Nigel Holmes identifies the reasons behind the huge support he has received for initiating a national debate about the state of BBC Religious Broadcasting

IT IS NOT GIVEN to many, other than prominent politicians, to prompt public debate. From modest aspirations a year ago, the campaign culminated in a resounding vote in the General Synod at its last Group of Sessions. Few Private Members’ Motions end with a vote 370 / 0. Nor do many other than bishops and other denominational leaders receive letters from people throughout the country.

In this case, the timing appears to have been just right to strike a chord with so many who felt that all was far from well but had no yardstick by which to measure change. What I did, at the behest of the Churches Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting of which I am a Church of England representative, was to follow a line of research based initially on an intuitive hunch. I then presented the facts in an easily memorable and digestible form.

The key fact to emerge was that whilst the total output of BBC 1 & 2 combined had increased by a half within the span of ten years, the hours devoted to religious broadcasting had fallen by one-third. That highlighted the scale, which could not be ignored, as did the network religious radio figure, down by an unprecedented 15% in a single year to 1998/9. An organisation like the BBC is adept at rebutting external pressure; in this case it could not dispute the figures for they were the Corporation’s own published in Annual Reports.

The BBC has a huge publicity machine which, to the irritation of its own staff whose budgets are cut back year after year, cannot let a month pass without producing another expensive glossy publication extolling the organisation’s infallibility. Most lack impact because of their turgid prose and lack credibility because of their unapologetically propagandist position.

It seemed to me that another viewpoint was crying to be heard. So I drafted a twenty-four page report, Losing Faith in the BBC, and had 1,500 copies printed at a cost of £430 – no colour, no frills, but packed with facts and figures and the views of informed observers. It was distributed first to General Synod members last November. As a result a record 226 signed in support of my Private Member’s Motion, thus securing a debate during the following Group of Sessions.

The publicity which resulted was quite staggering. The Sunday Telegraph was the first to run a sizeable article in November, the media section of The Independent used the report in the week before Christmas and The Times looked ahead to the forthcoming debate in an issue during January. Then early in February, when the agenda for the Synod was announced, all the broadsheets, as well as The Mail, The Express, the London Evening Standard and perhaps most surprising, the front page of The Scotsman, all detailed the contents of the report. Then the feature pages began to take an interest with The Guardian asking me to exchange three letters with the Head of BBC Religious Broadcasting and The Daily Telegraph and The Times radio critics joining in. The Sunday Times ran an article accompanied by a cartoon. The Head of Religious Broadcasting was pictured on his knees with the bubble containing the words, “To whomsoever it may concern….” I am told that he was not amused !

As the debate grew closer there were invitations to appear on the Radio 4 arts and religious programmes and on BBC breakfast television and GMTV. Joan Bakewell’s public resignation from The Heart of the Matter because of its increasingly late transmission time, year on year budget cuts and general BBC “neglect” of religious broadcasting fuelled the coverage. The £430 I spent must have generated publicity worth a hundred times that amount.

The debate itself (on Tuesday 29 February) showed Synod at its best. A deep pool of professional knowledge of broadcasting and media politics was tapped, yet it came across more in sorrow than in anger. There were anecdotes and amusing light relief. Whilst the serious nature of the concerns was shared by all, the tone was of encouraging the BBC rather than chastising the Corporation.

The vote for the motion, amended by the Bishop of Wakefield, Peter Mullins on behalf of the Lincoln Diocesan Synod, and David Webster from Rochester, who had himself once interviewed Lord Reith, was 370 / 0 – a result I am sure the founder of the BBC would have been pleased to see in the context of Corporation control today.

Those who have the power and privilege now, the Governors and the new Director-General cannot but take this show of solidarity seriously. Concessions had been offered prior to the debate. Everyman was to be screened up to an hour earlier, no later than 10.40pm. Just two days before the debate it was announced that the repeat of Songs of Praise dropped four years previously, was to be restored to the schedule. Whilst those moves were welcome, they did not involve fresh resources or programme creativity.

The aim now must be to recoup as much as possible of the £250,000 taken from the budget of BBC Religious Broadcasting a year ago and to encourage other areas of production, such as drama, to reflect the spiritual dimension. The BBC’s own surveys prove that good religious broadcasting can win sizeable audiences, as ITV found over Christmas with Bethlehem Year Zero. ITV and Channel 4 have been leading in fresh ideas in recent years, even bringing serious spiritual content to a youth audience in an imaginative way.

The Synod debate also proved the worth of BBC Local Radio. Speaker after speaker felt that this second most highly valued BBC service, second only to BBC 1 television, had achieved so much on so little and was being cut even further. At the time of the debate religious radio in BBC Wales was threatened with 40% cuts which would have removed half the staff and seen the end of broadcast worship. There the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams and the Welsh ecumenical organisation had organised the opposition.

The Bishop of Wakefield told the Synod that he hoped that the Archbishops’ Council would establish a system of monitoring the network religious output both of the BBC and commercial broadcasters, so that never again could so much be lost with barely a whimper from the official church channels. The Archbishop of York, who is also Chairman of the Central Religious Advisory Committee [CRAC] of the BBC and Independent Television Commission, expressed the hope that in time it would perhaps be reconstituted in such a way that it could exert more influence.

Other faith representatives are members of CRAC. There is a common dissatisfaction across the faiths with coverage. This is not an issue which sets Christians apart. They recognise that there are at least ten times as many active Christians as active Muslims and that active members of all non-Christian faiths total less than 5% of the United Kingdom population.

With a new Director-General and a new Controller, Radio 4, now is a better time than in the recent past to persuade the BBC to write “public service broadcasting” in rather larger letters. The Corporation must, apart from anything else, demonstrate to the many millions who have an active faith, and the many more who are interested in the spiritual dimension of human life, that it deserves the licence fee, which has been set by the Government above the level of inflation in order to fund digital developments. The additional digital channels, which have appeared so far, have yet to make that case convincingly.

Nigel Holmes is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England from the Diocese of Carlisle and a former BBC Senior Producer.