BBC


I have just seen the report in today’s Times newspaper about Lord Singh’s withdrawal from doing Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I am sorry to see this and the terms in which he frames his reasons. His voice will be missed – although I suspect he has the same questions as I do about who might pick up from the next generation in due course.

In my experience of doing Thought for the Day I have only once felt pressed to speak on a particular issue and it didn’t turn out well for me. I wanted to talk about Steven Gerrard’s retirement (theme of loyalty), but there was some interfaith issue going on and I was persuaded to do a script on Islam. Two hours after delivery the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place in Paris and the criticism/abuse online led me to shut down all social media. Of course, had I known at 7.45am that there were to be shootings later that morning, I would have done a different script; but that sort of prophecy is not a gift I have been given.

Nevertheless, I fully understood the reasoning behind the request to address the issue in my script that day. Choices have to be made. The routine is that the contributor speaks on the phone with the producer for the next day’s slot and we agree a theme. Sometimes I have several possibilities up my sleeve – sometimes I have a blank sheet. Occasionally I have already written a script (or two) – just to get my mind working. Having drafted a script, there is then usually some back-and-forth about it before it gets signed off. Sometimes I argue with changes, sometimes I don’t. Usually the producer – who knows the medium and audience better than I do – reads what might be heard by particular language and advises a change. I always listen to this and learn from it. I have never been asked to say something I don’t agree with or edit inappropriately.

And, yes, I have had the phone call ten minutes before lift-off to ask for a tweak, but always in the light of other news that might change the way certain language is heard. We then negotiate. In my experience it is always a helpful and challenging conversation.

I always come away from the microphone wondering how I might have made my point better, more entertainingly or more clearly. I occasionally think I might have chosen a different theme, given the context on the programme and the nature of the news. But, I am clear that this is not a pulpit. The job of the contributor is to shine a different light on a theme – not to preach a sermon, but to stimulate thought, reaction, reflection, and so on. (My Inbox tells me that most reaction is knee-jerk and prejudiced … and sometimes abusive, but I get some intelligent stuff, too. Occasionally I get a critical response that is really helpful and moves me on. I think that’s called ‘being grown up’, even if sometimes it is painful.

And, yes, I sometimes wish it could be sharper and provocative, but there is a fine line to be trodden.

So, I am sorry Lord Singh is finishing. I hope this won’t be used as a further reason to malign the BBC when they do a thorough and mature job in working a difficult slot with sometimes difficult and opinionated people like me.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

When the news of the royal birth was announced yesterday part of the excitement focused on the couple’s decision to break with tradition and do things their own way. And why not?

Well, this welcome royal baby arrived in a very royal week.

After a three-day coronation ceremony, I imagine the new King of Thailand is taking it a bit easier today. And I imagine I am not alone in the world outside Thailand to have observed some of the rituals on television without really understanding what was going on and why. As an outsider it was fascinating to watch, but hard to follow.

What I found most curious was the powerful appeal to tradition – tradition that goes back a very long way and roots the present vocation in a collective national, ethnic and religious memory.

One of the misconceptions about the word ‘tradition’ is that those who value it simply want to live in the past – held captive by some nostalgic notion of a golden age of simplicity and clarity that promises security.

But, tradition has to do with the collective experience and wisdom of the past which then informs and shapes the future, giving roots to the values that underlie our common life – better seen as a fanning of the flame in the present rather than a holding on to the ashes of the past.

Tradition goes deep. Having regard to the experiences and wisdom of past generations – their successes and failures, strategies and accidents – instils the caution needed if history is not to repeat itself and change is to be properly, intelligently and soberly appraised.

For example, the central section of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is addressed to a people in exile in Babylon, proclaiming the promise that freedom is coming, that exile is ending, that they will soon go home – which sounds great.

Yet, when we dig down into the reality of the exiles’ experience, the promise also becomes something of a threat. For example, what will this mean for those who were born in Babylon and for whom the place of exile is and always has been ‘home’? How will the returning exiles – immigrants – be received back in their ethnic homeland by those who never left and regard the land as theirs? How will they negotiate a common society when, having been exiled, their notions of ‘home’ might have become stuck in a nostalgic past?

In other words, the tradition might root the people in a memory, but they still have to shape today and tomorrow by facing questions none of them has had to face before.

None of this is alien to the politics of our time. Slogans that implicitly promise that we can return to a golden age of the past are, literally, fantastic. We can shape the present and future in the light of the past, but this always demands courage, corrective and competence.

This morning the BBC is publishing a review of its engagement as a public service broadcaster with religion. I warmly welcome the report and the way the review was conducted, but also have one or two questions – I will return to these later.

The key to understanding the thrust of the report lies in the introduction by Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC:

We believe that the plans we have set out will build on this to deliver an even more profound approach. They will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.

This goes to the heart of the matter. Religious broadcasting is not about proselytism or evangelism. It is about enabling people to understand the world and why it is the way it is. As the report notes, almost 85% of the world’s population has a religious faith, worldview or culture – and they derive their motivations, comprehensions and assumptions about human beings, human behaviour, place in the world, and social order from the lens through which they look.

I like the quotation now engraved in the wall of New Broadcasting House behind the statue of George Orwell:

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

And that goes for all of us.

My questions are the usual ones: who, when, how and how much. In other words, when will we see the plan that clarifies who is responsible for establishing clear means to achieve these important aims, what are the timelines for delivery, and how much resource will be committed to making sure the promises are realised?

