Religion and the BBC

As is being widely reported, the Church of England’s General Synod is being asked to raise concerns about religious programming on the BBC, and over the appointment of a Muslim, Aaqil Ahmed, as commissioning editor for religion. The Bishop of Croydon has a reasonable piece about it on his blog:

…the real question is this: will Ahmed bring to coverage of Christianity the same intelligent and explanatory approach he has brought to coverage of Islam and the Quran at Channel 4? It seems to me that coverage of Islam assumes ignorance on the part of viewers and, therefore, seeks to explain before offering a critique. When it comes to Christianity, however, understanding is (mistakenly) assumed and the critique is almost always wholly negative – and frequently weak. Why, for example, does coverage of the Quran use sympathetic voices whereas the series on Christianity gives voice to critics – not to people from within the faith? A series on the Bible planned for 2011 (the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – which shaped the English language and people) has now been ditched.

Less reasonable is input from Don Maclean, a former presenter on BBC Radio 2, as reported by the Mail:

Mr Maclean said: ‘They’re keen on Islam, they’re keen on programmes that attack the Christian church.

‘I know there are things that need to be brought forward, but you don’t see any programmes on Anglicanism that don’t talk about homosexual clergy and you don’t see anything on Roman Catholicism that don’t talk about paedophiles.

‘They seem to take the negative angle every time.  They don’t do that if they’re doing programmes on Islam.  Programmes on Islam are always supportive.

…He said: ‘I think there’s a secularist movement in this country to get rid of Christianity.  Something must be done.’

Unhappily, for no clear reason he mixes this in with:

The presenter claimed ‘the last thing we want is war on the streets’ adding that ‘we need all the moderate Muslims to stand up and be counted’.

He added: ‘They’re all in private telling you how dreadful they think Islamic terrorism is, but they’re not forming together in a group and standing up against it.’

It’s true that religious programming overall has declined: the Christian Institute reports that “the BBC’s religious coverage has fallen by nearly 15 per cent in the last 20 years, from 177 hours in 1988 to 155 in 2008, even though its total television output has doubled”.  Serious documentaries about religion have been marginalised: on the TV, the Everyman and Heart of the Matter strands have long gone, while on the radio the Sunday news programme is broadcast at an ungodly early hour and the World Service’s Reporting Religion is no more.

But Maclean’s complaint (presumably lifted from Michael Nazir-Ali) is over-egged: there is a generous amount of devotional material on the radio, and programmes continue to be broadcast on TV (see here for a current list). Compare that with ITV, which ditched its devotional Christian programming some years ago for purely commerical reasons; insofar as there is less devotional programming, that’s a result of secularisation, rather than a process directed by a “secularist movement”. I’d like to see more documentaries, but it’s not true that the only subjects covered concern sexual matters: at Easter there was a very good docudrama about the future Pope John Paul II’s experiences during the war, and if you keep a close eye on the schedules a decent amount of material about religion can be found in programmes about history or the arts, particularly on BBC Four.

By the way, I saw Don Maclean once in the flesh – when I mentioned this to some friends I was surprised at how enthusiastic they were. Eventually I discovered there is an American singer of the same name, although spelt differently.