Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)


Bishop of Southwark, Dr Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Dr Mona Siddiqui, Dr Indarjit Singh OBE JP and Reverend Joel Edwards

  Q20  Chairman: 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 their role?

  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 out again.

  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 certainly there.

  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 things—I believe in the second coming of Christ—but 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 important point.

  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.

  Q31  Chairman: Would you regard a programme like the rather good one on Radio Four early on Sunday morning as being an example of fair reporting of religion?

  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.

  Q34  Chairman: 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 it.

  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 morning.

  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 to.

  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.

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