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show on the day Leonard Cohen died. In the studio were actors Rufus Sewell and Sarah Parish, musicians Sir Cliff Richard and Emeli Sandé:

Well, it's not been a boring week on the news front, has it? And it's not bad that it will end with us looking to remember the reality of human life: often fragile, conflicted and uncertain. [As Leonard Cohen put it: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.”]

On Sunday I'll be standing in the rain – it usually rains – in Leeds as we stand in silence and bring to memory those who have lost their lives in conflict. No sentimentalism, no romanticising war, no escapism into a glorious past – just silent reflection in the face of enormous loss.

But, did you know that Sunday also has another designation? I have no idea who decides on these things, but apparently it is World Kindness Day. Really.

Now, I realise this might sound a bit out of place, given the lack of kindness that has characterised political debate and filled our headlines recently; but, don't mock it too quickly.

I reckon kindness is one of the most underrated virtues in today's world. It isn't bland or soft or feeble or weak. It isn't about namby-pambyism or avoidance of conflict. Kindness comes when, even where it isn't deserved, we dare to offer an opening to humanity and mercy, regardless of cost or reward. It is more than being nice and it can be very demanding in certain circumstances. If you want a different definition: kindness is what you usually don't see on social media when people you don't know have a big axe of aggression to grind.

Can you imagine what a kinder world would look like? Less suspicion and more openness? More generosity and less selfishness? Try it. It should come as no surprise that one New Testament writer included kindness among other hard-to-do virtues (he called them “fruits of the Spirit”) such as love, joy, peace, patience, generosity and faithfulness. None of them easy; all of them costly.

Maybe these fruits should form the pillars of the earth on which we build our lives. In the words of one of Cliff's old songs, they might also help us to travel light in a burdened world, and open space for hope to people who worry that it is all closing down on them.

Remember kindness.

 

There was a short debate in the House of Lords this afternoon on BBC Charter renewal. Allotted one hour, this meant that each speaker was limited to one minute. In the event the debate ended after 45 minutes with a good deal of frustration about process.

I wished to make three essential points for consideration, but, having agreed with points made strongly by previous speakers, limited myself to one.

There was strong support for (a) the independence of the BBC from government or political interference – an independence that must be guaranteed by establishing renewed governance that does not allow for a majority of board members to be appointed by government, (b) proper funding of the BBC by the licence fee, (c) transparency in the BBC's decision making – therefore, no deals between a pressurised Director General and the Chancellor over licence fee or who pays for pensioners, and (d) continuation of the public service remit.

I simply made a point no one else was going to make. It wasn't a matter of special pleading – were I an atheist, I would make the same point.

The BBC has three Reithian 'purposes': inform, entertain, educate. I proposed a fourth: interpret. The world needs to be interpreted, not just reported. And to do this effectively, the lens of those being reported to needs to be looked through and understood. This means that religion needs to be taken more seriously by the BBC in its future shape and remit. Religion is a primary motivator of individuals and communities, inspiring and informing their political, economic, ethical and social behaviour (probably also their emotional engagement with what is going on in the world and in them).

The BBC, therefore, needs more religion, not less. Ofcom expressed concern about just this in July 2015.

(I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and, along with others, remain concerned about this.)

The highlight of the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival is almost always the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. The 2015 lecture was delivered by Armando Iannucci, (as far as I can see) the first 'creative' to have done so for over a decade apart from Kevin Spacey.

This matters. At a time when the BBC is under review – and anyone who cares about it ought to submit a response to the current survey here – Iannucci offers a spirited defence of its uniqueness. Which other country in the world would, as a matter of principle, argue for making its leading world brand a little bit worse by cutting bits off it? There is something peculiarly British about our willingness to pull down anything that has been built up.

So, the timely, important and entertaining lecture can be read here.

Interesting comment can be read here and here. The Sandford St Martin Trust (which I chair) has further links and some useful related material here.

Debate needs to be joined, particularly by those who wish to see the BBC developed and not diminished. And I say that as one who is constantly argues with and about the BBC, especially about religious illiteracy and a certain liberal myopia.

It is worth adding that suspicions about the ideological prejudices of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are, to my mind, premature. John Whittingdale's responsibility as chair of the Select Committee in the previous regime was precisely to be a Rottweiler and push the hard challenges. He did that well. Now is a different game. We'll see what emerges as the Charter renewal process proceeds.

So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don't like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.

Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn't.

The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can't do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do the rich always prosper, why are the dice always loaded in favour of the powerful, why do the oppressors seem to get away with it? In other words, faith impacts on politics.
  2. Worship, as suggested above, does not happen in the abstract. It pours out of hearts and minds and bodies and mouths of real people – often where the realities of life are the most difficult. The Incarnation – seen particularly in the cross of Calvary – is about God opting into the reality of human life and suffering and not exempting himself from it. He comes to where the pain is most acute and does not turn away.

So, why does broadcasting from Calais cause such a wild reaction? Part of the answer lies in the ideological drum being banged by those – particularly in the media – who want to sell off the BBC and turn it into just another media outfit. Stuff the world reputation and its inherent value. But, I wonder if Calais is just too difficult for us when we feel human compassion, but intuit its clash with political preference.

If we don't like being exposed to worship from Calais, then it is for us to face the hard question of why – not simply to project this on to the soft target of the BBC.

The BBC is doing precisely what it is there for – something no other channel would do, probably. Instead of being dissed, the BBC and its producers of Songs of Praise should be praised for doing their job and doing it well.

(I have just seen Steve Chalke's good piece on the same theme here.)

 

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