Photo: Des Willie/BBC

Is more religious programming at the BBC a good move?

Under new Ofcom guidelines, the BBC must air a greater quantity of religious programming. Two of our writers look at this decision, and discuss potential positive and negative aspects of this move.

Andrew Kersley

Recently I discovered the best series ever to have aired on television. Bibleman was a religious TV show in which the protagonist hero has the ‘superpower’ of memorising the entire Bible. Miraculously, this hero only encounters villains whose only weakness is having this scripture quoted at them. While his power is certainly niche, it’s still probably a more useful power than, say, using a bow and arrow (I’m looking at you, Hawkeye). Bibleman somehow is supposed to be serious, which just makes the clumsy attempts at evangelical conversion just that bit more entertaining. My reaction when I heard then that the BBC is making itself air substantially more religious programming (some 115 more hours each year) was mixed. One part of me was uneasy, but another just hoped for a Bibleman reboot.

Bibleman aside, I generally take issue with religious programming on television. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I generally think mixing church and state should be off limits. The BBC, as the state-run broadcasting company, is an arm of the state and for all its independence is still intimately interlinked with it. As an extension of the state then, not only does the BBC have no responsibility to produce religious programming but, if anything, it should strictly avoid such things. It, like the state and unlike religion, must remain totally secular and accountable. The BBC is the people’s institution and as such must remain fully independent and accountable to the people. Although it is obviously unlikely that the BBC will go full 1984 any time soon, this move is certainly, in my mind, a step in the wrong direction.

I doubt anyone is going to come out and say Songs of Praise is the epitome of television

This plan’s proponents believe these new regulations will be a catalyst for more religious literacy among the public, and in turn, our society as a whole should become more tolerant of all religions. Frankly, I don’t think religious intolerance is going anywhere anytime soon anyway, and the naivety it takes to think TV could ever solve or even noticeably ameliorate a problem that has been around as long as there have been competing faiths is unfathomable. As much as I love television, the chances of it changing the world in that way are pretty much nil.

Obviously, you can hope this move just means there will be a tidal wave of quality television that deals with religious issues, but you must remember that not everything the BBC makes is a hard-hitting drama or a hilarious sitcom, which could hypothetically artfully deal with religion. They also produce educational programmes, public interest stories and documentaries, all of which (when made religious) have a tendency historically to become lazily-made programming that hides its terrible quality under appeals to emotion. Just look at Sky Real Lives’ show Angels, in which a panel of ‘experts’ debate the validity of people claiming to have experienced angels. Moments like them concluding one person finding a feather outside their house proves the existence of guardian angels is laughable, until you realise these people actually truly believe this. Furthermore, I doubt anyone is going to come out and say Songs of Praise is the epitome of television.

Not only for impartiality, independence and accountability then, but most importantly television quality, I really think such religious programming should be avoided at all costs. But seen as this move is happening irrelevant of my unease, I guess I’m just going to have to get used to watching a lot more Songs of Praise.

Sam Savelli

It is not difficult to present religious programming as crass and dangerous to television quality if the primary example used is Bibleman, an obscure American direct-to-video series. Likewise, criticising a show produced by Sky is not representative of the kind of thing that the BBC are likely to air under these new guidelines. Would it not be more fruitful to consider religiously-themed BBC sitcoms, such as The Vicar of Dibley or Citizen Khan? Or perhaps last year’s highly praised new drama about a Catholic priest, Broken?

To hear that the BBC has been obligated by Ofcom to produce and air more religious content in the future has left me both pleased and saddened. On the one hand, I’m in full agreement that such a move is needed in order to add balance to the overwhelmingly secular television landscape of the present; on the other hand, I’m sad that we’ve reached a point where the BBC had to have this forced upon them.

There is a point in which I agree with Andrew: in that the BBC is ‘the people’s institution’ and so must be ‘accountable to the people’. Except, I’m not quite sure where this comes into his argument, since using this logic the BBC is surely obliged to pay attention to the 47 per cent of the UK population who have a religion. To depict the practice of religion on television is not to violate the BBC’s independence or to subject the institution to some kind of terrible bias, it is simply to reflect the culture and lifestyle of a large portion of license fee payers. On the contrary, to attempt to whitewash all religious programming from television is the more sinister approach, which pushes an atheist agenda in pretending that religions do not exist.

Religious people are still living here – to produce television content that reflects this is only fair

This is precisely one of the reasons why I think more religious programming is a good thing. As somebody who has been brought up in a Catholic family with the practice and teaching of my faith such a huge part of life, I feel somewhat unrepresented by the media, including television. Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities undoubtedly feel the same, perhaps to an even greater degree. Showing almost exclusively secular characters and secular worldviews is an indirect way of pushing religious believers to the margins.

And that brings me onto the final, and perhaps most outrageous, point made that I would like to contest. To claim that television has no ability to affect in any way whatsoever the growing problem of religious intolerance is more than just naïve, it is profoundly unempathetic. Of course, a few more religious programmes are not going to suddenly eradicate Islamophobia, for example, but we should at least try to take a step like this. Well-produced documentaries could have the power to spread a much-needed understanding about the beliefs and lifestyles of religious people, and the BBC as a reputed national institution is well placed to get a decent audience for this sort of thing.

Britain is not a wholly secular country. Religious people are still living here. To produce television content that reflects this is only fair, whereas to neglect these people promotes a worrying agenda that they don’t matter.

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