Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales


  1.  The Communications Committee of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is pleased to respond to the call by the House of Lords Select Committee on BBC Charter Review for submissions on religious broadcasting and other matters. Our comments are principally on religious broadcasting but we have also made comments on other matters as they affect the BBC's wider functioning.


    —  Does the BBC's proposed move to Manchester represent value for money for the licence payer? Should the BBC continue to decentralise?

    —  Should the BBC move towards "ultra-local" services? If so, what form should such services take? Should the BBC provide stand-alone local services or work in partnership with other non-profit distributing organisations?

  2.  The BBC must continue to find ways to ensure that it can be truly representative of, and responsive to, audiences across the United Kingdom. Since the formation of the Corporation, the BBC has had to find imaginative solutions to the challenge of striking the right balance between its national and local responsibilities. It is also vitally important that the BBC continue to identify and develop broadcasting talent wherever it is to be found while contributing to the health of the creative industry across the country. Moreover, it is indisputable that the public served by the BBC can only benefit to the extent that the metropolitan "London" perspective is complemented and challenged by the range and variety of voices from around the country.

  3.  The recent resurgence in BBC local radio and the creation of "Where I Live" websites indicate how a shift in priority and resources has resulted in the BBC playing a more relevant and active role at the local level. Furthermore, at a time when the regional public service commitments of ITV are disappearing, and commercial radio (particularly in England) has all but abandoned public service obligations, the BBC has a responsibility to strengthen its presence (for example, in providing local and regional news) in the nations and regions.

  4.  In our view, "decentralisation" is to be welcomed as long as it does not result in a "fragmentation" of efforts and resources. In the digital environment the BBC has a key role in providing a range of high quality public service offerings across all platforms. It cannot fulfill that role unless it remains a unified national organisation of sufficient size and scope to compete in a highly competitive market place. Any weakening of the BBC's ability to function as a robustly independent unified national organisation would be a serious retrograde step.

  5.  As the Catholic Church in England and Wales we are rooted in local communities and acutely conscious of their needs. Though part of a global community of faith, the local parish is the heart of the church. Given this context, we are heartened by the BBC's increasing interest in exploring the possibilities for truly local services. In a globalised world a huge number of decisions affecting people's lives are taken far from their localities, and communities are under a great variety of economic and social strains, so initiatives which help build and strengthen the local community are to be welcomed. In so far as "ultra-local" services contribute to enhancing the quality of communication and involvement at the local level, they will be performing a very important social function.

  6.  In this regard, we have been impressed by the commitment to religious broadcasting at local and regional level and the development of creative partnerships between local radio and BBC websites. We would like to see further exploration of the recent BBC local television trials using the possibilities of combining new technologies. It is heartening to note that part of this experiment involves giving local people the opportunity to make short films about their lives and faith. At this local level the BBC can, and does, provide resources and skills to support the work of other community based organisations. The further development of local partnerships should be encouraged.


    —  Do different faiths (including no faith beliefs) figure sufficiently in BBC programmes and services?

    —  How should faiths be represented in BBC programmes, services and governance?

  7.  Understanding the personal, cultural, social and political dimensions of religious belief and practice is of the first order of importance and has never been more relevant than today. Unfortunately, over the past decades the general level of understanding of religion and its role in society has diminished significantly. Even as our society has become more diverse, more plural in cultures and beliefs, politicians, broadcasters and churches must all acknowledge their failure to rise to the challenge of ensuring that different communities understand and appreciate each other's point of view. Of course, many people and organisations (broadcasters included) have worked hard to increase inter-cultural understanding and to teach people about different faiths and ways of life. But these efforts have not been given the centrality and priority that they have deserved.

  8.  In broadcasting, religion has long been subject to marginalisation and has suffered from a widespread, and largely unchallenged, assumption that its relevance was diminishing as society became supposedly more enlightened and secular. That assumption is now seen as insufficient and dangerously arrogant. Indeed, just a few days ago the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a Recommendation on Education and Religion which noted, among other problems, that "More and more young people lack the necessary bearings fully to apprehend the societies in which they move and others with which they are confronted". It went on to say that "The media—printed and audiovisual—can have a highly informative role. Some, however, especially among those aimed at the wider public, very often display a regrettable ignorance of religions, as shown for instance by the frequent unwarranted parallels drawn between Islam and certain fundamentalist and radical movements".[1]

  9.  These points underline the importance of the task that the BBC has to undertake in this field. As the most trusted source of information and news, and a major force in the provision of educational programming, in the United Kingdom the BBC has a huge responsibility to ensure that its treatment of religious topics is not only adequate, but excellent. Over a decade ago, the Council of Europe issued a Ministerial Resolution on Public Service Broadcasting which looked to public service broadcasting to "reflect the different philosophical ideas and religious beliefs in society, with the aim of strengthening mutual understanding and tolerance and promoting community relations in pluriethnic and multicultural societies".[2] That call, more often only paid lip-service in the intervening years, should now form the basis for the BBC's approach to religious broadcasting.

