who produced some of the finest religious broadcasting of the last year or so. The quality and range of submitted programmes was heartening and the shortlisted line-up was excellent. I quote from the press notice:

For the second year running readers of Radio Times voted Anglican vicar, Peter Owen Jones, their favourite – this time in his worldwide search for and participation in 80 expressions of faith.  Around the World in 80 Faiths was produced by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC1.

 The search for raw talent amidst the run-down Manchester estate of Harpurhey won the Trust’s Premier award for religious television with Miracle on the Estate made by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC 1 on Good Friday 2008.  Tim Gardam, chair of judges, said it “drew its viewers into the lives of others by the artless authenticity of the characters on the estate”, as, guided by a poet, a composer and a producer they constructed, rehearsed and performed a play about Noah and the flood.

 By contrast, professional excellence was the hallmark of the Premier religious radio winner, Tested, episode 4 of the collaborative series Witness, broadcast on Radio 4.  Nick Warburton’s dramatisation, based on the gospel of Luke, was “brilliantly acted and directed” and followed by a feature examining aspects of the story which was “a fine complement” to the play, said Gillian Hush.

 Television runners-up were episode 3 of The Passion, Frank Deasy’s dramatisation of Jesus’ trial and death, shown on BBC1, and Antony Thomas’s exploration of the history and importance of The Qur’an, broadcast on Channel 4.  The Merit prize was awarded to the Channel 4 programme which examined the scourge of superstition in Africa, Saving Africa’s Witch Children.

 Radio’s runner-up was Christmas Awakening, personal reflections by a poet, a musician and a minister on Christmas, broadcast on BBC Scotland, and the merit awards went to Heart and Soul: Fatwas, a BBC World Service programme explaining the real meaning of fatwas, and to Let Us Pod – Bereavement, a personal reflection originally made for the Roman Catholic diocesan of Clifton website, subsequently broadcast on BCfm Community Radio for Bristol.

RT2009My speech and a record of the event can be downloaded from the Sandford St Martin website. Both BBC Religion & Ethics and Channel 4 did themselves proud. The creative range of material commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed at Channel 4 augurs well for BBC as he moves into his new role as Head of the Department and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV. His appointment was announced recently alongside that of the promotion of Christine Morgan to Executive Editor and Head of Religion Radio. I assume that those being vociferously critical of Ahmed’s appointment will be equally critical of Morgan’s? (Don’t hold your breath!) I think we are in for interesting times and I look forward to seeing the range of programming being commissioned in the next few years.

The programmes that won awards need to be watched and heard. The most shocking was Saving Africa’s Witch Children – which followed Englishman Gary Foxcroft  as he raises money to help Nigerian Sam Itauma care for children who have been violently exorcised after being accused of witchcraft.  Gary is also trying to get the local government to protect them from the “Christian” pastors undertaking such exorcisms. It was hard to watch ‘Christians’ treat children with such cruelty (involving ostracism, murder, torture and prolonged neglect) – making one wonder what sort of Christianity it can be that mixes wild superstition with Pentecostalism.

I was asked what the Anglican Church in Nigeria is doing to counter such superstitious cruelty and could not answer. I will be pursuing this, though.

The great thing about the programmes on Fatwas and the Quran was that they genuinely explored difficult material in a sensitive but inquisitive way. The root assumption was that the audience knew little or nothing and had to be enlightened before any critique could be brought to bear. In both cases it worked superbly. If I have any wish for how Christianity might be treated in the media, it would simply be that this pattern be followed more often. It is too often assumed that we can go straight for the critique or challenge – on the assumption that ‘everybody’ knows the Christian story and what Christianity is all about. That simply is no longer true.

I would hope that critique and inquisition might follow after explanation and exploration, rather than merely assuming that explanation is not necessary.