Friday, 25 May 2012

Faith needs greater voice in mainstream broadcasting

The recent address from the BBCs head of religion Aaquil Ahmed raised a number of important issues, not the least of which being the tenuous position of religion in the schedules.
Ahmed illustrated this point with reference to his own departure, three years ago, from Channel 4. He was not replaced and within 12 months religious broadcasting had gone from 50 hours to zero.

Thankfully, the BBC continues to see the value of religious broadcasting, with 600 hours of radio and 173 hours of television broadcast in the last year.

Ahmed though stressed the importance of continuing to get big audiences in order to retain the religious broadcasting space. This pressure is likely to increase with 20 per cent cuts coming across the Corporation over the coming years.

The contribution that the BBC makes to religious broadcasting became apparent to me recently when taking on the role of chair of the judges for the broadcast section of the Sandford St Martin awards. The quality and depth of the programmes was most impressive.

The ten short listed programmes included Rageh Omaar presenting The Life of Mohammed, Melvyn Bragg’s The King James’s Bible – the book that changed the world and Ian Hislop: when bankers were good.

The significance of many of these programmes was that they went deeper, linking faith values to contemporary life. The economic crisis, Islam and the shaping effect of the King James Bible on the world today. This resonates with what Ahmed said about how research had showed him that “people wanted to know more about the basics of religion, they wanted to know less about the conflict,” post 9/11, “and more about its roots in history and theology.”

It is ironic that the advent of 9/11 had a positive impact in the area of religious broadcasting. It raised the news value of the subject, so there was a greater appetite among some media organisations for output.

What is needed though is for faith to be got out of the box titled religion. There is no doubt pressure on those working in religious broadcasting from more secular parts of the media outlets to conform to stereotypes and stay in the box. Roll out the Catholic or Anglican prelates on gay marriage or abortion, the Imaam on terrorism, but never peace, economic injustice or the environment. Keep the social justice work that so many faiths do firmly in that box marked secret.
There is a lesson in the fact that there has been a boost in religious coverage over the past decade due partly to the dominance of 9/11 related factors on the news agenda. The lesson is that religion needs to be examined in a far wider mainstream context.

The recent episode involving the Occupy movement camping outside St Pauls illustrates the point. Although, the Church came via a tortuous route, including a certain amount of public humiliation, once it got the social justice message it came to the forefront of this debate about economic injustice. An issue of direct concern to everyone.

Extending this argument over the relationship between religious and current affairs broadcasting, why do we not see faith leaders on programmes like Question Time or Any Questions? Why not a faith voice on economic justice issues are discussed on Newsnight or Channel 4 News? More visibility from faith leaders, being questioned would add to the richness of the dialogue and also lead to a questioning of faith.

Faith after all is the basis of much of our civilisation today, yet it is an incredibly misunderstood subject. Give great credit to the BBC for its continued effort to look for different ways to broaden the understanding of world religions. Religious broadcasting is not all about Songs of Praise, though that programme obviously has a role to play. But there does need to be more broadening of the canvas when it comes to religion in broadcasting, further continuing to probe for answers to the many challenges facing the world today. Some may warn of the danger of a dilution but I would prefer to argue that a bigger say in the mainstream can only increase the impact and contribution that faith has to offer to a troubled world. It might help the ratings too

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