Thursday, 24 May 2012

Let religion out of the box

Paul Donovan's speech: from Sandford St Martin Awards 2012 Awards at Lambeth Palace.

The quality of the programmes put forward for the Sandford St Martin Awards this year shows that there’s no shortage of interest in religious programming. Viewing this year’s entries was an enjoyable task. And I’d like to thank my fellow judges – Cresta Norris, David Prest and Debbie Thrower for their insights and wisdom.

All of us as judges were struck by the depth and variety of those that made it onto the final shortlist of 10. The vast majority of programmes on the shortlist though, come from the BBC - and the corporation deserve due credit for continuing to produce such breadth in its coverage of faith matters. However, the lack of any significant religious output from ITV, Channel 5 and Sky is a matter for continuing regret.

All broadcasters though need to review the way in which they cover faith. There is a tendency to compartmentalise faith in a box called exotic, weird or “must do a bit” of. Yet, surveys say that at least 70% of the population have some sort of faith belief. What many of the shortlisted programmes show this year is how much the moral grounding of our society today is based on the different world-faiths.

My call on broadcasters over the coming year would be to get faith out of the box called “religion”. Faith has real relevance for life today and as such should be reflected across the broadcast spectrum. It must be mainstream.

Remember how one of the most visible challenges to the new religion of this age, known as ‘consumer-based market capitalism’, came with the arrival of the Occupy movement outside St Paul’s Cathedral. This kick-started the public debate that has since taken on bonuses, high pay and so on.

No doubt the various U-turns from the Church helped (as we say) – “give the story legs”. Those of us from the Catholic tradition had dreams that the protesters might up tents and move up the road to Westminster Cathedral plaza - but it was sadly not to be.

In the end though, the St Paul’s action brought forward a real questioning response from the Church to the destructive and unjust economic system that continues to dominate millions of lives today. The Church was once again centre-stage, relevant - 0and with a voice on an issue (economic justice) that really matters.

Broadcasters must think again - from the BBC with its excellent contribution to those that simply do not bother at all with religion. In the case of the BBC, why not broaden the faith dimension into the current affairs coverage. So say with some of the public debate programmes like Question Time and Any Questions, why not give faith a hearing. Faith leaders do represent people and important traditions, something that - dare I suggest the rota of “professional” comedians and journalists wheeled out weekly - don’t.

It would also be nice to hear a faith view on economic, environmental or peace discussions sometimes on programmes like Newsnight and Channel 4 News, rather than keep the faith people in those boxes marked “Gays”, “Abortion”, “Paedophiles” and “Assisted Dying”.

As the programmes on the shortlist tonight well illustrate, the area of faith has so much more to offer than simply being consigned to the box marked “Religion”.

Let’s open that box and let some light out into the rest of the TV lexicon!

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