Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 2005
Bishop of Southwark, Dr Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad,
Dr Mona Siddiqui, Dr Indarjit Singh OBE JP and Reverend Joel Edwards
One has a certain amount of sympathy for reporters on the Ten
O'Clock News who try, for example in Iraq, to set out the
difference between Sunni and Shia. It is not a simple thing to
do, is it, in the amount of time that you have?
Dr Siddiqui: But it should not be in the Ten
O'Clock News. They are reacting to a global story which is
fair enough, but then surely, within the two and a half years
that have elapsed, the BBC has had plenty of time to have serious
discussion, whether it is radio or television, on what exactly
the conflicts are and the history and theology.
Bishop of Southwark: Why should one have more
sympathy with that than, let us say, the complexity of the Tory
succession. One expects the BBC to be thoroughly competent and
professional and knowledgeable across a wide range of public life
including, politics. I did not respond to the numbers, but I would
just like to say that more people worship in our churches in a
month than are members of all the political parties put together.
We do not then ask why the BBC is spending all this time on politics,
but one thing we have learned in the last five years is that religion
matters around the world and therefore we have all got to understand
it better if we are going to understand our world.
Q21 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
You have made a very good case as far as I am concerned for being
in on quite a number of levels, but equally, having said that,
I do not quite see it, because the implication is that those with
no religion, or with a different ethical approach to things, are
catered for in the rest of the curriculum. I would have thought
that their contribution to all the issues that we have been discussing
is at least as important. Should they not be in there too, giving
their ethical viewpoint or their humanist viewpoint and explaining
Bishop of Southwark: There was the programme
on Jonathan Miller. They are there and they are very often there
in a big way and in a very imaginative way. I do not think they
are being neglected, but that is my perspective.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: They would
seem to think they were.
Q22 Lord Maxton:
Let me come back to Thought for the Day then and the BBC
equivalent in Scotland, where in Scotland of course, far from
it being 15 per cent who confess to having no religion, it is
28 per cent, which is double the number, for instance, of the
Catholic population of Scotland. You never have a non-religious
point view. If you had a prayer every day as Thought for the
Day then I could just about understand it, but it is not:
it is a religious person expressing their point of view. So why
should it not be a non-religious person, not somebody who is a
humanist necessarily, just a bus driver, a policeman, somebody
who is not a member of a church at all expressing their view?
Bishop of Southwark: We are contributors
because we are asked to contribute, but I can understand why the
BBC take the line that they do, namely that this is an opportunity
for a specifically religious voice which one is not hearing in
the rest of the programme in the same kind of way. Equally I think
I am right that there is within the Today programme quite
a substantial time, far more than two minutes 40 seconds, for
a personal perspective. Somebody, usually somebody certainly from
a non-religious perspective, will give a substantial spot on whatever
he or she wishes to do. It is not as though it is not there at
all; it just finds a different place in the programme. But as
I was saying, we are not the producers of the Today programme.
Q23 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen:
We have covered quite well the position of religion and current
affairs. What about other areas of the BBC, for example, drama
or music? How do you feel the BBC deals with this and if there
are faults, what are they and how should they be rectified?
Dr Ram-Prasad: I think it is probably in those
kinds of areas where coverage is the weakest, relative even to
politics, because eventually they get the right people out for
politics and they start writing and reporting well. We talked
about this in the case of some of the soap operas, which of course
are specialists on trivia and superficiality, so they cannot be
faulted, particularly on religions. However, to the extent that
they do tend to use stereotypes to represent a whole community
in a kind of shorthand, the Christian, the mad fundamentalist,
the Muslim who is going to go and kill people, the Hindu, the
one who is in the arranged marriage and is going to beat his wife,
which you recognise as soon as they pop up, that kind of thing
has become such an easy form of cultural stereotyping that insufficiently
hard questions are asked about how they could treat the hinterland
of peoples' lives, which does include religion, more seriously.
With music, I think that is probably an area where there is a
real lack of recognition of the richness of the multi-ethnic traditions
of Britain. They hardly ever make it. If they do, it is usually
on the presumption that Hindus and Sikhs are insomniacs, because
the programmes are always at one o'clock in the morning, and if
we are up, like we were last night for Diwali, we are not watching
a programme are we? Those are possibly the areas where coverage
would be weakest and my understanding of what is happening there
is that it is partially to do not with an unreadiness on the part
of BBC religion, but for it not to be given sufficient resources
and clout to put out what it can across the programming.
Q24 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen:
You mentioned in particular the soaps, would you say where there
is an illustration therefore of a religion that it is actually
anti the religion rather than involving it?
