It is to David Lammy’s credit that he hasn’t deleted what my Spectator colleague, Hugo Rifkind, describes as his new all-time favourite tweet. For those who haven’t come across it yet, this is how the Tottenham MP responded to the BBC’s coverage of the papal election:
This tweet from the BBC is crass and unnecessary. Do we really need silly innuendo about the race of the next Pope? twitter.com/DavidLammy/sta…
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) March 12, 2013
There were more solid grounds for criticising the BBC that day: the corporation again showed its problems understanding religion. It managed to find a translator for the Vatican election who didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. As Pope Francis hit his knees, and the crowd joined him in unison, the translator was desperately trying to work out what was going on:
‘Our father who are in the Heaven, be your name blessed… be your will done as in earth so above….deliver us from our sins as we deliver them from, um, from the sinners…’
It’s not the first time the BBC has been thrown by covering people in prayer. It was the same in the Olympics: when runners would pray on the start-up line, or at the finish, the BBC commentators maintained a baffled silence.
The American commentators were able to explain it all to viewers, putting the athletes – and their incredible stories – in to perspective. The runner Lopez Lomong (right) was a Somalian refugee saved by Catholic missionaries and taken to America. So if he looked as if he was giving thanks, this is why. When Mo Farah prayed after winning, the BBC commentators pretended it wasn’t happening. Which is a shame: it was (for me) a wonderful moment: a Muslim who fell to his knees, bowed to the southeast and prayed – while crowds roared a man called Mohammed became Britain’s new national hero. It was a wonderful reminder that the Olympics was being hosted by one of the tolerant nations on earth.
Once, Brits made Oscar-winning films about faith and athletics. Now, the BBC as an institution just doesn’t understand it. No comprende. This blind spot manifests itself everywhere: in BBC America’s failure to broadcast the spectacular Carols From Kings, one of the most beautiful spectacles of English Christianity. It’s as if the producers can’t work out why anyone in the modern world want to watch people singing songs about God.
But the biggest reminder of the BBC’s problem with religious coverage comes at 7.50am each morning: Radio Four’s Thought for The Day slot. It’s quite something to give a prime breakfast time slot to someone from the God squad. The speakers are described as being ‘from across the world’s major faiths,’ but almost always from the political left. Their ‘thought’ can often be summed up as: ‘Jesus was left-wing, too.’ That’s not much of an exaggeration: I remember one finishing a Thought for The Day by saying ‘That’s not just Polly Toynbee’s message – it’s God’s.’
How I miss Rabbi Lionel Blue (right), whose wonderful, subtle and apolitical insights would stick in your mind for days (or even years). You don’t have to be religious to be moved by original and well-expressed religious thought. As the atheist Douglas Murray argued in The Spectator recently, non-believers are interested in religion. Yet on Thought for The Day, the highest-profile given to any religious broadcast, we get lobotomised inanity. The quality gap with the rest of the Today programme is often stunning. As Charles Moore once observed in his Spectator column:
‘As a regular Radio 4 listener, I find there is no more discouraging phrase currently in use than “John Bell of the Iona Community”‘
So why is it so bad? I can only guess that the producers of the Today programme hate the slot, but are forced to keep it by the BBC hierarchy due to some public service mandate – so they fill it with junk as a protest. That slot is perhaps the nation’s no1 pulpit, a chance to talk to 7m listeners. But in the Sunday Times Magazine today, Justin Welby tells Dominic Lawson that even he never listens to it. And this takes us back to the biggest problem with the BBC: its outdated remit as a public service broadcaster. It does so many things brilliantly, why force it to do what it obviously is uncomfortable with? When something is done from a reluctant sense of duty, it’s seldom done well.
