Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Second Report


CHAPTER 8: THE BROADCASTING OF RELIGION

141.  Ofcom's phase one review of public service broadcasting states that religious programming is "generally considered to be core PSB territory".[51] Section 264(6) of the Communications Act 2003 requires that public service television broadcasting in the United Kingdom must include services of a suitable quality and range dealing with a number of subjects including "religion and other beliefs". For the purposes of the Act a belief is defined as "a collective belief in, or other adherence to, a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles or of mystical or transcendental doctrines" (section 264(13)). Therefore broadcasting covering religion and other beliefs is part of the remit of all public service channels.

142.  In a January 2006 interview with the Catholic magazine "The Tablet", Mark Thompson asserted that religious broadcasting has proved to be the most controversial subject of his tenure at the BBC so far. He put this down to "a post- 9/11 sensitivity to religious belief".[52]

143.  This may seem like a surprising statement from the Director General at a time when the BBC is facing the many challenges we discussed in our last report. However, Mark Thompson's view that religious broadcasting has become a sensitive and divisive issue is shared by others. We received written evidence from a range of individuals and religious bodies who felt strongly about the quality, quantity and balance of religious broadcasting on the BBC.

144.  We also took evidence from a multi-faith panel of senior figures from the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths. They told us that "Religion has become a much more significant and potent force in world affairs and politics than it was thirty years ago" (p 1).

145.  However, other evidence must be balanced against these statements. As part of its review of public service broadcasting Ofcom asked viewers what types of programming they most valued on the terrestrial channels. Of the 17 genres identified religious broadcasting came 16th in terms of which genres people ranked as having personal importance (only regional programming was ranked lower) and it also came 16th in terms of what programme genres people ranked as having societal importance (only arts and classical music programming came lower).[53]

The definition of religious broadcasting

146.  The way religious broadcasting is defined influences the type of programming broadcasters can make to fulfil their public service broadcasting commitments. Section 264(6) of the Communications Act 2003 sets down that programming about religion and other beliefs fulfils the purposes of public service broadcasting if it is in one of the following categories: "(i) programmes providing news and other information about different religions and other beliefs; (ii) programmes about the history of different religions and other beliefs; and (iii) programmes showing acts of worship and other ceremonies and practices (including some showing acts of worship and other ceremonies in their entirety)". It is up to Ofcom to determine what is a suitable quantity and range of such programmes.

147.  To regulate the content of religious broadcasting Ofcom uses a wide definition "A religious programme is a programme which deals with matters of religion as the central subject, or as a significant part, of the programme".[54] This wide definition is supported by the broadcasters. Dominic Crossley-Holland, Controller of Current Affairs, Arts and Religion at ITV, told us that "The Ofcom definition is a perfectly sensible, basic definition. Happily and rightly Ofcom in practice take a broad view of the way we apply that definition" (Q 101).

148.  If a wide definition of religious broadcasting is used then broadcasters have more freedom to explore innovative ways of incorporating topics relating not just to religion and other belief systems but to spirituality, ethics and values into their programmes. This is to the good because traditional religious programmes are struggling to attract audiences. However, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were all able to point to rating successes they had achieved with programmes of a religious content when new and innovative ways of approaching religion were found. For example, the BBC pointed to its series the Monastery which went out in prime time on BBC Two attracting 2.5 million viewers. The series followed a group of ordinary men who took part in an experiment when they spent 40 days and 40 nights living with monks in a Benedictine monastery. Aaqil Ahmed, Commissioning Editor for religion at Channel 4, explained how taking a fresh look at how to incorporate religion into Channel 4's schedules had a significant impact on viewing figures and thus the amount of programming he could get commissioned in prime time slots "I am very proud to say that now we have over 50 hours of programming of which only 4.4 hours are not broadcast at 7, 8 or 9pm during the week or on a Saturday. These are prime time programmes and we have done that by doing the kind of film making and story telling which puts religion at the core of each subject and tells you about the world we want to live in" (Q 94).

