This is the text of a commissioned article published last week in the Church Times.

Whenever I go to New Broadcasting House in London I cant avoid the statue of George Orwell and the inscription on the wall beside it: If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. It is taken from Animal Farm, a book that has been selling well in the brave new world of alternative facts and populist politics.

As we know, liberty cannot be the sole preserve of those who claim the power to dictate its terms. Maturity can be identified where people are able to hear what is uncomfortable and reflect on its probity, even if this means changing an opinion or mindset. In other words, citizens, politicians, journalists, personalitiesand anyone else can reasonably be expected to behave like grown-ups, being unafraid to hear a different perspective.

The reason this matters is that we are now seeing before our very eyes a change in how governments handle uncomfortable news. Recently No 10 divided journalists into two lines in the hallway and told one line that they would not be admitted into a press conference. All the journalists walked out in an act of solidarity that in itself became widely seen as a touchstone of liberty. Although No 10 backtracked later and claimed there had been a misunderstanding, every journalist there saw it differently and recognised that this could not be conceded.

This comes on top of the Prime Minister refusing to subject himself to informed policy scrutiny during the general election, then preventing ministers from accepting invitations to appear on BBC Radio 4s Today programme. Petty revenge for past coverage? Fear of detailed analysis of policy or motive? Deliberate strategy to shut out public access to information to which they should, as citizens, be entitled? Well, take your pick.

Anyone in the public eye knows how frustrating it is to be misrepresented, misquoted criticised or ridiculed in the press or broadcast media. A dig into my blog over the last decade will reveal lots of examples of me taking journalists to task and asking for better, more intelligent and less ad hominem journalism. So, I understand why the Prime Minister might, under the direction of his employee Dominic Cummings, decide to communicate directly and without mediation to those with whom he wishes to speak. Digital and social media make this possible. Mainstream media can be bypassed, ignored or belittled in an attempt to control the narrative.

However, this brave new world brings with it significant dangers. As we are already witnessing, direct control of the messaging means avoidance of the sort of scrutiny upon which a genuine democracy depends. A chat show is not the same as being subjected to intelligent, informed and fearless interrogation. Three-word slogans only work so long as no one is allowed to question them, digging beneath the assumptions behind the words, pushing the meanings to see if they contain any substance. One of the lessons of the last three years must be that slogans trump facts where the public accountability of the powerful is simply denied by a refusal to be subject to open scrutiny.

I would say this, wouldnt I? A former professional linguist who worked in the intelligence world prior to ordination, I have not been coy about criticising the corruption of our public discourse, bemoaning the impunity of those who tell lies for a living and know they can get away with it, calling for a recovery of public and individual integrity on the part of public servants – which is what politicians are. US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said in 1917, The first casualty when war comes is truth.I am not the first to challenge this: the first casualty is language. We should expect politicians and prime ministers to try to shape their messages in order to communicate well and clearly; but, we should be deeply suspicious when they deliberately avoid scrutiny or examination by experts who, on behalf of the people, hold them to account.

In this context we need to watch very carefully the governments approach to the BBC. If the BBC needs to hear what it doesnt want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform public service broadcasting cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries not admired for their democratic credentials.

There is much at stake here for those who wish to deepen and not dilute democracy.

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 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?

Before coming to Iraq I was asked to write a piece for the Radio Times. Picking up on the Kate Bottley programme on Good Friday, I thought I would start from there. However, the article was essentially about avoiding the pigeon-holing of religious broadcasting. Here is the text, but buy the Radio Times anyway – the biggest-selling magazine in the UK.

So, it's Easter again. And there's a programme about Judas on the telly.

When Bob Dylan decided to go electric some of his fans thought he had sold out. The infamous sound of a bloke in the audience shouting “Judas” said it all – one name pregnant with a hundred accusations.

