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.)



It was announced last week that the BBC is to shake up its commissioning briefs (so to speak).

According to reports, four of the BBC’s most senior commissioners will have their roles closed as part of a major overhaul of the factual division. The restructuring, which is being overseen by factual commissioning controller Emma Swain, is aimed at saving money and re-focusing the division ahead of the proposed closure of BBC3.

Basically, three-and-a-half head of commissioning roles will be removed and another created. This will result in the department having six commissioning heads, compared to eight-and-a-half currently.

The bit that interests me particularly is where this puts religion in the new scheme of things. One of the posts to go is that of Aaqil Ahmed, who currently combines being head of Religion & Ethics with being commissioning editor television.

The proposed three newly created head of commissioning roles will cover:

· Head of science, business, history and religion (specialist factual)
· Head of documentaries, current affairs and BBC3
· Head of specialist features and natural history

There will be consequences for other people involved in commissioning in the factual division.

This might all make perfect sense and be a rational and productive structural change within the BBC. But, in the absence of more detail, it also raises important questions:

Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of the religious coverage? Or will this be left as a sort of “fill in” content?
How much, and what sort of, religious programming does the BBC expect of each of its tv networks?
3. Why is there no BBC news religion editor to complement the science, economics, business, political, financial, arts and sports editors?

This is not about special pleading by religious interest groups. At a time when it is impossible to understand the modern world – its politics, economics, military and humanitarian events – without understanding religion, why is religion not being prioritised as needing expert interpretation in the public and broadcast sphere? You don’t have to have a religious bone in your body to see the need for this sort of exploration and interpretation in the media. Whether personally religious or not, religion cannot be avoided by any serious observer as a serious factor in shaping – for good or ill – the actions and motivations of people and communities.

So, where will religion sit in the company of science, business and history? And who will be well-informed enough in all four of these areas to give adequate priority to each?

My questions arise from the limited information I have read. They should not be interpreted as suspicious or negative. But, the answers to these key questions will be interesting.


I am glad I am not Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He has had to take on funding of the BBC World Service from HM Government at the same time as having to slash the BBC’s expenditure. This makes the BBC-knockers happy, but there is another side to it (apart from the ‘little englander’ let’s cut the BBC down to size despite its global importance and reach).

There is a certain irony in the fact that just as popular revolutions are challenging autocracies across the Middle East (and, consequently, more widely?), a prime organ for consistent, informed and intelligent reporting and analysis is switching off its microphones and vacating the space to other voices.

The proposed cuts to the World Service involve losing a quarter of all staff, a 16 per cent reduction in the government grant over the next five years, and the closure of five foreign language services:

  • · Five language services totally closed (Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, English for Caribbean, Portuguese for Africa)
  • · Radio programming ending in seven languages: (Azeri, Mandarin for China, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese and Ukrainian)
  • · Immediate end of short wave radio (March 2011) in Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes Service for Rwanda and Burundi.
  • · Immediate end to short and medium wave in English (March 2011) to Russia and former FSU

In a harsh world of financial stringency one or two of these make some sense – the last one, for example. But, just when Russia is kicking off again, Indonesia is suspect and central Africa faces ‘challenges’, aren’t these precisely the places we should be engaging with? Look at just a few of the figures:

  • The average age of a World Service audience member is 29 years old.
  • It is estimated that as a result there will be a 30 million drop in the World Service’s weekly audience from 180 million people to 150 million people worldwide.

Surely this is a time for investing in this sort of communication, not cutting it?

Even the Archbishop of York has pitched in. According to a press notice today, he said:

The BBC World Service output is much loved and respected across the globe. Not only is it the gold standard for international affairs coverage, it has a unique ability to reach into a variety of situations overseas – often where democratic values and basic human rights are not being upheld.

Just look at the way the World Service has been covering the protests in Egypt, or the way it reports natural disasters or war. There is no-one else providing the same level of insight for a global audience.

We should not underestimate the role that the World Service plays for those living overseas.

My concern is that these cuts will not only mean redundancies for those living at home, but a significant reduction in service for those living overseas. We have a responsibility to reach out to others and ensure that the message of hope the BBC World Service can bring rings out as widely as possible.

In my opinion, the Government is doing good work in relation to prioritising International Aid to countries that need it, but I would like to see this coupled with getting a message of hope, fairness, democracy and justice out to these same areas.

The problem is that you can’t measure the real value of the World Service’s impact on shaping the world views of people who might otherwise be shaped by other (less ‘helpful’?) perspectives. You certainly can’t measure this impact on some spreadsheet in an office in London.

But, perhaps that is why it is so important not to diminish it in the short-term when the longer-term cost to the global village might be to leave all the space for the village idiots to spread their own darkness.

I realise that this could be read as paternalistic superiority. I don’t think that should stop us from thinking about the communication of values we still think are worth hanging on to or commending to others. Or do we let the prevalent cynicism of our own culture keep us quiet?


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