Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General
Faith And The Media
Speech given at Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Lecture 2008 series: Faith And Life In Britain Today, Westminster, London
Thursday 10 April 2008
Check against delivery
[Again he began to teach them by the lakeside, but such a huge crowd gathered round him that he got into a boat on the water and sat there. The whole crowd were at the lakeside on land.
He taught them many things in parables, and in the course of his teaching he said to them, "listen! Imagine a sower going out to sow. Now it happened that, as he sowed, some of the seed fell on the edge of the path and the birds came and ate it up.
"Some seed fell on rocky ground where it found little soil and at once sprang up, because there was no depth of earth, and when the sun came up it was scorched and, not having any roots, it withered away.
"Some seed fell into thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it produced no crop. And some seeds fell into rich soil, grew tall and strong, and produced a good crop; the yield was thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold." And he said, "anyone who has ears for listening should listen!"
Mark 4, 1-9]
Hundreds of years before it was used to describe radio transmissions and long, long before it became the middle "B" in the initials BBC, the word broadcast began life as a term of art in horticulture. As many people here tonight will know, it's a kind of sowing in which the sower scatters seeds widely over a given patch of ground rather than sowing it in strips.
You can guess some of the advantages and disadvantages. You get the job done quickly but you never quite know where your seed will go or what will happen to it.
The English word is only a few centuries old, but broadcast sowing itself is ancient, maybe the most ancient form of sowing there is. And it's clearly what the sower is doing in the parable we just heard about the sower and the seed. He's broadcasting.
For me, this parable is a perfect place to begin a consideration of the relationship between faith and the mass media.
So many of the conversations about religion and the media begin with the words: "if only". If only there were more programmes like this Easter's drama The Passion. If only there were less. If only the newspapers took religion more seriously. If only the BBC would refrain from broadcasting pieces like Jerry Springer – The Opera. If only humanists and atheists were allowed onto Thought For The Day. If only.
It's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the mass media in general, and broadcasting in particular, has a direct one-for-one power to change minds and alter opinions.
How much wiser the model of communication presented in the parable. Not only do you never know who is going to see, or hear, or read what. More importantly, you can never predict what they're going to make of it. The same words, the same programmes provoke diametrically opposing reactions in different people. They can mean, they can signify utterly different things.
And in no subject, no genre, is this more true than it is about religion.
The parable reminds us that broadcasting and mass media are not exercises in mind control or social engineering. It reminds us that serendipity is intrinsic to them and that, in the conversation which lies at the heart of all forms of media, the reaction of the listener is everything. It reminds us how limitlessly diverse and complex, how imperfect the world is that we broadcast to. Finally it reminds us that, despite all these limitations and complications, good can still come of it. The truth can still get through.
I'm going to talk mainly this evening about broadcasting – indeed quite a lot of what I say will be specifically about the BBC – though some of the themes, I hope, will echo more widely.
And I have what some will regard as a rather counter-intuitive story to tell. It is how, over a generation – as it happens over roughly the time I've been involved in broadcasting myself – one picture of religion has been replaced by another, more complex, more challenging, in many ways deeper one. I'll talk about some of the new, seemingly intractable dilemmas that this change has confronted us with. I'll also try to explain why, when I look to the future of the relationship between faith and the media, what I feel, most of time at least, is hope.
The way we were
But I'm going to start by looking at where we've come from. So I'm going to spend a few minutes looking at how television and radio covered and thought about religion in 1979, the year when I joined the BBC as a trainee. This is how I remember it.
If you looked at a Radio Times of the period, you'd find that then as now there was a rich and imaginative array of religious output on BBC Radio. On television, you'd find some friends who are still very much with us – Songs Of Praise, for example, early on a Sunday evening – and a few, like ITV's Stars On Sunday, who are not. Overall, you'd find rather more fixed slots for religion, but rather fewer specials and occasional series. But I want to delve a little deeper.
After a few weeks in the BBC's equivalent of boot camp I was sent in the autumn of 1979 to the religious documentary programme Everyman as the most junior of junior researchers.
It was a fantastic first posting for any young programme-maker – a place of incredible creative and intellectual energy, a rather amazing gathering of talents – and I enjoyed every moment of it.
At the same time I couldn't help noticing that one thing that Everyman didn't seem to do very often was actually to make programmes about religion.
Each year there would be a handful of programmes on conventional religious subjects – I worked on one, a profile of Robert Runcie just as he was about to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
But most editions of Everyman were only "religious" in the broadest possible sense. They'd deal with topics in the hinterland between science and spirituality – cryogenic suspension, for instance, as a hoped-for route to immortality. Or they'd explore the many New Age cults which then, as now, promised some new form of personal revelation. Or they'd use religion as a way into large-scale social or political issues – liberation theology in South America would be an example of that.