I feel a bit sorry for Judas. He is not just another one of those characters in the well-known story of the crucifixion of Jesus; rather, he has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor, the cheap and nasty greed-merchant who sells his friend and his soul for a few quid. I wonder what his mother thought.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth … only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the messiah didn't work, and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.

I guess it's up to the observer to decide what was really going on with Judas – whether he is a traitor or a scapegoat. Whatever conclusion you draw, he's has had a lousy press. Just call someone by his name…

It's actually all about betrayal. And faith. And disappointment. And hope and meaning and living and dying. All the stuff of life as we all know it, in every age and every culture.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the case for or against Judas should be re-opened on Good Friday. After all, what better opportunity can there be for taking a fresh look at a religious story than hanging it on an Easter peg?

That's fine in itself. But, it begs the question why such programming shouldn't be scheduled at other times of the year. Why lock 'faith' stuff into the predictable slots when 'people who like that sort of thing' can be indulged for an hour or so? If sport and politics, economics and science can be exposed to the searching eye of the camera and the probing ear of the microphone throughout the year, shouldn't 'religion' get the same treatment – and not get pigeon-holed at the predictable times of the calendar?

Well, I celebrate those broadcasters that spot the creative opportunities to tell the stories and ask the hard questions. Faith provides a lens through which the stuff of human living and dying, leaving and losing, laughing and weeping, searching and finding can be explored. Faith isn't a box whose lid can be lifted from time to time in order to keep one section of the audience happy. Faith is about the raw stuff of life – and the questions about what it all means. Not just at Christmas and Easter, but all year round.

And this is why the Sandford St Martin Trust joins with the Radio Times to celebrate and reward excellent religious broadcasting. That's not broadcasting about religion for religious people; rather, it is telling those – often surprising – stories about people whose lives and interests and failings and celebrations shine a light on those questions that face us all as human beings. They offer a sort of vocabulary for thinking and asking and wondering.

No shoving stuff down people's throat. But, capturing the imagination and offering images and narratives that keep scratching away at our mind and memory, possibly opening us up to new, and sometimes surprising, ways of thinking and seeing.

Whether it's Gogglebox or Grantchester, Call the Midwife or Rev, a documentary or drama, there are some great programmes to celebrate.

Cast your vote.

 

This is the text of an article requested this morning by the Yorkshire Post in relation to the decision by cinema advertising bodies not to show an advert about the Lord's Prayer in their cinemas before Christmas this year. The decision has provoked a spat in the media and on social media – some of it even polite.

So, the major cinema chains have banned a one-minute advert from being shown in their theatres on the grounds that people may be offended. God, give me strength. (Which is a prayer.)

If you don't pray, then you are almost certainly in a small minority of people on the planet. Even people who claim no faith seem to admit to praying in certain circumstances.

In the last couple of weeks we have seen hashtags and posters, banners and even football scarves, emblazoned with 'pray4paris'. Why? As I said on last Friday's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, “it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom?”

The fact is: people pray. Billions of people across the globe pray the Lord's Prayer every day. For some Christians in some parts of the Middle East and Africa, the utterance of this prayer can amount to a death sentence. Yet, it is a prayer I have seen uttered by those committed to other faiths, but who see in this prayer – taught to his friends by Jesus – a fundamental recognition of human being, human need, and the realities of human experience. We are not God, but we live in relation to God; we have daily physical needs and we get tempted to go the wrong way; if we don't forgive those who wrong us, then how on earth do we expect to be forgiven and reconciled by God and others?

In the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes. Prayer is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.

So, why do the cinema people think prayer is so dangerous? And who exactly is going to be offended by a one-minute advert that consists of a pile of people saying a phrase of the Lord's Prayer in sequence? No propaganda. No coercion. No pressure. Just an encouraging invitation. What is the problem?

Well, the problem is basically the illiteracy of a liberal culture that thinks itself to be intellectually mature and culturally sound. This culture assumes (I choose the word carefully) that secular humanism is neutral – and self-evidently 'true' – and that, by definition, any religious world view is somewhere up the scale of irrational and loaded madness. A five year old child could demolish that one. There is no neutral space.