Dr Singh: Dot Cotton in EastEnders is
an example; they pull her out and make her quote endlessly exact
quotations from the bible. To my mind it ridicules religion to
some extent. It is useful if religion is brought into drama, to
have something about its ethical teachings, what it has to offer
on that particular issue, being discussed or talked about.
Dr Ram-Prasad: I would also say perhaps something
slightly different: it is more than nuance I am asking for, because
there could well be religious figures who are ridiculous figures,
therefore they need to be there as part of the narrative. It is
not actually an evaluation or a normative judgment on how it ought
to be covered, it is just that these people's lives often do have
a great many more dimensions. Any attempt to be dramatically real
could include religious representation rather than think of it
as something that is wheeled in stereotypically and then taken
Q25 Lord King of Bridgwater:
I just want to clear up on a point which came up earlier on the
numbers game and the question of the strength and significance
of religion in national life; I am talking particularly initially
about the Church of England. You seem to focus on church attendance,
but there must be quite a constituency of people, the housebound
for a start, who may get all their religion actually out of broadcasting
and there may be another constituency of people who actually do
not like church very much; they may still be quite deeply religious.
Do you have any figures for that at all?
Bishop of Southwark: It is estimated that one
in four adults in all faiths worship once a month in this country,
so we are talking about a substantial minority of people who actively
worship. In the Church of England we talk about 1.7 million a
month, but that is not taking into account the day by day by day
contact that the church has with drop-in clubs, with church schools
and with all the raft of community life which exists. There are
figures which we could submit to you from the dioceses of Chelmsford
and Guildford who did a survey of the involvement of their church
members in community service and they were talking about millions
of people; the involvement of church people in the common life
of the country, not just church people, we will be talking about
people of all faiths. So there are some figures from particular
places and certainly that is why, at the beginning, I did not
really want to get bogged down in arguing certain numbers.
Q26 Lord King of Bridgwater:
I am talking about the ones the priests and vicars know nothing
about, the people who get all their religion out of broadcasting,
never go to church and would mind very much.
Bishop of Southwark: Partly one touches that
whenever the BBC tries to make any changes, let us say to the
daily service or choral evensong, Songs of Praise and one
suddenly discovers there is a dedicated listnership, number of
viewers for whom that is a very important part of their lives.
It is not something I personally know too much about, but it is
Dr Ram-Prasad: We might not be able to have
things to hand, but we could easily determine that, for example
from the Heaven and Earth show, which comes on exactly
at the time people would be in church. If we look at that audience
size there, we are going to get a pretty good indication of how
many people are interested in this issue, but actually are not
in church. Why? It is very likely because they cannot go, as I
know anecdotally, but I think we might need to get at these figures
indirectly rather than have them.
Bishop of Southwark: If I were a shop steward
for the church, I would be asking them to close this down because
it was stopping people coming to church.
Q27 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
In your evidence you say that you think the agreement which accompanies
the charter should, amongst other things, ensure that religion
is fairly reflected. That is a very difficult concept. Let us
just suppose, for example, two successive weeks of Panorama
and in week one we have a programme about the rapture in the United
States where 33 per cent of Americans believe in the very near
future that the world as we know it is coming to an end and the
chosen are to go to sit at the right hand of god and the rest
of us will burn in the flames. This is not an apocalyptic remote
possibility: it is a proximate possibility, it is going to happen
quite soon and this affects the policies of neo-conservatives
in the administration who think "Why bother with the environment,
because the world is going to come to end soon and the good people
will be fine anyhow?". That programme is the first week and
the second week is a programme which shows the effects of fundamental
Islam throughout the Middle East as a factor in conflict and tension.
When you say "fairly", what do you want at that point?
Do you want to appear to say not all Muslims are like that, or
do you want to appear to say you do not have to worry about a
lot of nutters in the Mid-West, because that is not what the good
old C of E believes? What do you mean by "fair".
Dr Singh: It would be useful if there were some
programme that pointed out that those fundamentalist beliefs in
the United States are nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus
Christ. They are just extreme beliefs.
Dr Siddiqui: I think it is extremely important
to show those programmes, absolutely, and I would say it is the
job of the BBC to educate and inform us that there are radical
wings in religions at the moment, that Islam is on the go on certain
issues. It is entirely appropriate that the BBC should show programmes
like that and if it chooses to show them in high profile programmes
like Panorama, so be it and it is not misreporting anything.
