A New Normal – BBC Religion & Ethics Review

The BBC’s Review of its Religion and Ethics output and programme-making practice has important immediate and long-term implications. I want to focus not so much on what programmes will get made as a result of its findings but on the change to media culture that I believe will follow from the implementation of its decisions.

This change will be seen in:

*the training of journalists of the future;

*the rising prominence of religious literacy as a concept, as a skill worth cultivating and an essential tool of self-understanding and of any claim to be an interpreter of the times;

*the development of a type of ‘belief literacy’, beyond religious literacy and well beyond the BBC.

The Review has launched a set of new norms, along with a raft of new means of consolidating and progressing them.

Mark Friend, who led the Review process, facilitating the roundtable consultation in Cardiff

Everything in the Review flows from two key statements:

if we really want to understand what is going on in the world and what the future holds, then we need to be able to make sense of our beliefs and those of others.

religion continues to play a key role in shaping events and policy across the globe. In a fast-changing world, we need to do more than ever to understand the role of different beliefs and the impact they have on global events.

The dimensions here are the personal and the global. Ourselves and Others.

However, the significance of the stance that the BBC has taken is rooted in its relative novelty. It’s only yesterday, as it were, that these assertions would not have been self-evident.

The training of journalists in the post-war years has tended to a gradual downplaying of the importance of understanding religion, to the point where there are very few university journalism courses in the UK which offer students any input in this area and little training available for those working in the field. The BBC is reversing the expectations. It is setting up its own religious literacy training and it will follow that this will create a new norm.

Journalists at #ReportingBelief17 Photo @HirstPhotos

In Wales, where I work, there has been recognition for some time that the status quo was untenable. When working as a professional tutor at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Media, Journalism and Culture I was alerted to the unpreparedness of students at Masters level to deal with the complexities of stories at the top of the news agenda which had religious or belief elements. This opened my eyes to the complete absence of input in any Welsh university at any level at the time (2015) and to a whole range of assumptions about reporting belief, among academics and journalists, which were long overdue some re-assessment.

I organised with NUJ Training Wales, in November 2016 and May 2017, two ground-breaking workshops for journalists and people of faith and of secular belief:

#ReportingBelief16: When Religion Makes the News

Reporting Belief 2017: An appetite for engagement

These were well-attended and resulted in online resources permanently available. They raised awareness among journalists of the need to up their game in this field and offered religious and secular belief groups access to some excellent training.

Media training for non-journalists from Emma Meese, Centre for Community Journalism, Cardiff University Photo @HirstPhotos

Lessons were, and are still, being learned in how to format and deliver this kind of training. At our event in May ITV Wales made a striking offer to profile on the early evening news any faith/belief group present at the event. This has resulted in very little take-up by the groups approached but the offer is still on the table. My guess is that non-media groups need even more encouragement and partnering in order to take advantage of such an opportunity. Cytûn (Churches Together in Wales) has just given the go-ahead to an event in 2018 which will offer churches further training in dealing with the media.

Rob Osborne, ITV Wales offers to profile belief groups #ReportingBelief17 Photo @HirstPhotos

To date the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has indicated a willingness to consider introducing some religious literacy tuition but it is not yet a formal part of the teaching programme. A module on media and religion in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion has run successfully since last year.

As a result of the Review the BBC is implementing both enhanced in-house training and immediate changes to structures and operations within the BBC. Together, these will inevitably pull in their wake the university curricula in journalism degrees and the professional training of working journalists. It will become the norm for journalists to understand how religion and belief ‘work’ in the world.

If journalists are to be equipped to do their job well in this area there seem to be two essential dialogues: talking to journalists about religion and belief; talking to believers about journalism.

#ReportingBelief17 Photo @HirstPhotos

But we also need to consider our concept of belief and take care about the vocabulary we use. It is not only the religious who have beliefs.

I note that the Review says:
“We will therefore build on the work of this review to create a more formal and comprehensive engagement plan based on: (1) Inviting faith and secular belief groups to programme screenings and corporate events at BBC Buildings around the UK…”

‘faith and secular belief groups’
If I may coin a term: will ‘SBGs’ become ‘a thing’? It might help.

For this reason: I noted that although in our NUJ Training Wales workshops we invited several organisations representing secularists and humanists only one showed any interest. Someone from one prominent such body said to me sceptically on the phone, ‘Why would we be interested in that?’

He failed to grasp (we failed to convey)  that we were using a broad concept of ‘religious literacy’ and wherever possible were trying to make it obvious that the events were not restricted to religious faith. There’s some work to be done, clearly.

By using this concept of secular belief groups, the BBC is according significant recognition to the proposition that the secular has its beliefs. I’d say it has its orthodoxies and heterodoxies. In my opinion, no journalist should claim to be without belief even if he or she is not religious. Everyone believes something. Failure to recognise that and to act on it by scrutinising one’s own set of ‘gods’ or values or ethical drivers is to risk living the dreaded unexamined life and to be vulnerable, as a journalist, to the blind spot that we all fear will skew our judgement. The BBC is enhancing its unconscious bias training in this direction.