Secondly, as an irrational reflex, religion gets widely connected inextricably with 'problem', 'trouble' or 'conflict'. Therefore, it has to be neutralised. The five year old would be on a roll by now. Just this morning a Muslim tweeted that, rather than ignoring Remembrance Day and the poppy appeal, his group had actually raised more than £400,000 for the Royal British Legion this month. Has anyone actually asked who might be offended by this and why? This phenomenon has echoes in seasonal appeals to empty Christmas of its name.

Thirdly, this religious illiteracy goes deep. Last week the Daily Telegraph reported on the debates that nearly saw the word 'Abbey' removed from 'Downton'. It seems that there was no reference to church (although, for good or ill, church would have been an integral part of the life of those characters), and we never got to see them sit down for a meal because that would have meant seeing them say grace. Really.

There is still time for the people who run the cinema chains to change their mind. They might even invite a conversation about reality 'out there' in the world. But, even if they don't, they have exposed yet again the intellectual and cultural redundancy of a dominant knee-jerk assumption about religion and the world. It would be funny if it weren't so common.

(Of course, the word limit meant I couldn't ask how advertising actually works, if it isn't to get inside our heads and promise to meet our deepest needs by selling us something. Which, apparently, is unproblematic.)

 

I chair a media trust that goes by the name of Sandford St Martin. We reward excellence in religious broadcasting and advocate for the same in a range of different ways.

One of the most important decisions to be made in the UK in the next year or so will be about the future of the BBC as its Charter is renewed.

The Sandford St Martin Trust submission to the BBC Charter Renewal consultation can be read in full here and focuses particularly on the public service remit, seeing religious broadcasting as a touchstone of how this remit is fulfilled.

The Trust's submisison can be read 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.

It was reported last week that the BBC is to move current Defence Correspondent Caroline Wyatt to Religion, replacing Robert Pigott who has held the post for a decade. Given Wyatt's heavyweight role in Defence since 2007, this is seen as a beefing up of the religion brief. Some of us have argued for years that the BBC should appoint a Religion Editor – recognising the importance of religion as a factor in the world and how we understand it. This seems like a re-beefing up of the 'correspondent' role and goes some way to meeting the need.

Ironic, then, that it was also reported this week that the Times is to get rid of the Religion Correspondent role that has been occupied so successfully for 25 years by Ruth Gledhill. This means that no English newspaper has a journalist dedicated to covering religion as a specialism.

This is the context in which the Sandford St Martin Trust – which I chair – is changing. During the last year we have conducted a detailed strategy review and clarified that we wish not only to 'promote excellence in religious broadcasting', but also 'to advocate for' it. To this end we are changing the way we operate and will shortly be advertising for a part-time Executive Secretary to help us run the trust and develop our ambitions.

The Trust gives prestigious awards each year, presented at a ceremony at Lambeth Palace and with judging panels chaired by people who know their stuff. We have been developing our year-long presence, especially through good work in social media and a new website, but our ambitions go well beyond this to both stimulate and engage in debate on religious broadcasting.

More will become clear as plans are developed. However, the point is that the religious broadcasting drum will continue to be banged – but more smartly as we invest in making a difference.

 

Sometimes I (and others) feel like we are banging a drum that just irritates people who have an ideological reason for not wanting to listen to any critique of religious illiteracy.

So, I was delighted to see in today's Independent a report of Aaqil Ahmed's comments on the same theme. The following illustrates the problem well:

If you tried to make The Life of Brian today it would fall flat on its face because the vast majority of the audience would not get most of the jokes. They don’t have the knowledge,” Ahmed said. He questioned whether modern audiences would appreciate that the “great joke about the Sermon on the Mount” in the 1979 Python film, where a woman asks “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, was a reference to Jesus’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from the Bible.

