Like a familiar hymn, Songs of Praise seems to have been with us forever. It is one of the longest-running programmes of its kind anywhere in the world and since 1961 has been bringing the rhythms and sounds of a church service into viewers’ homes, providing a connection with Sunday worship for those too busy, to inform or, in some cases, possibly too lazy to get to church themselves.
For the 55 years of its existence this shining light of traditional religious broadcasting has been made by the BBC. But for how much longer?
The BBC’s own in-house team – along with independent producers – have been invited to tender for a three-year contract to continue to produce it, which they may not win.
Why should viewers care? Isn’t the important thing that the programme is being made, not who makes it? As a former independent producer I have a lot of sympathy with that view but, frankly, I’m more worried by the BBC’s whole approach to religion.
Just six months after the Archbishop of Canterbury called in the Radio Times for broadcasters to take religion seriously, it seems the BBC is doing anything but.
Many people my age once thought that religion was a declining influence in the world and didn’t pay it a great deal of attention. As the historian Simon Schama put it: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong…”
How can young people and immigrants to this country understand the UK without learning of the crucial role Christianity has played in the formation of its political structures and culture? How can people feel they’re being welcomed as equal citizens if we don’t bother to find out about what is often the most important part of their life, their faith?
How can we understand what’s going on in the Middle East, for example, without knowing about the Shia/Sunni split? This is not about promoting faith; it’s about promoting knowledge and understanding – surely a central role of a public service broadcaster?
But the BBC is coming up short. Consider the following: the BBC no longer has a separate commissioning editor in television for religious and ethical programmes.
The current Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, is leaving and there are no plans for him to be replaced. Whereas BBC News has editors for almost everything under the sun, from business and economics to the arts and sport, it doesn’t have one for religion. And there’s no one on the BBC’s team that will decide who gets the Songs of Praise contract who has extensive experience of working in this area.
The Sandford St Martin Trust, of which I’m a member, and which seeks to promote excellence in religious and ethical broadcasting, has for some time been asking the BBC one simple question: “Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of religious programming?”
It is still waiting for an answer. Meanwhile, there are some straws in the wind. The Times has recently been briefed that a “BBC revamp will counter Christian ‘bias’ ” and reported that the director-general was summoning leaders of different faith groups to talk to him about plans for multi-faith coverage, and that “he will also appoint a senior executive, who will sit on the Board of Governors, to draw up new programme ideas…”
Well, that should be interesting. Not many creative programme ideas in the past came from the Board of Governors.
Still, it suggests a growing awareness that the present position is untenable. We live in hope. But perhaps it’s not Christian bias we should worry about but something far more worrying when it comes to understanding and interpreting our modern world: a bias against taking religion seriously.