And this wasn't just true of Everyman. It was true of its more topical sister programme, Heart Of The Matter. It was largely true of Credo, ITV's equivalent religious documentary programme.
Even among religious programme-makers then, there was a real anxiety about whether religion as a thing in itself was a topic of any real interest. And outside the specialist departments, religion was marginal at best. It was almost entirely absent in mainstream drama, documentary and comedy. Compared to our bulletins and website today, it was also remarkably peripheral in our coverage of news.
Take the Middle East. A big story then, almost as big as today, but one which was seen almost entirely in political rather than religious terms. The PLO, for instance, was regarded first and foremost as a quasi-Marxist, revolutionary movement. Israel and the Palestinians and the Middle East as a whole were reported as a secular, nationalist, ideological struggle. Islam was hardly ever mentioned at all.
In fact the only long-running story which inevitably referred to religious differences was Northern Ireland. Even here though, by the Eighties, the religious dimension to the Northern Ireland conflict was becoming de-emphasised. It was becoming the story of two communities rather than of two confessional groups. Nationalist and unionist, rather than catholic and protestant. As far as it could be, religion was written out of the plot.
A problem solved?
So what was going on? I want to spend a few minutes exploring the worldview which I believe underpinned all these editorial choices. Think of it not as an explicit argument but as a set of prevailing background assumptions, not held by everyone, indeed not held by me as it happens, but so widespread – both within and beyond the media – as to be normative.
It comprised two underlying ideas. The first is that familiar post-Enlightenment claim that the rationalist arguments against belief in God are so persuasive that they spell the inevitable long-term decline of organised religion. Progress brings education and knowledge, and education and knowledge inexorably undermine belief.
The Entzauberung, the breaking of the spell, which Nietzsche and Max Weber predicted for Western European civilisation, and which was now so clearly evident in falling church rolls and innumerable sociological studies, would become universal once the rest of the world caught up with Western Europe in terms of education and development.
The second idea is a rather different and in some ways contradictory one, though it too draws its roots from the Enlightenment, if not from the Reformation. It is that there is another ineluctable movement in the history of religion and belief, from the primacy of collective and communal worship to that of individual and individually chosen belief.
Alongside the decline of organised religion, in other words, we should expect to see all kinds of new spirituality and of people mixing-and-matching, picking-and-choosing between the old and the new. Submission and adherence to a common set of doctrines and practices would be progressively replaced by new, essentially personal goals - the goals of spiritual self-realisation and self-discovery. Expressivism is the term Charles Taylor uses in his brilliant new book, A Secular Age.
Connected with this idea was a growing – and in many ways admirable – appreciation of the sheer diversity of human religious and spiritual responses and a strengthened awareness of the need for tolerance, especially of minority belief systems.
Now these two big ideas don't quite fit together. Hardline rationalist atheists, for example, are characteristically every bit as dismissive of New Age spiritualism as they are of conventional religion.
But it's worth adding that in a sense this was not just a post-Christian worldview, but a post-atheist one. A generation or so earlier, atheism had been frequently debated on the airwaves. Some of the encounters – notably those between Bertrand Russell and Father Frederick Copleston – were legendary.
And yet by the late Seventies and early Eighties, and despite the presence of some very powerful individual voices like that of Richard Dawkins, I think it's fair to say that media interest in atheism had also waned. Perhaps atheism was thought to have done its job, or to have been superseded by the new spiritual eclecticism.
I've put it briefly and no doubt far too crudely, but this I believe was the prevailing intellectual landscape against which editors and journalists and others in the media thought about the coverage of religion in the Eighties. There was an acknowledgement at the BBC and elsewhere of historic commitments to reflect Christian worship – and the production teams engaged in that did it with real energy and conviction. There were already tentative moves towards reflecting the festivals and beliefs of the UK's other faiths.
But beyond that, as at Everyman, the real creative energy was directed at the new boundaries of belief. When asked what the biggest challenge facing the religious programmes department was, an increasingly frequent answer was the challenge of meeting the needs of those of "vague faith", who were presumed to be by far the biggest single slice of the population.
The worldview I've been describing was not, I believe, confined to the BBC. Across broadcasting, in our newspapers, in much of the public discourse about religion, the same set of assumptions held sway. In television, there was – as there always is – a lively debate about the future of current affairs, coverage of the arts, drama. I don't remember any such debate about the future of religion either on television and radio or in the press.
