Media Centre

Bishops challenge BBC on lack of religion on Radio 1

A Church of England and a Roman Catholic Bishop have  called on the BBC to include religion on Radio 1, describing the omission as the 'most striking exclusion of religion from  the  BBC 's  output'.  


The bishops say that the BBC Trust, which now governs the BBC,sometimes includes religion under its duty to 'Reflect the nations, regions and communities of the UK’ and sometimes does not.  They state: "Religion figures strongly in the output of Radio 2, 3, and 4 under the proposed licences for individual BBC services, but it does not appear under Radio 1. 


The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, Senior Church of England spokesman on Communications and Bishop John Arnold, Chair of the Strategic Communications Board, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, raise this and other issues in their response to the BBC Trust's consultation on its Service Licences and Purpose Remits which will help the Trust to govern BBC output.


The bishops  argue that the exclusion of religion from Radio 1 is illogical and inconsistent. Radio 1's young target audience has a thirst for spiritual input that a recent survey for the charity Tearfund shows is greater than for older age-groups. Church of England Cathedrals also attract a growing number of 16-24 year olds, according to recent Church of England figures.


The bishops' concern is that this inconsistency in the way religion is treated will not help the Trust to govern effectively. In their submission, they also observe: 'Unless religion is appropriately included in the Radio 1 licence, audience needs may not be met.'


The bishops also say that the Service Licences as currently drafted do not provide for any regulation of the amount of religious output in general programming such as dramas, soaps and documentaries or news, which the Director-General has said he wants to encourage.


The bishops also express doubt that the coverage of religion can be  properly regulated unless it is included under more than one of the BBC Purpose Remits. At present it is only included under ''Reflecting the nations, regions and communities of the UK’.


They call for an explicit commitment in the BBC's Purpose Remits to better informed coverage of religion, citing the recent comment of BBC Governor Richard Tait about “how important religion is as a factor influencing major political and social events.”


The bishops are surprised that the BBC's purpose to 'Bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK does not expressly mention religion. The bishops are worried about the confusion in the public mind between multi-cultural and multi-faith.  It should be part of the BBC's public purposes to address 'the clear distinctions between culture, ethnicity and faith, which are a key part of how different communities understand themselves,' they argue.




Notes to Editors

In a recent survey, Churchgoing in the UK, Tearfundfound that 16% of 16-24 year olds and 20% of 25-34 year olds attend church compared with 25% of the general population. But nearly one million people,  8% of 16-24 year olds and  8% of 25-34 year olds are open to being invited to attend church, compared with 6% of the general population. To see the survey click here


The Church of England published attendance statistics for cathedrals here


The Bishop of Manchester's appointment to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications was announced on 23 April 2007.


The full texts of the submissions to the BBC Trust consultations on Purpose Remits and Service Licences follow.


BBC Public Purpose Remits: Public Consultation by the BBC Trust.


Joint response from the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, Senior Church of England spokesman on Communications and Bishop John Arnold, Chair of the Strategic Communications Board, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.


We are pleased to be able to take part in this Consultation process, recognizing that this is an important part of the new accountability and governance mechanisms put in place by the BBC Trust.  Our observations mainly concern the following three public purpose remits: 1. Sustaining citizenship and civil society; 2. Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; 3. Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.


Sustaining citizenship and civil society


1.The Green Paper on Charter Renewal required that the BBC “should continue to inform the public and increase our understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of current events and ideas”.[1] The priorities as they are presently articulated do not, in our view, give sufficient explicit emphasis to the need to “increase our understanding of the world”.  One of the glaring deficiencies in much of news output today is the lack of  accessible, authoritative and reliable interpretation which is able to put issues into context.


2. The White Paper suggested that “as part of its plan for sustaining citizenship and civil society, the Trust, following consultation, might decide that one of its objectives should be to explain issues behind the news better than any other broadcaster.” [2]


The coverage of religion and faith communities


3. This need for placing the news into context has been particularly felt by faith communities which have found that standards of coverage have been inadequate, stereotypical or misleading. These concerns were raised explicitly in the BBC Governors’ Impartiality Review of religion in 2004 and continue to be expressed across the faith communities and the BBC has acknowledged the need to do better in this area.


