Lenten Lectures 2012
First Lenten Lecture – 8 March 2012
Fr Martin Boland, Dean of the Cathedral, welcomed Fr Christopher Jamison, sometime Abbot of Worth Abbey. Fr Christopher is also an author and broadcaster, and he was the man behind the highly successful and ground-breaking BBC documentary series ‘The Monastery”. He is a greatly respected and popular speaker and it was a tremendous honour that he agreed to come to the Cathedral to share his insight into the media.
The Lenten Lectures were started in 2011 by Fr Martin , when Archbishop Vincent Nichols presented his inaugural lecture.
Below is the text of Fr Christopher’s fascinating and insightful talk, which was very warmly received by a large and appreciative audience in the Cathedral
THE REAL BIG BROTHER: MONKS, RELIGION AND THE MEDIA
The story of The Monastery
In early 2004, I received a phone call from a researcher at Tiger Aspect Productions; she asked if Worth Abbey would participate in a TV series in which they put men into habits, get them to live as novices, pretend to be monks and see what would happen. I gave her short shrift and said no abbot will agree to that because it’s dishonest but, I added, I have a better idea. Come back to me when you’ve been rejected by all the other abbots. To my surprise, she came back and 6 months later we were making The Monastery which was broadcast on BBC TWO in 2005. The marketing of the programme played strongly on the Big Brother dimension but the actual programmes were far from that. None of the participants wore a habit, nobody pretended anything; we led five men on a 40 day retreat, introducing them to the disciplines of spiritual living that we offer to all our visitors. Through a protracted negotiation, I established that we ran the retreat and Tiger Aspect filmed it; they had no say in the conduct of the retreat and in exchange we would hide nothing from them. In other words, we built trust between us. I was to discover that I was in the hands of some of the most remarkable documentary makers in TV who had come together quite purposefully to break the mould of religious TV. And between us, we did just that. With audiences of over 2.5 million, the series beat its slot (explain), was repeated at once, sold round the world, had a sequel and gave rise to two further series. We had an avalanche of mail and email from viewers, our website had figures higher than premier football clubs, we spent two whole weeks doing interviews for newspapers and chat shows. We had created a new genre of religious broadcasting and it touched the largest category of viewers in the country, namely, those who say ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’
So this lecture will consider the evolution of religious broadcasting that led up to The Monastery series and conclude by looking ahead to how the Church should relate to the broadcast media in the future. (Broadcast not print media)
Religion and the Origins of the BBC
To understand the place of religious broadcasting in Britain, we need to look at the origins of the BBC. The founding of the BBC in the 1920’s is steeped in religion; its General Manager and later first Director General, John Reith was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. When Broadcasting House opened on its present site in Portland Place in 1932, one of its 22 studios was fitted out with an altar and a cross to provide a fitting context from which to broadcast Christian worship.
Lord Reith’s aim for the BBC was that it should ‘entertain, educate and inform.’ This approach is summed up in the adjective ‘Reithian,’ a word coined to describe the ethos underlying what we now call public service broadcasting. The original structure of BBC Radio illustrates this ethos: there was the Light Programme to entertain (now Radio 2), the Third Programme to educate (now Radio 3) and the Home Service to inform (now Radio 4.) A public service model keeps all three stations even if the number of listeners falls. A commercial model would only keep a station that has a commercially viable audience.
Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 has 9 million listeners and is billed as entertainment. But even the zany Chris Evans has a Reithian touch to his show, with Pause for Thought, a daily moment of spiritual reflection given by a team of religious professionals of whom I’m proud to be one. Capital Radio would never dream of such an intrusion into entertainment. This Reithian public service ethic underlies the basic approach not of the BBC.
To safeguard this approach, Reith promoted a new model of ownership for the BBC, a model we now call a public corporation. A public corporation is state owned but with independent governance and management; in the 30’s this was a new concept. This model of arm’s length state ownership has enabled the BBC to be free from the two pressures that dominate many other broadcasters, namely on the one hand, government control and, on the other hand, tycoons hungry for profit and influence. What makes the BBC is its commitment to entertain, educate and inform combined with its independent governance.
Let’s look at broadcast religion in 2 sections: firstly news and then the rest.
Religion in the News: a short interlude
One of the great Reithian values is impartiality in presenting news and current affairs. This means both sides of a case must be presented, ideally within the same programme but sometimes across the output over time and over different programmes. To show impartiality in a single programme, an interviewer will put present critical questions and challenge the person interviewed. This often leads to a claim that interviewers are anti the opinion of the person they are interviewing. So whenever a Catholic is interviewed, the interviewer will take the opposite point of view. This means they sound anti-Catholic. But they sound equally anti-Tory, anti-Labour, anti-whatever the view of the person interviewed. This attempt to handle topics with due impartiality is sometimes handled sympathetically and sometimes badly but let’s not confuse the rudeness or incompetence of some interviewers with prejudice.
