Is the BBC engaged in religious news?

IT IS easy to criticize the BBC. With the thousands of employees and the many hours of content being produced simultaneously at any time of the day or night, there are aspects of production that are bound to meet opposition from a particular community. But for those interested in the religious approach to the business, the continuing delay in appointing a new religious editor is a legitimate concern.

The number of correspondents in senior on-screen “editor” positions has increased considerably in recent years. Earlier this month, four new appointments were announced: replacements in technology and science, and newly created positions for climate and social affairs.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is a delay in an appointment to the religion specialty, given the controversy surrounding Martin Bashir’s departure from office last May. The revelations about his conduct in connection with obtaining an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 (Press, May 21), combined with serious personal health problems. But these factors alone do not adequately explain why other editorship appointment processes were announced quickly, when there has been no equivalent effectiveness in matters of religion.

SOME fear that BBC News would prefer to see the religious specialty discreetly sidelined. After all, successive religious affairs correspondents have found that obtaining commissioned articles from often skeptical program editors is one of the job’s greatest challenges. Recent newspaper criticisms of Mr Bashir have included comments about his infrequent on-air appearances during his tenure. I know from personal experience that broadcasting religion on the air is rarely easy.

Mr Bashir was in office when what had been the post of correspondent for religious affairs was upgraded to a “religious editor,” after an internal review on religion and ethics, published in December 2017. There was high hope. that his new title was more than a window. dress, and would be accompanied by a renewed enthusiasm for religious journalism.

Writing in these pages in January 2018, Bishop Jan McFarlane noted that a lot was promised in the review, “perhaps most importantly, [a commitment] to increase specialist knowledge of religion in the news, with a new post of editor-in-chief of religion, and a global team of new journalists, with specific religious expertise ”(Commentary, January 5, 2018).

It is not known to what extent this ambition has been achieved. The review is useful for those who care about the BBC’s commitment to religion, as it sets out a number of firm commitments. But, at present, neither the religious editor nor the world religion journalist has a permanent incumbent.

These specific questions about the company’s engagement in the role of “editor of religion” are part of a larger issue. It should be noted that Mr Bashir’s former post is paid and held within the journalistic production of the BBC. Meanwhile, the religious information radio program Sunday, although typically featured by BBC News reporters, is funded by Radio 4 as a network and produced by the Salford-based Religious Radio Department.

Religious radio remains in good health, not least thanks to the stellar leadership of the department for many years by Christine Morgan, with Amanda Hancox as editor-in-chief of Sunday. But both have left the BBC in recent months (Commentary from October 9, 2020). The appointment of Tim Pemberton as the new head of department is encouraging, but it should be noted that as head of religion within BBC Audio he is no longer part of a functioning religion department that includes also television and online content. Television production, beyond a tiny number of hours devoted to documentaries and the cult of the festival, is subcontracted to independent production companies now responsible for Songs of praise.

It was NOT that long ago that the top floor of the New Broadcasting House in Manchester was devoted entirely to religious broadcasting on radio, television and online. That the BBC no longer employs someone with ministerial responsibility for religious television coverage is, in my opinion, an oversight that undermines its ability to effectively cover religion across a wide range of production.

But change is possible. In August, the BBC announced the appointment of Suzy Klein to the new post of head of arts and classical music television. The BBC has therefore taken the strategic decision to invest in the coverage of the arts and in particular classical music on television – areas that have long been criticized for uneven coverage by our national broadcast network. It is time for a television equivalent for religion.

In response to my question about a religious editor’s reappointment schedule, the BBC News press team posted on Twitter: “We will be advertising this post in the coming weeks. Those who care about the BBC’s approach to religion should pay close attention to this timescale – and also continue to push for a renewed commitment to religious coverage throughout its production. .

Pastor Christopher Landau is the new director of ReSource for Anglican Renewal Ministries. Prior to his ordination, he was a religious affairs correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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