#ReportingBelief17 Photo @HirstPhotos

The BBC’s intention to improve its engagement with both ‘faith and secular belief groups’ lends weight to the argument that dialogue is needed between the religious, who are often defined by culture as well as by actual creed, banded together and the owners of property in which they worship, and the secular, who, though numerous, are less visible ‘on the High Street’ or in the public eye. The BBC is staking a claim, in the Review, to lead the field in providing an arena where both can meet.

Several times the BBC notes its crucial position in this area:
“The BBC is now the main mass audience provider of Religion & Ethics content in the UK, which means that any decline in output or a downgrading of its importance will not be made up by another broadcaster”

In its programmes, resources and its related initiatives in education etc the Corporation is providing a much-needed forum for dialogue between the religious and the secular. It is noteworthy, I think, to consider where people from these two categories can go for constructive conversation. Where would you go? I find it hard to think of anywhere that provides a space for genuine encounter as distinct from oppositional debate.

Amongst Christians, for instance, energy goes into inter-Church dialogue and inter-Faith dialogue but where are the structures that facilitate contact between religious and non-religious views of the world? There are few.

And yet this is one of the great relationships of our age. The BBC is tackling it and as Lord Tony Hall, Director General, says in his introduction to the Review, “Getting it right won’t be easy…”

We all need a greater ‘literacy’ in reading the signs of our times and that’s why I feel ‘religious literacy’ is not quite the right term for what we need to engage in since it weights the process too much towards the religious and risks making the non-religious feel excluded.

Neither does the term recognise the role of philosophy and ethics adequately.
But progress is being made and we will grow a new vocabulary as our understanding of the concepts grows.

#ReportingBelief17 Photo @HirstPhotos

The Review attends not only to the religious literacy of journalists but to that of audiences:

“The risk is that people remain locked in their own filter bubbles and fail to understand other beliefs beyond their own. The BBC can help with this…”

This is an oblique reference to the fact that social media alone are inadequate for proper dialogue. It’s an approach which, by a comprehensive, wide spread of offerings across genres and formats almost bounces the audience pleasantly out of well-worn paths and into fresh encounters. This impetus out of our self-selected communities is hugely important for all of us.

I want to end with a mention in the Review of the BBC Nations and Regions. The Nation of Wales has had very few English-language tv programmes in this field (apart from Songs of Praise episodes) with the exception of Bread of Heaven (Green Bay Media), presented by Huw Edwards, a history of religion in Wales. This is mainly because it has suffered from a severely ‘eroded’ English-language slate in almost every genre (as Tony Hall has fully recognised). I hope that broader engagement makes the experience of Religion, Philosophy and Ethics in Wales visible at some scale on tv in English within Wales and outside it at last to match the excellent coverage on radio in both Welsh and English.

The same section of the review pledges to work with ‘established groups such as the Scottish Religious Advisory Group and Sandford St Martin’. No mention of Wales, probably because there is no group comparable to the first and the second would not spring to mind immediately for things Wales-related. However, the Sandford St Martin Trust is currently recruiting new trustees so perhaps the interests of Wales will be reflected there in an enhanced way in the future. Do we need a dedicated group in Wales? I don’t see the existing inter-Faith groups fulfilling the need as they stand because of a lack of in-depth and broad media  awareness. Will the BBC have to train one up?

Karen Walker, Senior Producer, Religious Programmes, BBC Radio Wales, winner of the Sandford St Martin Trust award for Best Documentary 2017

2019 is to be “A Year of Beliefs where we look at how people make judgements about the big decisions in their lives and where they get their moral values from. We will aim for this to appeal to mainstream TV and Radio audiences, in particular audiences aged under 45. We will aim to reset the BBC’s approach, as we did with the ‘Year of Science’ in 2010/11, to become more inclusive and engaging and experiment with new commissions and special programming. ‘”

There will be a ‘Belief Summit’ every two years which will bring together
“leaders, creatives, innovators and policymakers from across the UK and around the globe to inform our understanding of the role that different beliefs play in our society, now and [in the ] future.”

I recommend Dinham A & Francis M (eds) (2015) Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice Bristol: Policy Press as a good overview of the area. Since its publication, Prof Dinham and associates have set up the Religion Media Centre mentioned in the Review. Its website is currently not accessible.

2 thoughts on “A New Normal – BBC Religion & Ethics Review

  1. Well done Angela of raising this important issue in a non traditional way. The importance of secularism & those without religious beliefs is crucial & largely unexplored, will be interested in how this develops – complicated as I presume these people are less likely to be part of homogenous groups i.e. not all will identify as humanist. For some beliefs & ethics (morals) may be driven by philosophy or political beliefs! Also like your approach in identifying the importance of culture, hopefully this could lead to a greater understanding of the drivers for different groups & ultimately a more peaceful society…. but one step at a time

    1. Thanks, Sian. Yes, it is easier to deal with ‘homogenous’ groups but that doesn’t absolve one from the need to find a way to deal with the others. An updated version of this blog will be on clickonwales soon.

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