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?

Advertisements

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.