  10.  In this context, we want to emphasise the importance of religious coverage and religious programming on the BBC World Service. It is, of course, clear that the World Service should continuously review its output and devise ways to make it more accessible. As part of that review process, it needs to examine its approach and treatment of religious subjects. This should be as part of a broader examination of the coverage of religion across all BBC outlets and services. The World Service, and the BBC as a whole, needs to consider whether or not it has the expertise and adequate resources to provide the level of coverage that the global impact and significance of religion would warrant.

  11.  Throughout the BBC the level of understanding, expertise and knowledge on religious subject matter has to be addressed further. BBC executives have acknowledged that journalists need to gain a greater degree of understanding of, and sensitivity to, religious subjects. This does not simply refer to the recruitment and training of specialist religious reporters but to ensuring that all journalists and producers operate in a context in which the religious dimension is not something irrelevant, or at worst, exotic, but simply another dimension of life.

  12.  This acceptance and understanding of religion as part of everyday reality is hampered if characters with a religious faith appear mainly in programmes, especially popular drama, as odd or comic figures. This point was made forcefully to the BBC Governors' own review.[3] At heart, the issue of the representation of faith in broadcasting is a matter of the degree to which members of faith communities, or the faiths themselves, are treated in a simplistic and stereotypical manner. Robust, informed questioning and criticism of religious beliefs, institutions, activities or figures is healthy and necessary in a democratic society but ill-informed and casual dismissal of religious opinions or attitudes causes great hurt and reinforces suspicion and prejudice.

  13.  More often than not, when the coverage or portrayal of religion is problematic, it is because of ignorance rather than hostility; it is the level of ignorance and misunderstanding of religion which poses the greatest challenge to the BBC and other broadcasters. Religion has to be explained and demystified not only for large numbers of the audience, but also for broadcasters themselves. The recent dispute about the broadcasting of Jerry Springer—The Opera showed very clearly that broadcasters at first simply failed to grasp the religious sensitivity of the subject and were then shocked by the strength of the subsequent reaction.

  14.  The problem with episodes such as the Jerry Springer dispute is that the resultant coverage does no good either to broadcasting or religion. In fact, such public disputes have a tendency to reinforce prejudices and assumptions on both sides. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue between the religious communities and the BBC. How this dialogue is institutionalised and operates is obviously of crucial importance. In the past such a conversation has taken place at many levels, from informal consultations, to the structured dialogue within the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC), and the use of focus groups and other forms of market research. And, of course, the audience can simply express its opinions directly by phone, letter or email. As the BBC begins to think about the development of its governance and accountability mechanisms and structures it must take into account the importance of maintaining robust and effective links with all sectors of its audience. We look to the BBC to initiate a meaningful public debate and discussion about how it envisages its future consultative relationships with those concerned with religious issues. We would like to explore, for example, the possibility of senior representatives from all faiths being part of a national broadcasting forum with a strong remit to advise the BBC on such matters.

  15.  Given the lack of knowledge and awareness of many broadcasters it is also vitally important the BBC continue to nourish its own in-house centre of excellence in religious broadcasting. BBC religious broadcasting has a high reputation, but to maintain and enhance that reputation it needs to be given the resources (both human and financial) that it needs to sustain the range and ambition of its programmes. In this respect we want especially to commend both national (especially Radios 2 and 4) and local radio output. We also recognise that many, not ostensibly religious, programmes, especially on Radio 4, have dealt with religious themes in a creative and engaging manner.

  16.  A significant part of the proper representation of faith is the treatment and coverage of worship. Without worship, the sacred dimension of religious life and experience is not adequately present in religious broadcasting. At present, radio provides a good deal of regular Christian worship and we commend the BBC for its efforts. However, televised worship is less well served. In particular, we are concerned that the BBC should ensure that the religious significance of the major Christian festivals, and especially Easter and Christmas is safeguarded and properly marked in its programme output. In addition, as televised worship becomes increasingly vulnerable on ITV we would expect the BBC to be re-examining its public service responsibilities in this area.

