As Songs of Praise viewers will find out, the market is bad at doing religion

An Article by Giles Fraser from the Guardian.

As Songs of Praise viewers will find out, the market is bad at doing religion | Giles Fraser: Loose canon

Back in 2014, the director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, announced a change of direction for the corporation. He called it “a competition revolution”. With the Tories breathing down his neck over the licence fee, Mr Hall spoke about the creativity of the entrepreneurial spirit and the need for deregulation: “To use retail terminology, great programmes at great prices.”

All this is now filtering through. Familiar programmes are being offered out to the market to see if they can be made better and cheaper. Or maybe just cheaper. And the first two decisions have now been made, with A Question of Sport staying in house and Songs of Praise being outsourced to Avanti Media and Nine Lives Media. Not only that, but along with the programme itself, the BBC is also handing over the talent required to make it. Thirty members of the BBC’s religion team, pretty much its entire TV staff team, will be transferred to these private companies. Their jobs are now protected for three more years in the private sector. Then, who knows? From now on, the BBC’s religion department will consist of little more than a commissioner and lots of empty desks. Yes, Songs of Praise will continue for a while. But, like the Great British Bake Off, its character will inevitably change.

Now here’s my problem: the market is generally pretty bad at doing religion. I have been phoned up enough times by eager young researchers from production companies who want to make religion relevant to a younger generation but who have never heard of Lent or don’t know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. It does not inspire enormous confidence that Songs of Praise is now in the hands of the production company that made Holiday Love Rats Exposed. And once the knowledge base of the BBC religion department has been dissipated, I fear phone calls about Vicar Love Rats or some such trivial and trivialising nonsense. Or more interest in that old chestnut, religion and violence, which is like covering football from the perspective of hooliganism.

How far the BBC has changed. Under the direction of John Reith, a child of the manse, the BBC was established as an agent of Christian mission and values. The broadcasting and religion section of the BBC handbook 1928 spoke of the aim “to make Britain a more Christian country”. Now don’t harrumph. All that proselytising stuff went ages ago, being replaced with a priority to increase religious literacy. And a good thing, too. The overwhelming majority of the world’s population is religious. And the BBC doesn’t have to be religious itself, or try to make you religious, in order to fulfil the obligation to educate people about what being religious actually means. That was the point of intellectually ambitious programmes like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity or Peter Owen-Jones’s Around the World in 80 Faiths. But the BBC can hardly ensure increased religious literacy if it changes from being a centre of expertise to little more than a commissioning body.

Songs of Praise is not a work of great intellectual dexterity, but it provides elderly or infirm churchgoers a chance to feel a part of a church service. And it is too easy to sneer. But go to a care home on a Sunday afternoon and watch people suffering with dementia come alive when they hear a familiar hymn they can sing along to. Some of these may not recognise their own children. But they know all the words to the Old Rugged Cross. This is what public service broadcasting looks like.

The point of the BBC is to do the stuff the market is bad at. A Question of Sport could have been run by dozens of outside production companies. But to the secular-minded BBC, religion is the ugly, embarrassing date no one wants to be seen with. Which is precisely why they should have kept it. You may not care about religion as I do. But you still should care about what happened to Songs of Praise. Because what’s been started here is going to be unfurled across the BBC. Next it will be natural history or science or arts. And their departments of expertise will also be handed over to trendy media companies, who will dissipate the talent base. Thank God for radio.

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