By Tim Wyatt
Fears that a shake-up of public service broadcasting will accelerate the decline of religion programming were aired at a briefing about the Media Bill.
The legislation, which is due to be passed through its final House of Commons stage this month, will give public service broadcasters (PSBs) much greater flexibility in what they broadcast.
Unlike the Communications Act 2003 it is replacing, the Media Bill does not impose a specific requirement on PSBs to cover religion.
Several contributors to the briefing, held by the Religion Media Centre, noted how even under the existing regulatory framework, hours of religion coverage had dropped significantly in the past 10 years, with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 now producing almost no content at all, while the BBC provides 99 per cent of all output.
David Strachan, a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust that promotes religious broadcasting, said he feared too many people working for the broadcasters thought this kind of programming was solely serving a small, core audience of committed religious people, “some kind of an unintelligent minority that still believes in old-fashioned stuff”.
His charity had honoured a wide range of high-quality shows in the last year, name-checking a documentary about the inner life of monks and a radio show exploring the relationship between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
There were also of plenty of shows that did not technically fall into the religion category which still engaged with religious themes, such as the care home drama Help, starring Jodie Comer, Mr Strachan added.
However, if the law did not spell out in clear terms what was expected from broadcasters, they would dodge their vague obligations, he said. “If you don’t specify what needs to be done, and you just make an assumption that people will be good chaps, I think they won’t do it. You need stick as well as carrot.”
The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop on the media and sits on the House of Lords communications select committee, said his main concerns were about the Media Bill’s vagueness. It aimed to introduce greater flexibility to the broadcasters but had no metrics for measuring their work in response.
There was a long-standing problem about religious illiteracy across society and “you cannot understand the world if you don’t understand religion”, he said.
Therefore, there had to be some way to guarantee there would be a proportion of public service broadcasting tackling religion, and some metrics for the regulator to check against.
However, when the media secretary, Lucy Frazer, had appeared before his committee, she had conceded there were no concrete ways for Ofcom to measure the broadcasters’ performance under the new bill.
When pressed if he would also hold the BBC’s feet to the fire over their own big cuts to religious broadcasting on BBC local radio, where 39 local programmes have been reduced to 13 regional shows. Bishop Baines said he was concerned by the reductions.
“But I’m afraid we have to offer solutions not just say ‘That isn’t adequate’, as the BBC is under the cosh financially.” That could look like suggesting alternative places to cut rather than religion, rather than simply decrying any and all cuts.
Roger Bolton, a former BBC journalist and broadcaster, said he echoed Bishop Baines’s worries about Ofcom’s lack of metrics. As well as no longer including specific obligations about broadcasting some religious content, the Media Bill also did not include any requirement on the regulator to measure what the PSBs were actually showing, he said.
Later, an Ofcom statement confirmed that its detailed reporting of PSBs — in which all its categories are considered — would not stop even under the new Media Bill’s more relaxed regime. “At the moment we do not plan to stop collecting data on genres, including hours of religious programming, for the foreseeable future. This is because we will still have duties to ensure that PSBs are meeting the needs and satisfying the interests of as many different audiences as practicable.”
Mr Bolton said there remained an astonishing decline in broadcasting, with broadcasters such as Channel 4, which had in the past produced excellent shows during peak slots, now doing zero hours each year.
“What do we do about this? You have a retreat generally in the broadcasters, a focusing on a business future, and no people taking about what religion and ethics in public service broadcasting actually is.”
Broadcasting about religion, whether explaining the historic role of Christianity in shaping Britain or promoting better understanding of the Muslim community, was essential to break down echo chambers and “help the country understand itself”, Mr Bolton added. “Now, that’s public service.”
Instead, the Media Bill would allow Ofcom to wash its hands of enforcing this on the PSBs, which would understandably take this new freedom to pursue more commercially friendly programming. He called on peers to amend the bill in the House of Lords to ensure it specifically mentioned religion and required Ofcom to continue its detailed reporting as well.
Gareth Barr, director of policy and regulation at ITV, explained that there had not been specific quotas for number of hours of religion broadcasting for many years (and similarly no quotas exist for science, history or any other specific area).
While the new Media Bill does in fact simplify the PSBs’ requirements by no longer mentioning religion, it also for the first time gives Ofcom the power to impose quotas if it has evidence that a particular strand of programming or audience was being neglected.
Before his ITV role, Mr Barr wrote Ofcom’s third PSB review and then cited religion as one of the “at-risk” genres that should be addressed by policy-makers.
“The challenge for Ofcom will be how it pays for those obligations. That’s the bit that is much less talked about. The mechanics of how you do this is quite difficult, because it’s not obvious whom you impose those obligations on and how that output is paid for.”
According to Ofcom figures, religion programming on all PSBs has fallen by about 42 per cent since 2010, but in the past five years it has essentially disappeared from ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Mr Barr said this was a consequence of long-term changes to the broadcasting industry, which had seen increased competition at home and abroad. As a result, broadcasters were now run as lean and hyper-efficient companies and were laser-focused on only producing shows that could “cut through at scale”.
Unlike with the other PSBs, the BBC is not regulated by the requirements of the Communications Act or the new Media Bill, but it does have separate targets set by itself in conjunction with the regulator. Its latest annual plan aims to deliver 500 hours of religious programming on radio, and a further 200 hours on television.
Mark Friend, a former BBC executive who wrote the corporation’s 2017 Ethics and Religion Review, said the new bill was unlikely to change things dramatically for the BBC when it came to religion broadcasting, but said the broadcaster still had unanswered questions to ponder.
“Are we trying to delight a core audience that wants to consume very clearly categorised religion and ethics output, or are we trying to reach a broader audience to increase understanding around the issues?” he asked.
“Of course, the BBC is trying to do both.” Without any clear legal or regulatory obligation on the BBC, the form its religion programming takes was entirely down to the judgment of its decision-makers internally, Mr Friend concluded.
In defence of the PSBs, Mr Barr from ITV noted his channel would cover religion copiously but in forms not recorded by Ofcom as “religious”: for instance, a news programme carrying the Archbishop of Canterbury’s criticism of immigration policy, or an Emmerdale character not eating during Ramadan.
“The very human aspects of religion in a broad sense are absolutely part of the programming we put out,” he insisted. He was wary of imposing more ring-fenced quotas on various types of programming, as “there simply isn’t surplus in the system to deliver that sort of piece-by-piece commissioning”.
This line of thinking was supported by Professor Kim Knott, who teaches on religion at Lancaster University and has tracked media coverage of religion for decades. She said Britain’s religious landscape changed considerably over time, but the broadcasters had shifted with this.
“When we did our research, if we looked at broadcasting about religion more generally, we could see it everywhere across the schedule in every kind of programming.”
Yes, this could look like trivialising the subject and avoiding in-depth coverage of faith, but it also represented ordinary Britons’ actual experience.
Alex Strangwayes-Booth, who worked for many years co-ordinating BBC local radio’s religion output, said the religious establishment had signally failed to draw enough attention to the BBC’s recent sweeping cuts to local religious broadcasting.
She said there were too many BBC executives who preferred “light and fluffy” programming, with vicars doing newspaper reviews or 60-second sermons, rather than substantial shows which “dig into religion”.
“What the BBC needs to do is to be is to be ambitious and confident and realise that it can get a really strong core audience of people who are interested in religion, [but] there is a lack of confidence and lack of religious literacy across the board.”
The Media Bill, if it passes its report stage in the Commons, is due to be debated and possibly amended by the House of Lords from next month.
Further information on the Media Bill and religious broadcasting is on our factsheet here