4. We believe that the quality of the BBC’s reporting and analysis on religion is improving but that more needs to be done. In particular, it should ensure that religious matters are treated with the seriousness they deserve. At present, religion is not given the same level of informed coverage as business, politics or economics given “how important religion is as a factor influencing major political and social events.” [3]  An explicit commitment in the BBC's Purpose Remits might contribute to an improvement.


Media literacy


5. In order to increase the audience’s understanding we would also like the priority  relating to media literacy to be amended to stress the importance of helping people to engage critically with media content and understanding how that content is produced.


Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities


6. We are  glad that the priorities recognize the importance of religion in the life of the UK.  We think, however, that this priority should be strengthened to underline the importance of religious practice. We would like to see priority 4 reworded as follows:

Reflect the different religious and other beliefs in the UK.

The BBC should give people opportunities to understand the beliefs, practices and forms of worship of others and to examine their own beliefs and practice critically.

This rewording would be more in tune with the requirements of section 264, 6(g) of the Communications Act 2003 (incorporated into the Agreement) which explicitly mentions worship and practice.


7. In the explanatory notes in the annex we would like to see changes which recognize that the substantial majority (60%) of people in the UK belong to a faith community[4] not just “some people”. The 2001 Census finds that a higher proportion, 80%, associates with a faith community. The present wording gives a quite misleading impression.  The note also fails to take into account the need to portray worship and religious practice.


Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.


8. It is surprising that in all the priorities under this purpose remit, religion and faith are not mentioned even once.   For example, Section 2.2 (B) in Annex II reads as follows:

These developments suggest a public service imperative for the BBC

to make UK audiences aware of international issues, cultures, and


Religion and belief systems should be expressly mentioned in this section. They are not as some believe, covered by ‘cultures’. It is important that the clear distinctions between culture, ethnicity and faith, which are a key part of how different communities understand themselves, are expressed in the Purpose Remits and communicated in BBC output. There is already some confusion in the public mind, for example between ‘multi-cultural’ and ‘multi-faith’ and it should be part of the BBC's public purposes to address this and similar confusions in order for output to be accurate and to ‘inform understanding and stimulate discussion’ about the concerns of the many communities of the UK as priority 3 of this Purpose Remits requires. These distinctions were clearly understood and expressed in the BBC Governors’ Review of Impartiality in the coverage of religion[5].


The importance of  helping audiences gain a deeper understanding of religious issues and forces has been stressed by the BBC Director General and in many documents.  The central role played by religious belief in many societies needs to be given due recognition. Once again we would stress the need not simply for awareness but also for increasing understanding.


10 April 2007


BBC Service Licences: Public Consultation by the BBC Trust.


Joint response from the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, Senior Church of England spokesman on Communications and Bishop John Arnold, Chair of the Strategic Communications Board, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.


This is a welcome opportunity to comment on how two elements of BBC regulation, the Service Licences and the Purpose Remits, fit together. Our key concern is that the Service Licences don't always appear to relate well to the Purpose Remits. The Trust will have the means to judge whether particular licences are fulfilled, but not to judge how to balance the contribution of different services to achieving the different purposes of the BBC overall.


We would also like a stronger commitment to every service contributing to every purpose and its constituent parts in appropriate ways. It is not clear why the purpose ‘Reflecting the nations regions and communities of the UK’ sometimes includes religion and sometimes does not, for example.


Overall, we agree that the Service Licences describe the BBC's services as they currently exist, but there are some questions that we wish to raise at this stage which may lead to more detailed comment when the performance and parameters of BBC services is offered for public consultation later this year. These are:


  • 1.      The Service Licences for BBC One and BBC Two describe current arrangements where a commitment is shared across two BBC channels. But if Service Licences are meant to apply to individual services only, then the principle of sharing hours of output doesn't seem to fit well.


