Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Religion and the BBC

The BBC apparently has an editor for arts, science, business, but not for religion.  Some people are quite vexed by this, including Bishop Nigel McCulloch (Manchester), who is the C of E's national spokesman on things to do with the media.  I don't know whether Bishop McCulloch volunteered for the role, or whether he drew it out of the hat at New Bishops' Training Camp, but he certainly gives the impression of being an enthusiast.  There does seem to be a certain repetitive quality about his public statements, though.  Perhaps he has other things to say that the press don't pick up on, but whenever he makes the papers he always seems to be saying the same thing that he is here, ie. "there should be more religion on telly".   A slight simplification perhaps, but the logic does always seem to come down to the same basic assumptions, namely:
1.  Religious broadcasting is A Good Thing, and in some way is doing us good when we watch it.
2.  The more religious broadcasting there is, the better (and therefore by definition, there is never enough)
3.  It is the job of Christians in general, and the Church of England in particular, to tell broadcasters to do more religious programming. 

I must confess that all 3 of these make me a bit queasy.  It's not that I'm against religious content on TV - I would happily see more of what is, after all, one of my favourite subjects.  There is, though, a bit of a problem with some broadcasters (we might point the finger at the BBC here) pigeonholing religion into a certain box and not being prepared to move outside it.  Thought for the Day, The Daily Service, and Songs of Praise are worthwhile but not really the sum of what there is to be said about faith and worship in Britain.  As long as the BBC sees "religion" in these terms, it's not surprising they decline to treat it as seriously as they do Science or Art.  Curiously, Channel 4 seems to be the one mainstream broadcaster prepared to give it a go in this area at the moment.

But a bigger concern is number 3 in my list above.  The Church of England is close to giving the impression that we want control over the content of the BBC's output.  This, I think, is a mistake - because it makes us look as though we are trying to gain a privileged voice in the media, but also because it isn't really going to work.  The reason we have such high quality broadcasting in this country is because of the high level of freedom enjoyed by the media. The broadcast arts work best when they are not interfered with by outside authorities (witness the leaden quality of Government information films as a minor proof of this), and channels controlled by particular interests are always inferior (proof? - watch God TV).  Of course there is a danger of moving to the lowest common denominator (a process which leads inexorably to Hole in the Wall) or to the exclusion of minority interests (like religion).  But the BBC with its Reithian principles (and huge budget) is well equipped to resist those trends without the Church telling it to.  A better use of our time would be to let the BBC get on with its core business while we get on with ours - calling people to follow Christ.  This would create a country where more people would want to make, and watch, programmes about faith. 

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