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Thursday, 17 February, 2000, 16:10 GMT
BBC's religious programmes under fire

thora hird Songs of Praise is still proving popular

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

Wherever else the BBC might have expected to be attacked, it probably thought it would be safe enough in the calm waters of religious broadcasting.

It was wrong. The latest row to embroil the corporation concerns its coverage of religion on TV and radio, the often derided but still appreciated "God slot".


One of the BBC's most distinguished broadcasters, Joan Bakewell, says she is to leave the moral debate programme Heart of the Matter, which she has presented for the last 12 years.

She said she was frustrated at the "year-on-year budget cuts" imposed on the religious department, and that the programme "has been moved later and later at night" (it is scheduled at 2332 GMT on Sunday evenings).

The head of the department, the Reverend Ernest Rea, wishing her well, said plans were far advanced to develop programmes "of weight and substance which make a real impact".

Later this month the general synod of the Church of England, its governing body, will debate a motion urging the BBC to broadcast more religious TV and radio programmes at peak times.

broadcasting house The church says the BBC is not spreading the word
The motion has been tabled by Nigel Holmes, a synod member who is a former BBC local radio religious producer. More than half the synod members support him.

Mr Holmes says one religious series broadcast last year was nothing more than "trite drivel", and other programmes showed "unacceptably low production values and minimal serious religious content".

He says religious programming on BBC network radio has fallen by 15% in the last decade.

"The six million active and 30m nominal Christians deserve better," he added.

Rapid change

So the BBC is beset from within and without. In a sense, it is the prisoner of its own history.

In the last 20 years broadcasting in the UK has changed drastically, and many time-hallowed ways of doing things have turned to dust.

Programmes have gone, personalities have faded away, audiences themselves are changing - and so are ways of trying to reach them.

But despite this, viewers of Songs of Praise outnumber Anglican churchgoers five to one.

Religion has also changed since the 1980s - less dramatically, perhaps, but just as significantly.

general synod meeting The synod has the broadcasters in its sights
There are many more faithful adherents of other religions in the UK today than there were 20 years ago. Restoring the golden age of religious broadcasting for the sake of however many active Christians there are would hardly do much for them.

And the Christian constituency is itself in gentle but steady decline. Sunday attendance at church of England services tells its own story:
  • 1968: 1,600,000
  • 1984: 1,182,000
  • 1995: 1,040,000
The church's director of communications, the Reverend Dr William Beaver, disputes those bare figures.

He told BBC News Online: "We are undercounting the number of people in the pews by up to 50%, and by on average 27%, according to an independent survey."

If the statistics are correct, though, the Anglicans are not alone. Sunday mass attendance by Catholics in England and Wales shows an even sharper fall:
  • 1974: 1,752,730
  • 1984: 1,512,533
  • 1998: 1,086,268
On that sort of showing, the churches are now shooting the messenger - blaming the broadcasters for not delivering the message they themselves are failing to get across.

Religion and broadcasting in the UK are both very different now. It would be surprising if religious broadcasting itself could stay unchanged.

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See also:
16 Dec 99 |  UK
Jesus, son of who?
13 Nov 99 |  UK
Church of England 'losing its flock'
07 Jan 00 |  UK
New archbishop faces emptying pews

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