What we are trying to say by "fairly" is that that is
not the nub and all and essence of a faith, that is one reflection
of it. 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. My comment really goes back to the initial
points that religious programming in general should not just be
a reaction to global events, it should also be showing that okay,
there is this side of religion but there is also, not necessarily
a more balanced side, but there is a different vision of that
same faith that is practiced by people within that faith.
Q28 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
But you would not dissent from the fact that both of those programmes
in themselves could be perfectly fair portrayals of religion?
Dr Siddiqui: Absolutely; yes.
Reverend Edwards: Indeed. About six or seven
years ago, in fact when I was on CRAC, a very good friend of mine
who worked in the BBC, Ewan Russell Jones who works for BBC Wales
in the education department, did such a programme. I thought it
was a very fair analysis on the whole issue of pre-millennialism,
showing some of the "Jesus is coming soon and we are all
going away to heaven" and the impact of that kind of religion.
It was very well done, very astutely done, it spared no punches,
and was very level-headed. So I think the BBC has a responsibility
to show that kind of thing. Conversely, I hope we could also show
that whilst that is the section of Christian eschatology with
some downsides, there is also a very vibrant part of the Christian
community which may believe the same thingsI believe in
the second coming of Christbut equally this constituency
is working very hard at community cohesion and employs twice as
many youth leaders as local government does and therefore is totally
involved and absorbed in the life of its community now rather
than waiting for the hereafter. This is religious broadcasting
at its best, it moves beyond religion to community commentary
and I think that is the strength of what the BBC is still able
to do because it does it professionally and objectively.
Bishop of Southwark: May I just add another
side to this "fairly" thing? I think what we are saying
in our submission is that we do not want things just to be left
to the good will of the director general who might come and control
other channels. We feel that there should be a formal public service
commitment which includes fair reflection of religion and other
matters; we actually want that built in to a statement accompanying
the charter. What is fair I would then be prepared to leave to
Ofcom who at the moment judges, for example, whether religion
has not been treated fairly within advertising. It is not a structural
problem; we are building up in the nation an expertise which can
actually judge whether something has been treated fairly in religious
terms as much as in other terms. Ofcom is becoming an important
vehicle for that.
Q29 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
Just one more supplementary, My Lord Chairman, and it is an important
point. You would be happy with "fair" in the sense that
in a defamation trial you can plead as defence "fair comment";
you would accept "fair" in that sense.
Bishop of Southwark: Yes. I would accept "fair"
in the sense overall of an even-handed approach to this particular
subject, this particular issue. I would be happy to leave it to
a body like Ofcom to decide whether or not that has been handled
fairly. They do it already when it comes to advertising.
Q30 Lord Holme of Cheltenham:
Clearly it is a matter of the time period. You used the word "balance"
which is not quite the same as "fair", but it is an
Reverend Edwards: Yes; that is what we are arguing
for, for it actually to be in there in the statement accompanying
the charter that we would expect religion to be treated fairly.
Would you regard a programme like the rather good one on Radio
Four early on Sunday morning as being an example of fair reporting
Bishop of Southwark: Except when it comes to
reporting the Church of England.
Chairman: You sound like a politician.
Q32 Lord Kalms:
One thing you cannot do in this type of subject is bring statistics
into it. I quite agree. Although the Bishop of Southwark did bring
it in when he referred in his report to those who go to church
exceeding the membership of all political parties. I do not want
to make an issue of this because you actually go on in the next
paragraph as well, but does that not, in a sense, reflect the
failure of religion and politics in our society to capture the
higher ground? The purpose of this Committee, as My Lord Chairman
said at the beginning, was to see the role of religion in the
BBC and what seems to be clear from your evidence is that religion,
as politics, does not actually capture the higher ground. The
evidence you have given us this morning suggests, bearing in mind
the possibility of any large bureaucracy to deal with the complexity
of religion, bearing in mind that of the five groups today none
of you is fundamentalist, that actually the BBC is doing quite
a reasonable exercise in dealing with the almost innumerable alternatives
in discussing religion.
Bishop of Southwark: If you are talking as a
politician as well, I think you are being too hard on yourself.
I think we put forward that figure in terms of church attendance
and members of political parties not to score points one way or
another, but to say that the membership of political parties is
not necessarily a measure of the public interest in politics.
It obviously is not, because the public have never been more interested
in politics than they are today, otherwise the BBC and other channels
would not have such a colossal output in terms of politics. Equally,
I think we are therefore saying one should not judge everything
on the basis of how many people go to church or to the temple
during the week; that is not necessarily a measure of the interest
in religion or the importance of religion. I would also like to
point out that although I do not know what the figures were yesterday,
I imagine the viewing figures for the service in St Paul's were
probably quite large. Again, that will have touched a nerve and
a religious nerve in the life of the nation and that for me is
as significant as how many show up in church or temple every week.
