Bishop of Chelmsford says BBC services need to reflect religious and community life of the nation

On 21st April 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Best, Chair of the Lords Communications Committee, “That this House takes note of the report from the Communications Committee BBC Charter Review: Reith not Revolution (1st Report, HL Paper 96).” The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who is a member of the Committee spoke in the debate:

Chelmsford 251115The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I too speak as a member of the Select Committee that produced this report. I must declare an interest as a co-chair of the multi-faith standing conference of the BBC on religion and ethics, and related to that work I want to talk about the place of faith in public service broadcasting, and indeed to speak for all the faith communities in these islands.

It has been said that if a mission statement is more than two or three words long, it either means that the organisation does not really know its purpose, or even if it does, no one else will. Let me give a few examples: glasnost, girl power, flower power, New Labour and the big society; I will not go on. Consequently, if a mission statement is going to work, it has to be pithy and memorable. Lord Reith’s “inform, educate and entertain” does the job, and has done it very effectively for a long time—everyone knows it.When the last charter renewal process landed the BBC with six rather wordy and worthy public purposes, it was not necessarily doing it a favour. As the committee took evidence on those six public purposes, it was clear that the people who came to talk about them did not really know them very well themselves. I noticed that each person came with a crib sheet to remind themselves of what the purposes were about: they had clearly failed the memorability test. I also noted that while the new purposes are in some senses impossible to disagree with, the word “entertain”, which is surely a first base requirement for someone actually paying the licence fee, does not appear at all, and hence the title of the report: Reith not Revolution.

As we look forward to the forthcoming charter renewal, it is our strong view that the BBC should regroup around this historic vocation. We also want to say that it is good for the BBC to be entertaining. We do not want public service broadcasting relegated to just those bits of the output that a free market will not deliver. In this country we are rightly proud of the BBC and its place in our national life, its wider mission through the World Service, and its key contribution as part of a vibrant mixed economy of broadcasting in this country—one that is the envy of many other countries.

But we are not without criticism. To those three words that so admirably sum up the whole point of public service broadcasting, we tentatively add a fourth—the noble Lord, Lord Best, already mentioned it: “reflect”. It is to this recommendation that I will speak and limit what I say. Just as the BBC is called to educate, inform and entertain the nation, surely it must reflect the nation as well. This reflection must be more than merely regional. It is not just about sprinkling the airwaves with Yorkshire, scouse, Essex or Scottish accents. The UK is still a family of nations and, within that, a network of regions, each with its own culture and identity, but 21st-century Britain is also a network of communities. Many of these communities find their identity in ethnic origin and religious faith much more than geographic location. This is certainly the case in the East End of London where I serve as a bishop—one of the most multicultural and multifaith places in the whole of Europe. Having returned yesterday from the 16th meeting of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council in Lusaka, where we discussed with Christians from all around the world what it means to be Christian in a world of great diversity and difference, we should also remember that multifaith and multiculturalism in Britain today also means significant Christian communities from around the world practising their faith here, as well as the presence of other faith communities. The BBC needs to work harder at being better at reflecting this new multiracial and multifaith face of Britain. In particular, religious broadcasting needs to be given a much higher priority in educating, informing and, yes, entertaining us with the beauty and challenges of this diversity.

However, across the public service broadcasting sector, religious broadcasting has been in decline for quite a long while. Contrary to the assumptions of a largely secular media, religion is not a just a private matter—a sort of “add-on” to the rest of life for people who like that sort of thing. Faith is not a leisure activity. Rather, for those of us who live by faith, religious belief is essential and formational—a prime motivator of individuals and communities, shaping their world view and inspiring and informing their political, economic, ethical and social behaviour. Our whole nation needs to wake up to this, and if the BBC is to be the broadcaster of the nation and reflect our national life, it must do too.

That being so, it is hard to comprehend why the BBC has never appointed a religion editor in the same way that it has an editor—an “interpreter”—for business, economics, politics, the arts, sports, et cetera. In July 2015, Ofcom voiced similar misgivings. Its Third Review of Public Service Broadcasting identified religious broadcasting as an area of immediate concern. The BBC is still the dominant provider of religious programmes and many of these are excellent. For this I give thanks, but it remains the case that the BBC downgraded the post of head of religion in January 2015 so that the postholder no longer has authority to commission programmes. Commissioning is where the power really lies. This now sits with non-subject specialists in multigenre commissioning, in a team of history, science, business and religion. This makes strategic decisions about commissioning almost impossible to make and limits the BBC’s ability to fulfil its mission.

This is a time where it is nigh on impossible to understand the world, what is going on in it and how best to find solutions so that we can live in peace, without an understanding of religion. Those who care about our democracy, as well those who care about faith, need to press the BBC to answer this question: who has overall responsibility for the range, quantity and quality of religious programming? Since our report also voices concerns over the “downward trend” in spending on current affairs, it is not difficult to see how the BBC needs to strengthen its commitment to these areas of broadcasting. Hence the expectation in our report that the BBC maintain its commitment to religious broadcasting and increases its commitment to current affairs and the arts—my personal hope is that this is improved upon—and the following recommendation: that,

“the BBC, as the recipient of the universal licence fee”,


“its duty to serve all the diverse communities of the UK”,

and that,

“this obligation should be incorporated into any future accountability framework”.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con) [extract]: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for introducing this very timely debate. I join the House in congratulating him, the entire Communications Committee and their staff on their excellent report. After a busy week it has been an enjoyable, interesting and important afternoon. I will ensure a further opportunity for a debate on the charter this year. I am in discussion with the usual channels about the timing and the detail.

The report endorses the Reithian principles that the BBC should be about information, education and entertainment. The committee proposes adding an extra dimension with the fourth word “reflect” to commit the BBC to reflecting,

“the different opinions, lifestyles, beliefs and values of the nations, regions and diverse communities of the UK”.

This has been endorsed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and by inference by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. The Government agree that the BBC must serve every corner and community of the country, and next month’s White Paper will elaborate on that…


The Committee’s report says that there should be no reduction in the scale and scope of the BBC and that it should not restrict itself to content that is not provided commercially. The Government does not believe that “public service” simply means “minority interest”. The BBC is, as we have all agreed, able to take creative risks that other broadcasters cannot and we certainly want this to continue. It includes the important roles of supporting local democracy and reflecting diversity, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.

Several people spoke very helpfully on the issue of diversity—the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. The BBC is for everyone and must serve and represent all audiences. The totemic programmes that were mentioned are very important and the new BBC1 drama “Undercover” is another one. Noble Lords can expect to see diversity addressed in the White Paper. Ed Vaizey recently responded to an important debate on that subject in another place and I will pass on the kind comments from noble Lords about his role as a champion of diversity. It is not, in conclusion, for the Government to tell the BBC what programmes it should make, but diversity is of course important.

I also noted with great interest the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in relation to religious programming. Programming about faith and religion has a vital role and, I believe, is an important part of the BBC’s distinctiveness. The BBC itself has acknowledged the importance of distinctiveness.


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