The BBC justifies its licence fee on the ground that it performs a vital national service, and we’d be lost without it. Two decades ago, this was perhaps true. No longer. Sky News regularly bests the BBC (as it did over the Jubilee celebrations) and on the papal election night, Sky’s translator not only knew the Our Father but recited it alongside intelligent comment from Austen Ivereigh and (best of all) stunning HD footage. Sky Arts offers quality not to be found on any subsidised British channel, rejecting the as false the choice between commercial and highbrow. You can guarantee that, on Wednesday, Sky’s Jeff Randall will cover the Budget better than anyone.
If people want religion, they can find it on the proliferation of channels who specialise in it. Catholics can watch EWTN, for example. If the BBC dropped its religious slots there would hardly be howls of protest. I’m not even sure many people would notice – certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The BBC is a world-class broadcaster, a great national asset. No one one Europe does current affairs better. And I’d happily pay twice the licence fee for CBeebies alone. I’m not criticising its coverage of the conclave, I just don’t think you can say that the BBC covers religion better than its commercial rivals. As the BBC’s rivals grow stronger and the media grows more diverse, its claim to offer an inimitable ‘public service’ necessarily grows weaker.
UPDATE: I’m told that Thought For The Day is not produced by the Today team but by some other part of the Beeb empire. This helps explain the quality gap. Also Shenagh Fogarty from Five Live tweets that she was proud of its conclave coverage, which I didn’t hear. I can believe it: Five Live is another BBC service which is itself worth the licence fee.
— Shelagh Fogarty (@ShelaghFogarty) March 17, 2013
And this from Jon Sopel:-
@frasernelson re translator, I was presenting in Rome that evening. There were pained looks on guests faces. It was dumb translating
— Jon Sopel (@BBCJonSopel) March 17, 2013
And this from another great BBC creation: Peter Mannion MP
Tags: BBC, David Lammy, Evening Standard, Mo Farrah, Pope Francis, Radio 4, Thought for the Day, Today, UK politics
— Peter Mannion ‘MP’ (@PeterMannionMP) March 17, 2013
UPDATE2:The Today programme kindly invited me on to discuss this with their head of religious output, and I declined. And not just because I’m in sunny Somerset for Easter. My blog, above, was a criticism about a blind spot in the BBC’s general coverage: I just don’t watch its specific religious output enough to comment with authority on it. I dislike hearing pundits who go on radio without really knowing the subject matter, and I didn’t want to be one of them. I’m interested in religion (hence my complaint), but am no expert. Moreover I’ve always followed the advice I received when working as a barman: never get into discussions about religion or football.
My colleague Freddy Gray, a former Catholic Herald staffer, speaks as well about religion as anyone I know. He went on to defend my blog, which you can listen to here. It was a very informative discussion. I had no idea, for example, that the BBC’s Religious Coverage includes Radio Four’s The Moral Maze- it’s an excellent programme, but a religious one? Nor was I aware of its documentaries about Christianity presented by ecclesiastical authorities such as Anne Widdecombe.
It also turned out that the Thought For Today team and the Today team each believed the other had information for how popular that 7.50am slot is. My hunch is that the Today guys know that it’s drivel. If John Humphrys or Evan Davis would commission a religious talk every day, you can bet the listener would learn something. I firmly reject the idea that you need religious people to do religion properly: the leading article of the new Spectator, for example, is one of the most moving and powerful pieces I have ever read about the meaning of Easter. It was written by an atheist: Douglas Murray. The most beautiful church music being written today is by John Rutter, who is not even religious.
Radio Four seem obliged, for reasons of BBC bureaucracy, to accept an externally-produced audio package slot produced by nominally religious people over which they have no means of exerting quality control. Freddy offered precisely the right remedy: keep Thought for Today, but get better people. Ones who offer genuine insight into a religious perspective. There will be Muslim versions of Rabbi Lionel Blue out there, who can express the points of their faith with force and clarity. Britain has thousands of preachers, there will be one who can explain his or her faith better the leftie laymen who seem to be invited in that slot.
In my ideal world, the BBC would be independent and able to take decisions based not on abstract notions of ‘public service’ but on what they think their listeners would best enjoy. It its case, the answer must be: quality, above all.