Either the flexibility provided by such arrangements is lost, or the Service Licences are not firm commitments for the undertakings in question.  For example,  though the shared commitment between BBC One and BBC Two is to 112 hours of religion, the precise individual obligations are that BBC One is to make at least 80 hours, and BBC Two is to make at least 20 hours, making 100 hours in total. At present, it is good to see that these minimum obligations are exceeded, but if they were not, how would the Trust hold the individual services to account for their joint commitment? (Question 1)


  • 2.      As for the digital channels, the original service approval for BBC Three included religion, yet there is next to none shown on BBC 3 or included in its news output, the significant exception being 'Manchester Passion,' the contemporary telling of the Easter story. (Question 2)


  • 3.      The Key Characteristics of each service broadly define current output but are heavily genre-based. In contrast, the Director-General and a religious affairs correspondent both support the view that faith cannot be confined to a single genre, nor, as we observe in the parallel consultation to this one, a single Purpose Remit. In the Governors' 2005 Seminar 'Taking Belief Seriously' they said: 


"In the past religious programming has been associated with duty and caution rather than energy and life. In broadcasting, religion and faith is not just a genre. Instead issues of belief and non-belief inspire programme-makers from many genres[6].” (Mark Thompson, Director General)


"The challenge is to take religion out of the box, and to see the way religion and spirituality bleed into each other, and into our political and cultural life." (Jane Little, Religious Affairs Correspondent, World Service).


We value these acknowledgements, as far as they go, that the proper reflection of religion across the output requires fresh approaches to programme-making.  There is some evidence that they are being acted on, for example, the arts programme ‘Secret Life of a Masterpiece’ featuring Christmas or Easter paintings at appropriate times of the year. Another example would be the story-line of Monday April 9th's Eastenders which featured encounters between Dot and a priest.


Yet nowhere, as far as we can see, is this kind of approach reflected in the wording of the Service Licences. Appropriate wording needs to be included for these initiatives to be subject to regulation and for them to become a feature of the BBC’s output. Striking the necessary balance between encouraging the coverage of religion across the output and preserving the depth of coverage in specialist programmes should be a matter of interest to the Trust. We see this as key to preserving the distinctive character of BBC output in this area. (Questions 3, 5)


  • 4.      The inclusion of service budgets in the licences provides for a basic level of accountability over the headline amount of money available for each service. However, if the BBC Trust is to succeed in influencing the shape of output, it needs to be accountable for more than the headline figures without becoming involved at the level of controlling individual programme budgets. The service licences should include a breakdown of figures as a means of assessing the overall spend on programme types and genres. (Question 6)


  • 5.      We consider it vital that the descriptions in section 5 of each Service Licence continue to specify matters relating to scheduling and to which of the BBC’s purposes programmes should contribute. Our main concern though is that a contribution to ‘Reflecting the nations regions and communities of the UK’ is sometimes interpreted as including religion and sometimes not. The most striking example where religion is excluded is Radio 1. Yet the target audience are demonstrably spiritually thirsty, a recent survey showing that they are more likely than much of the rest of the population to respond to an invitation to go to church[7]. Unless religion is appropriately included in this licence, audience needs may not be met. (Question 9) 


  • 6.      We welcome the placing of the requirement for a minimum number of hours of programming in the conditions. This is appropriate to more rigorous regulation of BBC output than under Ofcom’s parallel public service broadcasting requirements. It should be retained. (Question 10)


  • 7.      We have no objection to the changes proposed. (Question 12)



10 April 2007



[1] Review of the BBC’s Royal Charter (DCMS), 2005, p.8

[2] A Public Service for All: The BBC in the Digital Age (DCMS), 2006, p.12, (3.1.20)

[3]  Richard Tait, BBC Governor (BBC Governors’ Seminar, Taking Belief Seriously, May 2005)

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