Faith organisations have welcomed a report that says the BBC should increase its coverage of religious issues, amid concerns that some of the report’s findings are “bizarre” in an increasingly secular society.
The BBC’s religion and ethics review, released on Wednesday, recommended increasing coverage of non-Christian faiths, introducing faith-related story lines into popular drama, incorporating greater religious understanding into news reporting, and creating a global team of reporters with religious expertise, under its first religion editor.
It also committed the BBC to continue with Thought for the Day, the three-minute slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which religious figures reflect on current events.
Church of England leaders were pleased with the conclusions of the review. “We look forward to seeing how [the BBC’s] commitment to first-class coverage of religious affairs develops in its sophistication and scope in the months and years ahead,” said Graham James, the bishop of Norwich.
Jan McFarlane, the bishop of Repton and chair of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes religious programming, said the report emphasised “the importance of religious literacy in understanding our world”.
“The BBC’s research has shown that the public realise that we need to understand other faiths in order to live together peacefully in our world,” McFarlane said.
The report was also welcomed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Mona Siddiqui, a professor of Islamic studies at Edinburgh University.
But the Humanists UK charity said it was disappointed that non-religious commentators would not be included in the line-up of Thought for the Day presenters.
Andrew Copson, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “In the past the BBC’s religion and belief output, including Thought for the Day, has focused exclusively on organised religion and has failed to reflect the reality of religion and belief in the UK today. As a result this programming has been increasingly out of touch.
“Disappointingly, while this review emphasises the need to better reflect diversity within religion, it still has not fully woken up to the need for equal inclusion of humanist beliefs. It is vital that the full diversity of religious and humanist beliefs are taken into account and accurately reflected across the BBC’s programming about religion and belief.”
The philosopher Julian Baggini also said he was disappointed that Thought for the Day was not to be widened. “This report says the BBC should represent the plurality of beliefs in the UK, and as we know the largest group in the country is people with no religion,” he told the Today programme.
It was “just bizarre” that Thought for the Day was “exclusively for the use of people of faith in order to express some view of the world”.
The year-long review noted that the BBC produced more than 7,000 hours of religious and ethics broadcasting each year, although much of it was programmes featuring traditional worship and discussion. “The challenge for the BBC as a broadcaster is to meet the sheer range of needs, as people’s beliefs become more fluid and individual,” it said.
Although more than half of people in the UK say they have no religion, the report pointed out that globally 84% of people affiliate with a religion, predicted to rise to more than 90% in the next few decades. “If we really want to understand what is going on in the world and what the future holds, then we need to be able to make sense of our beliefs and those of others,” it said.
In a foreword to the report, the BBC director general, Tony Hall, said it had never been more important for the BBC to get its religious output right. “In today’s complex society, we need to work harder than ever to understand ourselves and each other – not least the role that religion plays in everyday life, the beliefs that define us, and the certainties that guide us in uncertain times.”
Religion shaped events and policy across the globe, Hall said. “In a fast-changing world we need to do more than ever to understand the role of different beliefs and the impact they have on global events.”
While the BBC intended to increase and improve its coverage of all religions and beliefs, he added: “Our commitment to Christianity is undiminished.”
Among the report’s recommendations are:
- To reflect an increasingly pluralistic UK society.
- To extend coverage of non-Christian religious calendars and festivals to mainstream programmes.
- To create a global team of reporters with specific religious expertise under a new post of religion editor.
- To give more space in news coverage to explain how religious and non-religious world views shape events.
- To make 2019 a “Year of Beliefs”, aimed particularly at audiences under the age of 45.
- To explore issues through a lens of different beliefs and cultures in news, popular drama, music and comedy.
It also suggests the BBC improve religious literacy internally, with research, briefings to staff and the inclusion of religion and belief in training around unconscious bias.
The review consulted more than 150 faith leaders and experts, including the archbishop of Canterbury, the chief rabbi, senior Muslim leaders and Humanists UK.