BBC needs to promote religious literacy, Bishop of Norwich tells Peers

On 12th October 2016 the House of Lords debated a Government motion “that this House takes note of the drafts of the BBC’s new charter and the agreement between the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Corporation.” The Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham James, spoke in the debate about the need for well-resourced and informed coverage of religion. 

norwich121016bThe Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I have been pondering what interest to declare in this debate. I have never been employed by the BBC, but have received very modest remuneration for occasional broadcasts; I listen to Radio 4 more than any other channel; I fall asleep when watching “Newsnight”, despite my best intentions; and I belong to a generation for whom, in our childhood and early life, television and radio were the BBC—in my native Cornwall in the late 1950s, there was no ITV. I say all this because I realise that the BBC is so much part of the fabric of my life that I can be an incurable romantic about it.

In some ways, the BBC is rather like the Church of England: it is both national and local, and everyone in the BBC, as in the Church of England, imagines that power is being exercised somewhere but they always believe that it is somewhere else and that they do not have any. That is true even for the people in charge—just ask the Archbishop of Canterbury, or perhaps the chair of the BBC Trust. People demand the unreasonable of both institutions while being quietly fond of them. But we are often most critical of those we love—constructively, one hopes.

The draft charter and agreement are much better than I had feared in the wake of the unseemly licence fee settlement. To make the licence fee a means of funding a particular government policy still seems to me to be inappropriate. That is especially so when the accountability of the BBC to the actual licence fee payers is rather unclear in these new arrangements. The new board’s independent remit does not really make it the voice of licence fee payers, nor can that be the role of Ofcom. It would be good to have some clarity from the Minister on where the voice of those who pay the licence fee is really heard.

We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that there is a word that has a high profile in the draft charter that was, I believe, entirely missing from the last BBC charter. It is, of course, “distinctiveness”, to which he referred. An information sheet from the DCMS tells us that the BBC has recognised it should become more distinctive and that the Government want to create more structures within the BBC,

“to provide audiences with world class distinctive content”.

Nowhere, though, are we told what distinctiveness is and how we would recognise it. It seems to be assumed that it is obvious. Yet, of course, as we know and as we have heard, Ofcom is to regulate this widely agreed yet ill-defined concept. I hope the Minister will comment on this.

The BBC’s first public purpose is to provide impartial news and information to help the people of this country understand and engage with the world around them. I believe we are generally extremely well served, although I have always believed there is one area where the BBC is insufficiently distinctive. It was mentioned in the consultation. It is in relation to religion. Less effort is put into interpreting a religious world than a political one, even though the world population is much more religious than it is political. Sport has a galaxy of professional pundits and commentators; religious affairs has one correspondent and not even a religion editor—partly, I suspect, because it is assumed that news and current affairs more generally can deal with religion as a minority genre. Or, perhaps, it is just too difficult to interpret an intensely religious world to what is assumed to be a secular Britain.

While there is a need for a distinctive service, the BBC has not invested sufficient resources, not least in its own religion and ethics department. I do not believe the BBC has any sort of evangelistic task, but it has an educational one, and our increasing religious illiteracy as a nation does us no favours in our understanding of and relationships with the wider world, especially the world beyond Europe.

It is peculiar what now rates in this area as a news story. I was surprised last week by the scant reference in the BBC to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Rome. Perhaps it is because Archbishops of Canterbury have been trotting to Rome so often in recent years. But for the Pope and the most reverend Primate to commission 19 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops to engage in joint mission together, some from parts of the world where religious division is deeply rooted, was surely worthy of more attention. Or have we become so cloth-eared or cynical that we do not see an imaginative, distinctive and creative religious act for what it is? The public purposes of the BBC cover news and impartiality, education and learning, creativity and diversity. There is no mention of religion anywhere in the BBC’s public purposes. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us where it actually fits.

Back in June, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury drew attention in a speech to the need for true diversity to pay proper attention to religion. The most reverend Primate quoted the historian Simon Schama, who said:

“My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong”.

Distortions of religious beliefs and sacred texts are becoming more common in our world and are being used as political weapons. But if we are unfamiliar with the tenets and beliefs of the world faiths, we will not be able to interpret or assess them, or sort out good religion from bad.

A commitment to religious literacy among its journalists and the promotion of a more religiously literate nation would be a major and distinctive public service that the BBC could offer our country. There is a huge amount of resource around on religious literacy itself. In an age when so much of our public and political discourse is bedevilled by a rejection of complexity, this is an area where the recognition of complexity is very badly needed.