British broadcasters have a religious blind spot

"We do not deliberately ignore things – it is rather that we come from a culture that regards religion as an eccentricity," says Edward Stourton

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British broadcasters have a religious blind spot
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Edward Stourton

In Communist days Moscow was so bleakly colourless that a spell there meant enduring serious sensory deprivation. I vividly remember the unsettling taxi journey back from Heathrow after my first visit; the Fulham shop-windows seemed to blaze with dizzying brightness after what I had left behind.

Back in the Russian capital earlier this month for a programme on the Ukraine crisis, I was equally struck by the way the cityscape is now enlivened by golden domes. Moscow today is a mushroom field of new churches. Many of them are rebuilt replacements for those pulled down by Stalin and co, but they are going up everywhere.

Russia has been through an astonishing religious revival this century, and it’s a significant factor in the nationalism that has played such a big part in the Kremlin’s current confrontation with the West.

One of the influential ultra-nationalist leaders we interviewed sported the black clothes and long beard of the “Old Believers”, a traditionalist group who split from the mainstream Orthodox Church under Tsar Alexis I in the 17th century. It was a little like turning up to meet a modern British political figure and finding him dressed as a Cromwellian Puritan.

But you aren’t likely to find any of this in the British media. Russia’s religious revival joins my lengthening list of stories that have been missed because of the British blind spot about religion. We do not deliberately ignore things – it is rather that we come from a culture that regards religion as an eccentricity. The consequence can be a catastrophic misreading of events.

In the aftermath of the revolution in Egypt, for example, we listened to the secular liberals in Cairo, and were completely caught by surprise by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. No honest journalist can look at what is happening in the Middle East – in Syria and Iraq, for example – without conceding that we have repeatedly underestimated the importance of religion in the region.

Judging the Sandford St Martin Television Award for religious programmes brought home to me that the British allergy to religion goes well beyond the newsroom, and has certainly infected broadcasting culture more generally. 

There was no drama or comedy on the shortlist, and none of the programmes was made by ITV, Channel 5 or Sky. One of the joint runners-up was from Channel 4, but nine of the ten shortlisted programmes went out on the BBC, which reinforces my suspicion that most programme-makers see religious broadcasting as a duty, not an opportunity. 

The entries that won the top three spots were all, in different ways, first-class, mainstream programmes that reflected the way religion touches every aspect of life. None of them was preachy or dull, and they included very few of those “men in frocks” so often associated with traditional religion.

BBC2’s Hillsborough: Never Forgotten was a current affairs programme about one of the most significant scandals of our age. The role played by the Bishop of Liverpool and the Church in revealing the truth about the Hillsborough cover-up was allowed to emerge naturally, without being forced on the viewer.

C4’s A Very British Ramadan was funny and engaging – every bit as relaxing and easy to watch as any “lifestyle” programme. And the ultimate winner, Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, was a reminder of just what a powerful medium television can be when a talented team takes on a really ambitious subject.

It would be nice to think that commercial television bosses might take a look at these winners, because they demonstrate that religion can make compelling and popular television. Even most of my hard-bitten journalistic colleagues are now coming to recognise the power of religion – for good and bad – on the world stage. Britain still has one of the healthiest broadcasting cultures anywhere, and it is surely high time that it let religious programmes out of the ghetto. 

Edward Stourton is one of the presenters of Sunday on Radio 4


RT's Faith Award Winner

Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews was a double winner in the Sandford St Martin Awards: it also won RT Readers’ Award. Second (and only 130 votes behind) was The Choir: Sing While You Work, Gospel episode. In RT’s prize draw, Paul Jones of Halesowen wins £1,000 to spend on home entertainment equipment. 

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