Good on you, Aaqil. Hopefully, you will be listened to.

 

Yesterday saw the return to planet earth of the Canadian commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield. During his time orbiting our little planet he has sent some extraordinary photographs of space, the ISS itself and the planet. I came across him on twitter and was hooked.

Looking down from a great height grants a new perspective to the viewer. Tied up in the detail of living in a big and complex city, it is easy to lose sight of the 'big picture' and the meaning of it all. I was only 10 when Apollo 8 took the first human beings out of earth's orbit and sped them around the moon and back. They became the first human beings ever to see the earth in its entirety from space – and their photographs became the most beautiful and iconic images ever seen. Looking back at the earth changed for ever the way we saw our life on and exploitation of the earth.

Chris Hadfield did something similar in that he gave access to the mystery of meaning by capturing views from a great height in such a way as to put the preoccupations of daily living into a larger context. He posted hundreds of mesmerising images on twitter and then did a David Bowie cover video before returning back to Kazakhstan in the Soyuz capsule. If he ever gives up being an astronaut, he clearly has a fantastic career ahead of him in media and communication.

There's nothing original in all of this. It just brings to my mind the words of the Psalmist who, looking at the starry sky at night, asked: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, who are we that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us?” (Psalm 8) Confronted by the mystery of the enormity and beauty of the cosmos, why do we think we even matter?

Well, there is a time and place for such contemplation and the writing of such poetry. But, look down again and we are caught up in the mystery of human fallibility and the limitless capacity of human beings to do appalling things to one another and to the planet. It is sometimes hard to hold onto the beauty in the face of the horror. Events in Syria easily blend into 'big stuff' that we cannot comprehend and so push to the back of our consciousness; feeling helpless, we filter it out – even reports of a rebel eating the heart of a government soldier.

Yet, here is the rub. That heart belonged to a person who is a brother, a son, a husband, a neighbour. The death and post-mortem abuse of this person changes for ever the lives of individuals and communities. Even in the context of the enormous cosmos, we still think that what happens to a unique person matters. Why?

This has been brought home to us in England most acutely by the stories of intentional, cruel, exploitative grooming of young girls by gangs of men. The trials in Oxford that concluded yesterday beg huge questions about a society that claims to be civilised whilst allowing such behaviour to continue for so long. And every individual girl or boy involved matters infinitely. It is hard – though vital – to hold onto the beauty and meaning of the universe and human life whilst staring human cruelty and exploitation in the eyes.

The best commentary I have read thus far is by the BBC's excellent Mark Easton. He puts his finger on the sensitive question of whether we just find it too hard to address some questions when 'community cohesion' or 'race' are involved. He is dead right. And just as racism is an evil to be exposed and rooted out, so is a refusal to name things for what they are. The element the media and politicians (in particular) need to pay attention to in these matters is language and category: the fact that someone is a Muslim does not mean that Islam is what drives him to abuse young girls or boys; the fact that someone is nominally (or tribally) Christian does not mean that it is Christianity that makes them behave atrociously. As I noted in an earlier post, ethnicity and religion should not be confused: they are not synonymous.

What lies under all this is an uncomfortable anthropological reality: the human propensity to commodify anything we can lay our hands on. We turn people into objects for exploitation, sale or entertainment (look at the tabloid media, for example); we turn the earth into a Swiss cheese, forgetting that the one thing not being made any more is land and what lies underneath it. Child sexual exploitation powerfully dehumanises both victims and perpetrators; the victims need to be defended and liberated, the perpetrators need to be held accountable and be reminded that moral accountability – integral to human being – demands justice. People are not commodities.

The great Bruce Cockburn puzzles over this stuff – the contrast and tension between the beauty of the cosmos and human being on the one hand and the inhumane bestiality of some human behaviour – when he writes:

Amid the rumours and the expectations and all the stories dreamt and lived

Amid the clangour and the dislocation and things to fear and to forgive

Don't forget about delight…