I write the following as a huge fan of the BBC and its work. The BBC literally saved my life when my wife and I were being evacuated from Albania in 1997. So I write these things as a friend of the Corporation.
The 2007 report produced by Richard Tait, the Chairman of the Impartiality Steering Group recommended that the BBC should move away from a model of impartiality based on a see-saw seeking to balance opposing views to a Wagon Wheel where a broad spectrum of different and dissonant voices would inform the BBC’s coverage. This was a laudable aim but sadly six years on the see-saw seems to be alive and well in television coverage of faith and belief. This is due in part to limited budget and in my experience a severe lack of faith literacy from the researchers and sometimes journalists involved.
Both I and a number of colleagues have had first-hand experience of this when asked to participate in television programmes and radio interviews. I have been told – “We are doing a special on the Bible” and they wanted someone who believed the Bible was true to put opposite someone that thought it wasn’t. I asked a basic question of the researcher relating to which parts of the Bible had she read and she told me she had never read the Bible. This is inadequate to say the least for a researcher on a religious television programme about the Bible.
The see-saw principle is still in operation in most of the national television and radio experience I have had. For example, on numerous occasions I have been asked to participate in a debate with people that take the polar opposite views to me on subjects including:
The Bible – isn’t it just full of immorality? (The Big Questions)
Homosexuality – aren’t Christians just judgemental bigots? (William Crawley)
Human Sterilisation – why shouldn’t people be sterilised after one child? (Big Questions)
Local radio takes a different line – which has focussed more on explanation and commentary.
I have been frustrated by the coverage of faith in science programmes. For example, Brian Cox’s series Wonders of Life. Faith is set in opposition to science as if no scientists could possibly hold a religious conviction. As a trained scientist I find this dismissive coverage offensive.
It struck me that there are still 13,000 households who still only have a black and white only television license – the black and white portrayal of faith verses science, fundamentalists versus liberals, evangelicals versus the world is unnecessary caricaturing and does not befit a public service broadcaster. There are so many ways the BBC sets the standard for impartiality and trustworthy reporting. It is a shame for its coverage to be let down in this area.
When I have raised this concern with both the news editors and the head of religion, I have been told that this does not make interesting television. But this polarising oppositional format feels less like news and education fitting for public service television and more like The Jerry Springer Show.
On numerous occasions I have suggested an alternative model for the coverage of faith and religion:
1) Enthusiast television
Top Gear (and to a lesser extent Dara O Briain’s Science Club) has a format based around friendship, banter and divergent opinions. Is there a way that religious broadcasting could borrow this informative and entertaining format?
Michael Palin’s journeys around the world discovering new cultures with a sense of humility and wonder is another format that would fit well with the discovery and exploration of religious experience.
3) Social and historical commentary
This approach was shared by Caspar Melville, Editor of New Humanist magazine, who suggested that the style of The Politics Show or some of the Newsnight election commentators who were retired politicians from different parties and were able to talk with insider knowledge about what was likely to be going on inside the machine of the parties for which they no longer worked. I have written a couple of pieces distributed by Ruth Gledhill at the Times which aimed to provide a beginners guide to a coronation service or the royal wedding liturgy.
Dr Krish Kandiah