149.  Audiences are more receptive to new and innovative ways of approaching religion and other belief systems. This was suggested by a piece of qualitative research commission by Ofcom in 2004, as part of the consultation on its Broadcasting Code. This research showed that when asked to consider religious programming participants initially defined it very narrowly—mainly thinking of Christian worship programmes. Participants thought such programmes were probably necessary but they were generally not very interested in watching or listening to them. However, the research also showed that participants spontaneously tried to broaden their initial narrow definition of religious programmes. Other types of programmes which they felt could usefully be included in a more modern "religious programmes" category included documentaries about specific moral issues; programmes about religious and ethnic minorities; history programmes with a faith or belief based focus; and news and current affairs programmes. We also believe that there is an audience for programmes with a wider spiritual focus. When religious programmes were defined in this wider way respondents were much more interested in engaging with them.

150.  We support a wide definition of broadcasting about religion and other beliefs. It encourages all broadcasters, including the BBC, to find new, innovative and informative ways of tackling issues of religion, spirituality, ethics and values through all the different programming genres. Evidence we have received shows that by approaching religion in this way viewers and listeners engage with it.

151.  The BBC has changed the name of its religious programming department to the Department for Religion and Ethics. We support this change as it indicates a willingness to embrace programming beyond the traditionally religious and to look at issues such as spirituality, ethics and values. We believe that the name change is more than cosmetic and therefore that the staff of the Department are not recruited on the basis of any religious affiliation or otherwise.

152.  The Department for Religion and Ethics was the first BBC Department to be moved out of London to Manchester. However, as we noted in para 85, this move was not entirely successful because the BBC did not move the commissioning editors and other decision making apparatus with the department. We therefore recognise the challenges this department has faced. Interestingly Alan Bookbinder, the Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC, told us that as religion has risen up the political agenda it had actually become harder for the Department for Religion and Ethics to get its own programmes broadcast: "…it is one of the paradoxes of my job that as religion has become more important it is more difficult for me to get programme permission because there are so many other genres—notably current affairs, history and art—that have suddenly taken a greater interest in the subject and are putting in very compelling ideas, and bringing off very nice programmes" (Q 153). Nevertheless, we are eager to see more high quality, innovative and thought-provoking programmes emerging from the BBC Religion and Ethics Department.

Religion in the news

153.  It is of course vital that whatever subject the BBC approaches it does so objectively while providing the viewers and listeners with the background information they require to understand the context of the story. This is equally true for programmes about religion and other beliefs as it is for programmes about politics and current affairs. The public need to be given the background knowledge to ensure they can understand the news stories they hear about each day.

154.  We heard evidence that when the news stories touch on religious issues sometimes the BBC fails to provide the background knowledge required. One example raised by many witnesses was the role that religion is playing in the situation in Iraq. Dr Siddiqui, a member of the multi-faith panel, told us "suddenly Iraq appeared on our screens and it was assumed that the whole population knew the difference between Sunni and Shia; yet nobody knew the difference" (Q 13).

155.  The Bishop of Southwark suggested that one reason why relevant background information is not always given is that "the depth of knowledge is not there to handle the story" (Q 9). Dr Ram-Prasad, another member of the multi-faith panel, agreed "The lack of strategic thinking comes from thinking "Okay, we have somebody somewhere in Asia, let's bung him in and ask him to give a report" rather than having somebody who would have the kind of training that you would expect over a longer period of time. It is entirely left to the brilliance of the individual person involved" (Q 16).

156.  We are concerned about this perception of the BBC's coverage of news stories related to the world religions. We recommend that if the BBC is going to continue to provide the high quality of current affairs coverage for which it is known it must provide its viewers and listeners with the background knowledge they require to understand the context of the story. This is as true for stories related to religion and other belief systems as it is for any other subject area. We note our witnesses' concern that there are cases where a story that is about religious conflict will be covered by a political editor or the Iraq correspondent or whoever is closest to the scene. This is the nature of international reporting. However, if appropriate training is given to reporters then there should be no reason why issues about religion and other beliefs are not covered knowledgably in the news. We therefore recommend that the BBC should ensure that its correspondents are competent to report in a knowledgeable way in all areas on which they will be asked to report.

