BBC religion head should have a 'passion for production'

By Andrew Graystone
28 Apr 2009

This week the BBC will interview applicants for the post of Head of Religion and Ethics.

The nearest comparable job is probably Head of Sport. You have to deliver programmes that are impartial - and that often means being critical of people’s most deeply-held beliefs. At the same time, you have to produce live acts of broadcast worship in which those believers are invited to join in prayers and songs of praise. You are custodian of the venerable and still hugely popular Songs of Praise. But you are also the responsible for the ever-controversial Thought for the Day. What sort of person could possibly oversee such a diverse slate and satisfy an audience that includes the passionately religious, the vehemently anti-religious and the great mass who find it all bewildering or irrelevant?

The sacred elephant in the interview room will surely be whether the successful candidate is a paid-up believer themselves. It would be illegal to ask the question, but it will make a huge difference to the way they go about the job.

Sunny Hundal reports that many are saying the Churches’ Media Council inspired an inaccurate story in the Sunday Telegraph about the Archbishop of Canterbury insisting that only a card-carrying Christian is fit for the post. Certainly there are Christians who take that view. Some would see the appointment of an atheist or a member of another faith as a betrayal of the BBC’s responsibility to 'Christian Britain'. It is not a view I share.

If religious broadcasting is to survive at all, the BBC will need to appoint someone who can reinvent the genre for a post-Christendom audience. The challenge is to make programmes that tackle the great religious questions which most of us ask, but do it in a way that attracts an audience who could just as easily watch something less challenging on 100 other channels.

Believers of all stripes care deeply about their faith. And when we hear it misrepresented or trivialised in the media, it hurts. Many programme-makers are poorly-informed about religion and have little or no first-hand experience of devotion. It took them far too long to work out that there was more than one kind of Muslim in Iraq. They have yet to wake up to the fact that humanists are not a homogeneous group, and that almost 50 per cent of Christians in the UK are not white.

Whether the new Head of Religion is a Muslim or a Methodist, a Hindu or a Humanist, is irrelevant to me as long as they believe something and believe it with a passion. In a world where people lay down their lives (and take other people’s lives) for their faith we do not deserve and cannot afford another generation of religious programming that is bland and shallow.

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(c) Andrew Graystone is director of the Churches’ Media Council. He is also board member at the Longsight Church of the Nazarene in Manchester, a broadcaster, trainer and consultant. He has studied Theology at the University of Durham and at Nazarene Theological College and is a visiting lecturer in 'Faith and the Media' at NTC (Manchester).

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