BBC chief says that he is getting the balance right on religion

By staff writers
October 17, 2008

BBC director-general Mark Thompson has given a robust defence of the Corporation's engagement with religion during a lecture this week. Those who say the BBC is anti-Christian, or alternatively that it is broadcasting religious propaganda, are wrong, he says.

In a central London speech to the churches' think-tank Theos, Mr Thompson said that the relationship between religion and the media was important "because, quite simply, religion is back. It's not just in the news, but often leads the news."

The assumption when he joined the BBC back in 1979 was that the decline and marginalization of religion was a straightforward and inevitable consequence of modern life, he said. But the plain facts were showing this view to be mistaken.

Commenting on a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2005 on the media, where he argued that news media often acted in ways which were "lethally damaging" to journalism's own reputation, Mr Thompson defended both the media and the BBC.

Claims by some religious groups that the BBC was anti-God were "not just too sweeping; they are not even directionally true", said Mr Thompson.

He declared: "I believe that the BBC has maintained the daily and weekly presence of religion on its services with more consistency and commitment over decades than any other British media organization, and also more than most of the rest of what you could call public Britain.

"This year we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Daily Service. Songs of Praise, Choral Evensong, Thought For The Day, Prayer For The Day: the reflection of the cycle of the Christian week and the Christian year is there for anyone who wants to find it. So too ­ though admittedly less prominently ­ reflections of some of the key festivals of the UK's other major faiths. It's hard to square any of this with the idea of the BBC as the anti-God squad."

In the Q&A following Mr Thompson's speech, chaired by the broadcaster Jeremy Vine, the Director-General said coverage of minority faiths should be treated differently from Christianity because people of those faiths often came from ethnic minorities.

Mr Thompson added that the BBC would show programmes that criticised Islam if they were of sufficient quality - countering criticisms that have come from the National Secular Society and anti-religion campaigners that the Corporation's coverage of religion is selective or "propaganda on the license fee".

The BBC argues that it has a duty to inform people about religion alongside other subjects and life stances, and to reflect all aspects of life in Britain. It has faced diametrically opposed claims from religious and secular campaigners that it is too anti-God and too pro-God.

The Corporation, which is funded by public subscription, says it tries hard to be fair and creative in its coverage.

Humanists who support a pluralist policy have pointed out that positive non-religious lifestyles and convictions are rarely adequately represented in the overall mix, however.

The BBC's religion and ethics department has also stoutly refused to engage with calls from both religious and non-religious sources for Thought for the Day on Radio 4 to be opened up to non-religious contributors.

The producers of the reflection slot have subsequently dropped at least one contributor who supported this idea publicly.

Dr Williams' talk in 2005 was not a criticism of the BBC, but a comment about standards in the media generally. It drew support as well as disagreement from journalists and others involved with reporting and broadcasting.

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