That is really the point we are trying to make.
Q33 Lord Kalms:
I am not completely convinced by it, but having made that point,
our role is to look at the role of religion as created and permitted
by the BBC and, listening to you very carefully, I would say on
the whole they are doing a reasonably good job. Getting involved
with theology is an impossible job, particularly in this country
with multi-racism and all the various conflicts. Listening to
you, I was just wondering how we would frame our report. I would
suggest that the BBC, on the whole, is doing an exceptional job
in dealing with the wide range of views today.
Bishop of Southwark: I think it is doing a good
job. We want to support it, we want to do it better and I do not
think I would accept that it is an impossible job, any more than
it is impossible to reflect politics in this country. It is not
impossible. It does take professionalism and it takes resources.
Dr Siddiqui: We are not asking here for the
BBC to churn out banalities about religion, far from it. What
we are really saying is that the BBC is in a privileged position
to be more robust. I think that in our current climate, when we
are talking so much about asylum and immigration and the changing
face of Europe and Britain's role in Europe, we have to be really
careful that different communities are coming in, different cultures,
languages and religions. If we are talking about a cohesive society,
we mean all the strands. What we are not asking for is religious
programming to stand out starkly as a programme that only religious
people watch. It has to blend in with wider debates on all aspects
of life, if we are going to produce not necessarily just more
tolerant societies, but societies which are actually respectful
of diversity and can actually have informed and adult conversations
about what diversity brings, the challenges that diversity brings.
Religion has a huge role in that.
Reverend Edwards: We would not see ourselves
as adversaries of the BBC; in fact the BBC is serious in its 2002
strategy to respond to and drive the public appetite for programmes
about religion. We are here to say "Well done", where
it is happening and here are some offers on the table as to how
that might be enhanced. It is not just for the benefit of religion,
if indeed religion and faith are very central to what it means
to be a person and to be persons in community. We think that more
could be done through stronger enhanced partnerships and that
is basically the thrust of the arguments we have put forward.
Does any other media organisation do it better in this country?
Dr Siddiqui: I do not think so.
Reverend Edwards: I do not think so; no. There
are probably some examples of imaginative, slightly more on the
edge approaches to it, but I think in terms of its professionalism
and attempting fair play, the BBC is as good as it gets.
Bishop of Southwark: We have not mentioned,
although you may have covered it elsewhere, that the raft of work
the BBC does with local broadcasting is very important when it
comes to religion. I used to be Bishop of Leicester and the Asian
programmes in Leicester are very, very significant in terms of
community cohesion. We have not touched upon that, but nevertheless
that is there around the country and very significant and the
BBC does it very well.
Q35 Lord Peston:
I am still very puzzled by your position. When I watch the BBC
it seems to be permeated with religion. You asked the question
about music and drama. The BBC is about to show the complete known
works of Bach, the greatest, certainly within western civilisation,
composer and the greater religious composer. Now I would argue,
as someone who loves Bach, that his religion is irrelevant in
one sense; I can listen to his music without having any of his
beliefs. However, his religion was everything to him. My point
is that I regard this notion that the BBC somehow is against religion
as ridiculous and that goes also to the theatre and so on. The
work of T S Elliot, one of our greatest poets and a considerable
dramatist, appears all the time on the BBC. They always forget
to point out what a vile anti-Semite he was but that is by the
way. The fact is that this stuff appears all the time. You are
obviously not listening to or seeing what some of the rest of
us do and I am totally bewildered by this. I accept your point
on expertise, but of course all of us who are experts view our
subject with contempt when it comes up on the BBC. As an economist
I am always asking why they do not have anybody on who knows what
they are talking about. You are saying the same sort of thing,
but we just have to recognise that that is the nature of the media,
if you like: it is full of people trying to fluff their way through
very difficult matters. I imagine that physicists must go mad
over what they put over as science. I am just bewildered by what
you see, but you obviously do see it. I am not denying you see
what you are telling me, but I do not see where you are seeing
Dr Siddiqui: I am not necessarily saying that
they put on people in religious broadcasting who do not know what
they are talking about. It just seems that large chunks of programmes
or a large number of programmes seem to be either about stereotypes
or about the same discussions over and over again in different
formats. Whenever we have a programme on British Islam, it will
be about when the Muslims came and what they contributed and the
chicken tikka masala and that is not what religion is about and
that is not what resonates in the lives of a lot of people. It
may resonate in the lives of some people, but I think people are
hungry for real debate. People are hungry to know how that theology
works in that person's life. That does not mean they are interested
in suddenly going out and reading the Koran or the bible or whatever;
they just want to know. That religion or those sentiments make
that person tick in a way that is extraordinary or ways of I would
not dream of and I want to know and that kind of challenge needs
more robust programming. That is all we are saying.