There is no anti-Catholic conspiracy in the BBC. The Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, is a practising Catholic as is the Director General and many employees. Anyway, the BBC is far too large to have a Corporation-wide conspiracy. Is BBC news anti-Catholic? No. Are some news interviewers anti-Catholic? As explained, in one sense they all are: and a few may have personal prejudice as well, as in the general population. Many people in the BBC have liberal opinions and that sometimes comes through but in general there is balance if not in each programme then across the output.
I frankly get tired of Catholics and people of faith condemning the BBC News for being anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, anti-every minority; the list is endless. Get over it; it’s called balance and it’s what the BBC does, if you don’t like it, buy Sky and watch news untrammelled by balance.
Religious Broadcasting in the UK today
Reithian values are still directly relevant to religious broadcasting in Britain today. Reith himself explained that setting up the BBC as a public corporation was the key to safeguarding its religious output: ‘The Christian religion and the Sabbath might not have had the place and protection they had; the place and protection which it was right to give them…. One day in the week clear of jazz and variety and such like…Almost everything might have been different. The BBC might have had to play for safety; prosecute the obviously popular lines; count its clients; study and meet their reactions; curry favour; subordinate itself to the vote…’
Giving the Christian religion and the Sabbath a privileged place in broadcasting was built into the BBC from its inception and over 80 years later that same religious ethos is still there, albeit in a very different form. Currently, BBC Radio 4’s Service Licence commits the station to 200 hrs of religious programming a year; the staple ingredients here are live broadcasts of daily and Sunday worship. In TV, BBC ONE’s Service Licence requires BBC1 and BBC2 combined to broadcast 110 hours of religious programming a year. The staple of BBC TV religion has for decades been Songs of Praise and a Sunday morning slot, currently occupied by The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell and an audience looking at the issues of the moment from an ethical and religious perspective. So currently the BBC is committed to 310 hours of religion, 110 hrs of TV and 200 of radio. Approx 6 hrs a week
Contrast this with ITV, C4 and FIVE. These three are also categorised as public service broadcasters. They are awarded a licence to broadcast terrestrially by Ofcom and in return Ofcom expects them to fulfil certain public service criteria, such as impartial news and a certain amount of programming in different categories such as the arts, religion, current affairs etc. However, if they can make a reasonable case to Ofcom, they can attempt to secure a variance in the terms of the licence and this they have succeeded in doing as regards religious broadcasting. In 2004, ITV committed to over 100 hours of religion and the others to 50 hours each. By 2010, all of them had reduced this to almost no hours. In recent years, audiences have chosen not to watch ITV1’s religious output so that religious programmes performed below their slot, even after peak slots (explain). This shift in viewing behaviour has meant that religious programming on ITV1 has become commercially unsustainable, an argument accepted by Ofcom.
FIVE’s Statement of Programme Policy for 2010 admitted: “We have no definite plans to show programmes on specific arts or religious subjects this year. This reflects both the commercial pressures on us and our more entertainment-led programming strategy.”
That last statement says it all: commercial pressure is leading all broadcasters into entertainment led strategies. The public service remits to inform and to educate are being marginalised. Note that FIVE is leaving out arts as well as religious programming. Those who think that the broadcast media are anti-religion are misreading what’s happening: TV audiences want to be entertained not educated or informed and commercial stations have to follow that or lose their advertising revenue. Added pressure comes from satellite channels such as Sky TV which has no public service remit at all; its Ofcom licence only requires it to conform to British law, so it is free to pursue audiences as it sees fit and that means entertainment. Inevitably, the BBC feels these pressures too and it would be unfair to the BBC to say that it should operate in a separate media universe that refused to acknowledge the changing media landscape around it.
This entertainment led context created a problem for religion. In 2002, BBC TV religion was tasked by the Director General with moving away from what he called ‘duty carried out with caution’ (perhaps typified by Songs of Praise) to an approach that matched other strands for professional quality and creativity. And that challenge takes us back to our starting point of The Monastery. This series broke new ground because it was a major religious series that was lively and creative, taped into the contemporary fashion for immersing members of the public in new situations, the Big Brother genre, while at the same time presenting with integrity a classic religious faith exemplified by the Benedictine tradition. Entertainment and serious religion can go together. This genre was continued not only by the sequels to The Monastery but more recently in Extreme Pilgrim in 2008 and its sequel Around the World in 80 Faiths in 2009.