Religion and the BBC's public service remit

157.  Through the commitments the Government asks the BBC to make in the Charter and associated Agreement with the Secretary of State, it can influence the BBC's approach to religious broadcasting.

158.  The current Agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC states that the BBC must support certain types of programming. The types of programming specified include religious programming, programmes that reflect UK cultural activity (through drama, comedy, arts, music and feature film); programmes addressing international and social issues; and programming reflecting different communities, interests and traditions within the UK .

159.  The Green Paper suggests that one of the future roles of the BBC should be to provide a range of programming "reflecting different religions and other beliefs that is appropriate to multi-faith Britain. Such programming in prominent positions in both TV and radio schedules, reflecting diversity within, as well as between faiths and beliefs. Such programming should include coverage of acts of worship and key events in the religious calendar, as well as drama and current affairs programming that explore religious issues and other belief systems in different ways, for different audiences."[55]

160.  The multi-faith panel did not believe that the guidance in the Green Paper goes far enough in ensuring that the BBC's portrayal of religion would be fair. They told us that "The Agreement that accompanies the new Charter should guarantee that the religious dimension of national and international life is fully acknowledged and lay down some criteria to ensure that all faiths are faithfully, knowledgeably and fairly portrayed across the output, not just religious broadcasting". When asked to explain what they meant by a fair portrayal Dr Siddiqui explained that when the BBC show a programme about one extreme version of a faith they should have a duty to explain that was just one arm of that faith "So the neo-conservative rise in America is a reflection of a particularly worrying trend for some people who are also Christians but who do not agree with that rise. Islamic radicalism is also a rising threat to Muslim communities themselves; it is a threat, but it should also show how Muslim communities themselves are worried about it" (Q 27).

161.  While we note the multi-faith panel's concerns, we also note that the BBC is already bound by the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, the purpose of which is "To ensure that broadcasters exercise the proper degree of responsibility with respect to the content of programmes which are religious programmes; to ensure that religious programmes do not involve any improper exploitation of any susceptibilities of the audience for such a programme and to ensure that religious programmes do not involve any abusive treatment of the religious views and beliefs of those belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination."[56] Therefore the Broadcasting Code already exists to ensure the fair treatment of religion. However, we do believe the BBC should have further duties to ensure viewers and listeners are given the opportunity to learn more about the different religions and other belief systems. We therefore recommend that the BBC should be given a duty within the Agreement with the Secretary of State to make sure viewers and listeners have a better understanding of the different religions and other belief systems through the objective portrayal of their different beliefs, practices and forms of worship.

162.  We also note that although the Communications Act 2003, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code and the Green Paper all refer to coverage of religions "and other beliefs" several of our witnesses were concerned that the BBC failed to provide programming for those with non-religious belief systems. The British Humanist Association told us that the BBC provides religious programming, and programming that has nothing to do with any belief system, but fails to provide programming that reflects non-religious belief systems. They argued that many people in this country are interested in such belief systems. David Pollock, a former Chairman of the British Humanist Association, went so far as to suggest that "the BBC is quite deliberately ignoring the requirements which are placed on it by the Human Rights Act as a public authority and by the Communications Act in section 264 to treat equally religions and beliefs across the spectrum" (Q 52). Given that the membership of the British Humanist Association is just over 5,000 it is hard to estimate how many people are interested in such a belief system (Q 67).

163.  The members of the multi-faith panel were sceptical about the need to provide more programming about non-religious beliefs. The Bishop of Southwark argued that those with non-religious beliefs "have an enormous amount of time because the kind of standard mindset of the media, and particularly the broadcasting services, is the mindset of metropolitan secular humanism (Q 4)". However, Hanne Stinson, the Executive Director of the British Humanist Association, was clear that programmes that dealt with no belief were very different from those dealing with non-religions belief. She stated that "What they should be doing is actually comparing the small percentage of religious broadcasting against the non-existent percentage of broadcasting about specifically humanistic, positive, non-religious beliefs. I do not mean atheism; I mean positive non-religious beliefs, because that is where the gap is" (Q 52).

