Presenter claims TV dominated by “sceptical humanists”

Roger Bolton (right) and BBC head of Religion & Ethics Aaqil Ahmed spoke on a cross-industry panel Roger Bolton (right) and BBC head of Religion & Ethics Aaqil Ahmed (left) spoke on a cross-industry panel

Radio 4 presenter Roger Bolton has added to calls for BBC News to appoint a religion editor and said "liberal sceptical humanists tend to dominate television".

Speaking at a BBC festival about religious output on Wednesday, he said the "default position in broadcasting" - when covering issues such as gay marriage and the Roman Catholic position on IVF - revolved around human rights, and that opponents should not be treated as "lunatics".

"All I'm saying is, if you have at the centre of News an editor, he could explain why people in particular areas…are motivated, why they behave as they do and I think that would just increase understanding."

Although BBC News already has a religious affairs correspondent in Robert Pigott, there is no editor for the topic but there are in science, sports and business among others.

Bolton, who used to present the religious and ethical radio programme Sunday, said: "A correspondent fundamentally goes where he's told, an editor has an extra authority to argue with news programme editors about what's important, [and] to be consulted, to explain."

He added: "If you look at the initial Islamophobia in this country…a lot of it was based on sheer ignorance and therefore a public service organisation has a responsibility to address that."

Disillusionment

Bolton, who used to run Panorama and Nationwide, was delivering the keynote speech at BBC Rethink - a two-day conference in Salford, where the Religion and Ethics department is based.

A presenter of the Radio 4 audience forum show Feedback, he said: "There is a significant part of our audience, and certainly the Radio 4 audience, which think [the media considers] it's alright for people to laugh and make fun of Christianity but don't dare do it about Islam."

He also commented: "In the last few years something went wrong with the BBC's religious programming and I believe it's no coincidence that the last three BBC heads of religious broadcasting left their jobs to various degrees disillusioned with the corporation's treatment of religion and ethics - mainly it should be said, in television."

The religion and ethics unit moved from London to Manchester in the early 1990s because, according to Bolton "something had to be moved and the department was the weakest politically of the options available".

"Salford spring"

But he contrasted the production and staff numbers at MediaCityUK with what he considered a downgraded treatment in London.

Reflecting on whether the BBC was "fit for purpose" in religious and ethical broadcasting, he said: "In Salford yes, in Television Centre it's open to question."

"In tv, in particular, there was a marked decline [of output] and no one at TVC seemed to mind. Now we are seeing what might be called a Salford spring with the arrival of other departments and the infusion of fresh talent."

Overseeing around 170 hours of programming per year, the BBC's head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, said he was "not obsessed" with how many hours were being transmitted.

"It's actually how much of that goes out in a primetime slot that is key," he added.

His department produced two shows that aired on Wednesday, including Dead Good Job, a brand new BBC Two series about undertakers at 9pm, and Jewish festival programme Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion at 11.15pm on BBC One - sometimes dubbed the graveyard slot.

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