Is The BBC In Danger Of Failing To Take Religion Seriously?

Roger Bolton fears that programmes such as Songs Of Praise, presented by Pam Rhodes, Aled Jones and Diane-Louise Jordan (pictured) could be at risk.BBC/Emilie Sandy

A senior BBC presenter has criticised the corporation's attitude to religious programming in a rare intervention by an insider.

Roger Bolton of Radio 4's Feedback says: "Just six months after the Archbishop of Canterbury called in these very pages for broadcasters to take religion seriously, it seems the BBC is doing anything but."

Bolton spoke out after the BBC decided to drop the post of Head of Religion and place corporate responsiblity for religion and ethics under Factual Scotland "to simplify the existing mangement structure". James Purnell, the former Labour minister who is head of radio and education at the BBC, is to take responsibility for religion as part of his remit.

Writing in the Radio Times, Bolton says this will threaten the coverage of religion on the BBC.

He says: "How can young people and immigrants to this country understand the UK without learning of the crucial role Christianity has played in the formation of its political structures and culture? How can people feel they're being welcomed as equal citizens if we don't bother to find out about what is often the most important part of their life, their faith?

"How can we understand what's going on in the Middle East, for example, without knowing about the Shia/Sunni split? This is not about promoting faith; it's about promoting knowledge and understanding – surely a central role of a public service broadcaster? But the BBC is coming up short."

He says one example is Songs of Praise, the BBC's flagship religious programme that has run since 1961.

"For the 55 years of its existence this shining light of traditional religious broadcasting has been made by the BBC. But for how much longer? The BBC's own in-house team – along with independent producers – have been invited to tender for a three-year contract to continue to produce it, which they may not win."

He admits that many people of the "baby boomer" generation once thought that religion was a declining influence in the world and didn't pay it a great deal of attention. But this view was now decisively proved wrong, he said.

He notes that the BBC no longer has a separate commissioning editor in television for religious and ethical programmes.

The curent Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, who is leaving will not be replaced. He lost his programme commissioning role last year.

Bolton says the BBC has an editor for almost every specialism except religion.

The Times was recently been briefed that there is to be a "BBC revamp" to counter Christian 'bias'.

Bolton writes: "Perhaps it's not Christian bias we should worry about but something far more worrying when it comes to understanding and interpreting our modern world: a bias against taking religion seriously."