164.  The programme that seems to raise the most controversy by excluding non-religious belief systems is BBC Radio 4's Today programme slot "Thought for the Day". "Thought for the Day" is a two minutes forty second daily slot which Alan Bookbinder described to the Committee as a "a moment for religious and spiritual reflection in the middle of an entirely secular programme (Q 179). He went on to state that "it is very much a slot reserved for the religious and spiritual and not secular" (Q 178). It is the policy within the English version of "Thought for the Day" that all speakers come from a religious perspective.

165.  However, this policy differs from that of BBC Northern Ireland. BBC Radio Ulster broadcast its "Thought for the Day" slot twice each day at 6.55am and 7.55am. The talks on Monday and Friday are live, those from Tuesday to Thursday, pre-recorded. BBC Northern Ireland told us that "contributors to the programme are chosen, not on the basis that they represent a particular denomination or faith or a nondenominational or secular interest group, but because it is considered they have something useful or important to say and that they can say it in an engaging and accessible way." While "the great majority of the contributors would come from a faith background… in the course of a year, there would be a small number—perhaps 3 or 4—who would not necessarily be religious believers. They are chosen on the basis of what has been stated above, not because they may be humanists, atheists or agnostics" (p 160). As we have emphasised in this report and our earlier report, it is vital that internal editorial BBC decisions are made independently of any kind of political pressure. It is not our role to make internal editorial BBC decision. These should be made independently of any kind of political pressure.

166.  It is our recommendation that the BBC should review its programme output to ensure that it complies with the Communications Act 2003 by providing services of a suitable quality and range dealing with religion and other beliefs.

The Central Religious Advisory Committee

167.  The Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC) meets regularly to discuss religious broadcasting issues. The membership encompasses both religious and lay, with members drawn from the main Christian denominations and other world religions. Members come from every part of the UK, and act not as delegates but as individuals, while clearly taking account of religious constituencies' views in helping shape religious broadcasting policies.

168.  The aim of CRAC is to enable clear and open communication between the BBC and the various religious constituencies. Members view programmes after transmission but not before. Broadcasters' religious broadcasting policies take CRAC advice into account, but editorial responsibility always remains firmly with the broadcaster. All papers and minutes of CRAC meetings are circulated to BBC senior management, who also attend CRAC sessions and ensure that CRAC concerns are aired at the appropriate level.

169.  According to the BBC Governors' web site CRAC "advises the BBC and Ofcom on religion-related policies and coverage. Its members are appointed jointly by the BBC and the Ofcom Content Board."[57] However we uncovered some ambiguity about the role of CRAC. Dr Siddiqui, a member of CRAC, told us "CRAC has an anomalous role in some way because it is an official advisory committee to the BBC, but it is an unofficial advisory committee to Ofcom as well and it sits somewhere in between" (Q 19).

170.  Mr Tim Suter, Partner for Contents and Standards at Ofcom, told us that CRAC "is not a committee of Ofcom, it is a BBC committee" (Q 1496). He also denied that its members were appointed jointly by Ofcom and the BBC, stating they were a BBC appointment that Ofcom are consulted about (Q 1502). However, he did say that CRAC has a role in "assisting the regulator in forming conclusions about issues in relation to whether a particular [BBC] programme was appropriate and whether it was offensive to different groups" (Q 1496).

171.  We were surprised at the differing perceptions of CRAC's role that we observed between the BBC, CRAC's members and Ofcom. Indeed, it is not at all clear what the role of CRAC is or whether it adds value to the broadcasting of religion. We therefore recommend that the position of CRAC be reviewed and clarified by the BBC in consultation with Ofcom.


51   Ofcom Review of Public Service Television Broadcasting: Phase 1: Is television special; para. 16. Back

52   Ofcom: Religious Programmes: A report of the key findings of a qualitative research study conducted by Counterpoint Research; May 2005. Back

53   Ofcom Review of Public Service Television Broadcasting: Phase 1: Is television special?; figure 33. Back

54   Ofcom Broadcasting Code, para. 4.1. Back

55   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, pp. 40, 41. Back

56   The Ofcom Broadcasting Code, p. 22. Back

57   www.bbcgovernors.co.uk/advisorybodies/crac.htm Back


 
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