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.

 

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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.)

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.

 

Five days into August already and still haven’t got through a single one of the books lined up for the catch-up month. Oh well.

It could be this that is narking me; but, on the other hand, it might be that the world is going mad.

Three things for starters:

1. Apparently, the Minister for Local Government is going to write to the bishops of the Church of England today asking us to support longer Sunday trading hours. According to the Daily Telegraph, the letter will say:

The government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.

As the law stands, only the smallest shops are allowed to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, a law which came into force in 1994 after a long struggle by the business community.

The justification (according to news reports – we haven’t actually received the promised letter yet) is that this will limit supermarkets and revive the high street. The aim is noble – consider the action by dairy farmers yesterday: it costs them more to produce milk than they get when it is sold. But, this, once again, confirms that we have become a market society, driven by consumer economics, rather than a market economy, driven by the need for the economy to serve society. In other words, we now define our society in purely economic terms.

The alternative would be to restrict Sunday trading rather than expand it. This would restore to society the notion of a common sabbath and create space for common rest – the possibility for remembering who we are and why we are here. We are not born to shop.

A losing battle, maybe; but one worth scrapping over for the sake of questioning what sort of a society we wish to be, rather than simply (and unquestioningly) accepting the society we have become.

2. In a classic example of loaded reporting, the Guardian draws attention to consideration in Wales for re-shaping the teaching of Religious Education in schools. This is how the article begins:

For a long time, religious education has been about as unloved and neglected as a crumbling old church. Several people and organisations (some, admittedly, with a vested interest in its continuation) have warned in recent years that it has never been more needed, and this week it emerged that the Welsh government is considering an overhaul of the subject.

Huw Lewis, the Welsh government’s minister for education and skills told the Cardiff parliament that RE should be renamed, “[transforming] it into the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum – where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship”. He added: “We really need to allow young people the space and the time, within the school curriculum, to consider fundamental issues of faith and of citizenship and of the meaning of freedom.”

RE, long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects, has suffered over the years. A 2013 report by Ofsted found that more than half of schools were failing to teach the subject adequately

How many untested attestations does that contain? Staggering. How long is “a long time”? Where is the evidence that is has been unloved and neglected? Why compare it to a “crumbling old church” rather than a crumbling something else? Which organisations have a “vested interest in its continuation” – and why “admittedly”?

Is it not conceivable that the “vested interest” might be an intelligent argument or interest for the sake of the common good? Is it not remotely possible that, at a time when we need more religious education in order to understand the world and its people, we should be arguing for better teaching and learning rather than the dilution of it? Does “long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects” reflect simply the rather embarrassing prejudices of the journalist who wrote this stuff? Shouldn’t we expect better (of both RE teaching and journalism)?

If numbers fall because teaching is poor, then, surely, the answer is to improve the teaching and learning. As the media trust I chair keeps arguing in the sphere of broadcasting, we need more religious literacy in this conflicted world, not less. Popularity has little to do with it.

3. Giles Fraser redeems the Guardian by concisely putting his finger on a key question that is – understandably – annoying the government. Migration (inwards only) was a vexed matter during the general election. If media reporting is accurate, then immigration (and how to stop it) is a major concern for ordinary Middle Englanders, and politicians ignore it at their peril. Well, ‘majority opinion’ does not necessarily equate to ‘right opinion’. It is only a generation or two ago that German opinion was happy to see Jews and other minorities as sub-human and expendable.

Fraser recalls the difficult and embarrassing question Jesus put to people who probably didn’t like the implcit answer: “Who is my neighbour?” Those who have done RE in school will know that this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also the title of the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Church of England ahead of the last election – which the government (then and now) deepy resented.

But, the question hangs in the air like a bad smell. Get beneath the rhetoric around immigration and we cannot avoid the fundamental challenge: what is our theological anthropology? In other words, what is a human being and why does he/she matter?

That is the question that underlies all the conflicted rhetoric about immigration.

The other question is one that will not go away: is there a strategy behind policy in this regard, or are we condemned to constantly respond to the latest and loudest voice or situation? And what is the anthropological assumption from which policy emerges? And isn’t it important that someone keeps asking the awkward questions about human significance when justifications for action seem only to be economic?

Sorry, that’s three questions.

Tomorrow evening I will be chairing the 2015 Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace. These annual awards are prestigious and pull in some amazing examples of excellent programming.

The re-shaped Trust has this year attracted an enormous number of entries in three categories: television, radio and – for the first time – children. Our short listers did a brilliant job, and the winners will be announced tomorrow evening. (The list is too long, so go here to see the full set.)

The first prize of the evening will go, as always, for the Radio Times Readers Award – the only one voted for by the public.

It has also been announced this week that this year's Trustees Award will go to the BBC's wonderful Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet – an award that will be presented to her by James Harding, head of News at the BBC.

Exciting, or what?

Anyway, before then I will be doing Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 and then rushing off to the House of Lords for the State a Opening of Parliament and the Queen's Speech (and other meetings). More anon, if I get time to think and write.

 

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.