Dr Ram-Prasad: I am just slightly puzzled whether
you were listening to what we have been saying. We just had people
from here saying that in fact the BBC does an awfully good job
a lot of time and the example of Bach would be precisely that
kind of example. It is not that we are being antagonistic towards
the BBC surely; we are trying to say we want to strengthen what
they do well, so that they can do it better, rather than they
are failing in that job.
Q36 Bishop of Manchester:
One of the things that I do not think that we have gone into in
any depth this morning in terms of religious broadcasting, or
indeed religion in broadcasting, is that between radio and television.
It would be helpful to tease this one out because in some of the
evidence which has been produced, both within this Committee and
also outside it, it is clear that people within the BBC feel that
on the whole, they do a better job conveying religion through
radio than they do through television. I think there are major
technical issues involved in all that. Nevertheless, here is an
opportunity to be able to comment from your perspective on where
you feel that improvements might be made by the BBC in either
or both those areas of radio and television.
Bishop of Southwark: Certainly you have the
numbers, if you do not, we can supply them: BBC TV has 113 hours
a year of religious broadcasting, network BBC radio 1,186. It
is a fact that it is over 10 times as much and there will be good
reasons for that; it is more expensive producing television programmes.
Also, frankly it is easier to handle music and perhaps worship
on the radio than it is on television. One has to be very skilled
to capture the sense of awe and mystery and wonder and uplift
of worship on a television screen; it is easier to find it on
the radio. Also, the BBC has had long experience of putting resources
into religious broadcasting on radio and they have some extremely
skilled people. So there are very good reasons, but I also think,
as I said earlier, that I would prefer to see, not necessarily
more religious programmes on television, but scheduled at a better
time and perhaps putting in more resources so that they are of
better quality; those two things. There is no point arguing for
more religious broadcasting if it is not of the right quality
or it is at a time when nobody can see it, at two o'clock in the
Q37 Bishop of Manchester:
One of the things that we have learned on this Committee is that
over the next few years scheduling as an issue will become less
important because people will be able to download at a time or
day of their choice. May I go back to a point you made just a
moment ago about the difficulties, for example, over worship on
television? Do I take it that all of you would be in agreement
with the BBC's current policy of actually reducing the amount
of worship that it does on television and not least on the basis
of the argument that I have heard them put forward that, as you
have said, worship comes across better on radio. I am asking that
because I am thinking also of the people we mentioned earlier
who may be housebound and do rely on this sort of thing.
Bishop of Southwark: And let us not forget the
set piece: yesterday the service at St Paul's and the handling
of the death of the Pope. There will be those kinds of services
for which there is no substitute, the radio does not carry it
in the same kind of way, but that might not be every Sunday, Sunday
by Sunday, twice on Sunday. You are asking the wrong person, I
am in church on Sunday.
Q38 Lord Maxton:
Why should churches, particularly the Christian churches, have
the right to acts of worship on television? Political parties
do not have the right to half-hour or hour-long programmes to
put across their point of view without contradiction. The Humanist
Society does not get an hour every so often to put across its
point of view without contradiction, so why on earth should the
Christian churches, not any other church hardly, have these acts
of worship on radio and television every week? I cannot turn on
the radio on a Sunday morning and find a programme I want to listen
Bishop of Southwark: I am not sure that we do
have the right. I imagine it is because out there are people housebound,
driving and the rest of it for whom this is very significant and
they make their voices heard and the BBC over the years has responded
to that voice. I do not think the church is saying "We must
have this"; on the contrary, it is taking away customers
from my cathedral.
Q39 Lord Maxton:
So if the BBC were to say "We do not believe it is in the
interests of broadcasting generally to have acts of worship on
television or radio", would you have no objection to that?
Bishop of Southwark: I would ask whether in
terms of the public service nature of the BBC there is a significant
group of people for whom this is very important and therefore,
I think I probably would have an argument, but that is not to
say that the argument would be based on the right of the church
to have acts of worship.
Lord Maxton: But with modern technology
there is no reason why the churches themselves, using the modern
technologies of DVDs, of videos and so on, cannot provide their
believers with that material without the rest of us having to
lose maybe other programmes we would want to watch as a result.