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The BBC and Religion

The BBC and Religion

As the BBC celebrate 100 years on air, former Head of Religion, Michael Wakelin explores its relationship with faith over the past century. 18/10/2022

From its creation in 1922, the BBC was married to religious broadcasting and of course initially that was almost exclusively Christian broadcasting. Lord Reith, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, was himself a committed Christian and was convinced that his fledgling organisation could play an important role in keeping Christian values as a central part of the life of the nation. 

The churches, after an initial problem with the whole notion of broadcasting “the sacred” to the great unwashed, soon saw that here was a powerful opportunity to use the BBC as a platform for continuing to propagate the traditional form of Christianity they thought the country wanted and needed. Surely if the BBC regularly broadcast the Book of Common Prayer, the nation would come to its senses and flock back to the half empty churches. They believed the BBC was there to do the churches’ job, and at least initially there was a tacit, if not active, agreement from the Corporation with this strategy. 

A hundred years on – and how things have changed. We are about to discover, in the results of the Census, that the majority of the country no longer even call themselves religious let alone Christian. The BBC has cut back on its religious output so much that only the barest minimum of programming is budgeted for and the once powerful religious broadcasting department is now only responsible for Radio output and even some of that has been farmed out to an independent production company. The only remaining strand on TV is the 61–year–old Songs of Praise, which is now in the hands of an independent company, and other TV commissions (mainly to mark religious festivals) are few and far between.  

My own time as Head of Religious Broadcasting was tough. My lingering memory was of trying to walk up an escalator which was relentlessly coming down the other way. One of the BBC commissioners said to me once that they didn’t want a Religious Broadcasting department at all. At the time that was devastating because I was there to try and protect my colleagues and the department’s livelihood. But, although they didn’t mean it this way, in hindsight I think they had a point. The Religious Broadcasting Department had for too long been seen as a ghetto to shove unwanted tick box programming where it could be out of sight, scheduled in bad time slots.   

What the BBC needed, and still needs, is proper religious literacy across the organisation. Apart from those heroes still maintaining excellence in BBC Radio’s religious output, a department is not necessary and without one, it can’t then be used as a cheap solution to the BBC’s responsibility to broadcast religion.   

Religion is not like any other subject. It is not like science or history or sport. Religion is not a containable programme genre. It is, for the vast majority of the world’s population, the very life blood of the universe pulsing through the veins of existence. It has been necessary to have a department over the years to ensure that the considerable religious output was well serviced but now there is less, what the BBC needs is a religiously literate work force that understands it and can represent it accurately and fairly in dramas, documentaries, the news and even entertainment. But it also requires a religiously literate management and governance who can see its role in the big picture and can then make the right decisions about how it serves its diverse licence fee payers.  

In my work with the Religion and Belief Literacy Partnership we have discovered several large organisations who are seeing the need for a proper accommodation and understanding of religion in the workplace. We have delivered training programmes of various kinds to Marks and Spencers, the House of Commons, Tesco, and several city law firms. Through the work of the Religion Media Centre, we have also found a real need amongst journalists, editors and other content producers for the religious expertise found in our factsheets, daily news bulletins and media briefings.  

The fact is religion, contrary to sociological predictions, is not going away. But if it is not properly understood and accommodated it can so easily become toxic and a negative influence. The nations broadcaster – if it can still be called that – should be at the forefront of religiously literate communications, across all its platforms to serve its increasingly diverse audience.  

Religious literacy is, of course, not about people being made religious – it just says that religion matters and deserves the highest editorial standards.  

There is a rich mosaic of religious expression in the UK which needs to be reflected across the BBC’s output. As Prof David Ford Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge puts it, “Our world is not simply religious or simply secular it is complexly both”. Addressing that at the BBC is going to take a wholesale change in attitude and practice. 

Michael Wakelin is Executive Chair of the Religion Media Centre, Executive producer at TBI Media and a former Head of Religion at the BBC. 

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Image by seeshooteatrepeat on Shutterstock

Michael Wakelin

Michael Wakelin

Michael Wakelin is Executive Chair of the Religion Media Centre, Executive producer at TBI Media and a former Head of Religion at the BBC.

Watch, listen to or read more from Michael Wakelin

Posted 18 October 2022

BBC, Faith, Religion, Worldviews


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