The BBC will keep some dedicated religious programming as long as there are religious people in the country. Religion is not a separate heading in BBC high level policy docs; it features in the BBC’s thinking under one of their core purposes, namely to ‘reflect the UK’s nations, regions and communities.’ The BBC has a very inclusive understanding of the phrase ‘the public’: the public is everybody, including the poor and the marginalized, the Muslim community and the Catholic community, gay rights activists and born again Christians; everybody will get their shout on the BBC. When we contrast this with Mr Murdoch’s meaning of ‘the public’, we should be grateful for the Reithain ethos of the BBC. What Murdoch means by ‘the public’ is those who can afford to pay and who exist in large enough numbers for Sky to make a profit. So long as there is a public service ethos at the BBC and so long as there are religious people in Britain, the BBC will continue to broadcast religion. It will do so in accordance with the best professional standards and media practices of the time but it will still be there.
What the BBC can no longer be expected to do is to run a strand of religious broadcasting that does the Church’s job for it. BBC religion no longer has a duty to catechize the nation and lead it in worship. (It’s remarkable that the BBC still broadcasts so many religious services each week) If we want a channel like that, then the church will have to pay for it, as in France where ‘Kto’ is a fine example of a satellite TV station run by the Catholic Church or ‘Radio Notre Dame’ run from Paris.
So perhaps the future of religious broadcasting on our public service channels lies not in demanding more dedicated religious programming but in creating programmes that inform and entertain; this is in fact a better way to communicate faith to a secular society that literally switches off when religion is presented as education and instruction. For example, the current BBC TV comedy series ‘Rev’ has probably done more to affirm the role of the Church of England in this country than any number of special broadcasts by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is superbly researched, with acute observations of Anglican parish life. The vicar’s talk to children about death in one episode was a serious piece of theology, slipped in quite naturally. Or look at C4 which no longer has a separate religion strand; it has continued to make good religious programmes within their documentary strand. Their Living with the Amish is a really sympathetic presentation of a very distinctive Christian community; it’s very much in The Monastery genre. Of course, you can get Fr Ted, the surrealist comedy series from the late 90’s. In this programme, the leading characters are inept priests in Ireland who have no interest whatsoever in religion. But that’s another story.
My main conclusion this evening is that no serious public service broadcaster is going to ignore religion but neither will they be cheer leaders for religion. Churches and faith communities need to understand the parameters of the modern media environment and work within them, helping creative programme makers to find new approaches to religious broadcasting, approaches that will inform and entertain according to contemporary criteria of good TV and good radio. So let’s conclude by looking at some of the places where this is already emerging.
Firstly, BBC TV channels Three and Four. The background to these channels is that viewing figures on the main public service TV channels are declining annually, the only reversal of this being Strictly and X Factor. But the overall amount of TV viewing is not declining; viewers have more choice with many more channels that they can select, a process that will grow with the switch to digital. The BBC’s response has been to create their own digital channels, BBC THREE and BBC FOUR. Already the Church is benefitting from this. FOUR is currently broadcasting a series of three one hour programmes called Catholics, a simple portrayal of ordinary Catholics. BBC THREE is in discussion with my office about a series following young men entering seminary. These smaller channels have no religious programming requirements; they target specific audiences (THREE is 16 to 25 year olds) and so they are a great place for creative approaches to informative and entertaining religious programmes to reach the segmented audience.
Secondly, other platforms for video are emerging strongly. Video clips that go viral can reach as many people as a TV programme. You can create your own TV station on Vimeo or YouTube. Other forms of TV broadcasting are also in the offing with web cams moving from communicating with a couple of computers to real broadcasting. Churches need to be aware of these developments because they are low cost and highly effective at reaching those segmented audiences.
Finally, should we create a Catholic TV station in Britain? Or maybe a Christian one? Or a radio station? In my view, no. All these options are hideously expensive and as one of the most secularized countries in Europe, we will not get enough of the faithful to watch or listen to make it commercially viable. And the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ majority will not seek out such channels.
So let’s be grateful for the BBC and the other public service broadcast networks. Let’s help them to make religion a strand that they value for its media value not as a sacred cow. Let’s keep open not only to new digital channels but also to new platforms across the information technology spectrum. And let’s be clear about the aim: communities of faith make converts to faith not TV channels. The aim for religious broadcasting today is to keep our ‘spiritual but not religious’ contemporaries open to the world of religious faith, an opening which faith communities can then follow up.
Pope Benedict explains how this can work. He uses the image of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, that part of the Jerusalem Temple that was open to all peoples, the part that Our Lord cleared of money changers:
“Today too,” he says, “the Church should open a sort of ‘Court of the Gentiles’ in which people might latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery…there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” (*)
People are drawn to the Church in order to find their spiritual purpose. They are not Godless and they wish to learn from our wisdom. This is part of the new evangelisation that will lead some, but not all, to church membership. Many people today seek meaning and purpose in life, be they affluent or poor. This contemporary search defines our work in the broadcast media; handled properly, the media can be a Courtyard of the Gentiles for the 21st century.
(*) Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the members of the Roman Curia reflecting on his visit to the Czech Republic, 21st December 2009