  17.  We echo the responses of faith leaders to the BBC Governors' review when they noted that BBC Religion and Ethics was a source of expertise that could be "further exploited by programme areas".[4] The importance of an in-house pool of religious expertise in the coverage of events with a religious dimension was brought home, for example, by the recent excellent coverage of the death and funeral of Pope John II and the election and inauguration of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Such events provide exceptional moments in which to increase the audience's knowledge and understanding.

  18.  More generally, in our view, BBC services and programmes should:

    —  recognise the importance of the religious dimension to many news stories and report on them with sensitivity and accuracy in ways that "offer new insights and deeper understanding";[5]

    —  give a space for and actively encourage the expression of distinctive voices and visions without encouraging segmentation and ghettoisation of religious and cultural life;

    —  create possibilities for moments of open and honest conversation between different religious traditions;

    —  reflect and express the religious and cultural life of different communities in ways that are accessible and engaging (including in popular drama and situation comedies) to culturally diverse and, increasingly fickle, audiences;

    —  avoid treating the issue of religious diversity as purely a matter of differences in cultural and social lifestyles;

    —  avoid collapsing ideas and issues of religion into simply matters of culture or conversely ideas and issues of culture into matters of religion;

    —  find new and inventive ways to present religious and spiritual matters, including worship, seriously and in depth, especially on television and in particular on BBC1;

    —  ensure that journalists are properly equipped to cover religious issues through development of their knowledge base and continuous updating;

    —  ensure that programmes on religious topics are properly core funded, resourced and not pushed to the margins of the schedules; and

    —  develop a systematic pan-BBC strategy at all levels and across all outlets for religious broadcasting and the coverage of religion in news and current affairs.

  19.  Public service broadcasting, by virtue of the fact that it has a public mandate, can and should stand for the coming together and mutual interaction of different strands in society. In essence this comes back to the old formula of "inform, educate and entertain". In increasing understanding and enriching the audience's view of what it means to be religious, the BBC has a responsibility that goes to the heart of a culturally diverse society. Re-presenting, presenting again, our culture in all its diversity, is to challenge the audience to re-think and re-examine habitual ways of perceiving the world. In a society, which in the words of Jonathan Sacks, has lost the "sense of being part of a single moral community in which very different people are brought together under a canopy of shared values", a vibrant and confident religious broadcasting has a vital role in expressing and interrogating the values by which individuals and communities live.


    —  In the context of the digital revolution is the future of the BBC principally as a producer and commissioner of high quality programming or as a broadcaster?

  20.  If the BBC is to remain the "cornerstone" of British broadcasting and the upholder of public service values, it needs to remain a broadcaster and not simply a commissioner and producer. At the core of the public service idea is a commitment to the "common good" and this ethical orientation is expressed in the ethos of the broadcasting institution that carries this idea. The BBC "ethos" is not simply a matter of staff morale or organizational credibility; the BBC's ethos is at the heart of what makes it worthwhile to have a public service broadcaster at all. Without such an ethos, embedded in an institutional framework, there can be no long term commitment to serve people as citizens as well as consumers through the provision of high quality programmes in all areas.

  21.  In addition to this argument from principle, there are of course, many arguments derived from the BBC's social role. The BBC is not just a provider of programmes; it is also a major employer, it underpins many aspects of the democratic and cultural life of the country, it is the major patron of music, it provides information and educational services to every community and it works in partnership with a host of communities and organisations.

  22.  The digital revolution means that these roles are now even more important. In regard to the Internet, for example, the BBC has a crucial role in ensuring that a viable and accessible "public space"; is kept open in a world which is becoming increasingly commercialised. The public interest in the digital world will not be served unless there is a real and significant public presence. The BBC is already offering that public presence. As a national resource and an international shop window, the BBC needs to be strengthened.[6] It is evident that any attempt to reduce the BBC to a mere commissioner would have significant negative effects on the social and cultural life of Britain.

10 October 2005

1   Council of Europe. Parliamentary Assembly. Recommendation 1720 (2005) 3-4. Back

2   4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy (Prague, 7-8 December, 1994) Resolution No 1. Back

3   Impartiality Review-Religion. BBC Governance Unit, 2004. Back

4   Impartiality Review-Religion. BBC Governance Unit, 2004. Back

5   The phrase "offering new insights etc" is from an article by the Head of BBC TV News in The Business, 27-28 March 2005. Back

6   Recent debates at European level have also recognized the importance of public service broadcasters being actively present on all platforms. See for example, the Ministerial Resolution at the 7th Ministerial Conference in Kyviv, Ukraine, 10-11 March 2005, which recognised "the importance of ensuring free and universal access to the services of public service broadcasters across various platforms and the need to develop further the public service broadcasting remit in the light of digitisation and convergence;" Back

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