Except for those with a particular interest, religion was regarded as rather dull and safe. It was, it was thought, broadly sorted. It was a problem solved.
Or is it?
Well, how different the world looks today.
One of the most striking things I've witnessed over the past 20 years in the media is the way this comfortable background consensus about religion has broken down. Many of the individual themes I've talked about – the decline in church attendance in the UK and across Europe, the rise of New Age spirituality, the growing importance of minority faiths in multi-ethnic societies – are very much with us. There are still many who believe that some or all of this previous analysis is right, or at least should be right in the sense that the world would be a far better and safer place if it were right.
But the easy consensus, the sense of manifest destiny, the near certainty that this story could only ever end one way - that confidence has largely evaporated.
Some of the reasons for that have been widely discussed, others less so. The media has found itself confronted by all of them.
The first and most obvious factor has been the series of shocks and outrages directly or indirectly connected with extremist or hardline strains of Islam. 9/11 and 7/7 are the dates that many people in the media would cite as the days on which their view of the world changed.
I would date the start of the process inside the British media rather earlier - to the autumn of 1988, in fact, and the publication of The Satanic Verses, and then, a few months later, the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini. By this time, I had become the editor of the BBC's Nine O'Clock News. It was a story which seemed to come out of nowhere but which resonates today more than almost any other story from that year. And it challenged the prevailing view of religion in so many ways.
First there was the sheer clarity, the utter lack of compromise in the message. You could accuse Ruhollah Khomeini of various things. "Vague faith" was not one of them.
Second was the palpable fact that, in Tehran at least, religion was moving dramatically in precisely the opposite direction from that predicted – out of the private sphere and into the public and political.
Third was a point, in a sense, about globalisation. Even if you believed that religion was a busted flush at home, the Satanic Verses controversy demonstrated that religious fervour in another part of the world could still directly affect the UK and the safety of a UK citizen.
And fourth, the controversy posed another troubling question: what was the right response in an open, tolerant society when the beliefs of minorities clashed, potentially violently, with other fundamental rights and freedoms – for example, the freedom of speech and artistic expression?
The cognitive dissonance associated with this last point is still unresolved and is still playing out 20 years later.
But the challenge of a resurgent traditionalism in both Shia and Sunni Islam and the subsequent threat of globalised Islamist terror is only one of the factors that began to undermine the previous consensus.
A second was a new topicality in religion. Religion found itself more regularly and more centrally in the news, for both positive and negative reasons. Christianity – and Pope John Paul II in particular – were seen to have played a central role in the collapse of European communism - again a turn of events which seemed to be the exact opposite of what the background theory of religion predicted. There were new ethical challenges thrown up by science and medicine. Here too church leaders and others found new opportunities to get their voices heard.
The churches also found themselves in new controversies of their own. Women and gay priests. Child abuse. The battle within many faiths between conservatives and modernisers. For good or ill, religion began to make the news regularly again.
In many ways though, the biggest single factor was a subtler, more diffuse one. It was, and is, the progressive recognition that the long-predicted global recession of religion has not actually materialised. Indeed, whether you look at the Islamic world, or the success of both traditional and relatively newer forms of Christianity in Latin America, in parts of Asia, in parts of Africa, you can make the case that what we have been witnessing in recent decades is a global religious revival.
Over the next 20 years, the demographers expect the number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all to grow as a proportion of the world population and the number of those who profess no religion or who define themselves as atheists to decline.
This is something which can fill you with optimism – or with gloom – or provoke any number of reactions between the two. The point I want to make is that the world just looks a more complex and diverse place in the matter of religion than it did a generation ago.
A few months ago, National Geographic published a survey of religion around the world. There's an extraordinary variation between the country which reports the highest level of religious belief – at a bracing 99.99%, that's Afghanistan, by the way – and that which reports the lowest: not the UK, whatever you may have heard, but that other earthly paradise, North Korea. The conjecture that development, economic improvement, greater access to education, would lead to higher levels of disbelief may be true of some countries, but by no means of all.
Nor, we've been reminded, are secularity and religious fervour always to be thought of as opposites. One country can be more secular than another – legally, constitutionally, socially – but also exhibit higher levels of belief. It's true of the United States compared to Western Europe. It's true of Turkey compared to some of its neighbours.
Any one of the competing claims about the anthropological and social character of religion may turn out to be right. But in 2008, historicist certainty on the matter feels no longer feels justified.
Nobody knows for certain how the global history of religion will turn out.
Here at home, the pattern of belief and religious practice also feels more complex, the story richer and more surprising, than it did at the end of the Sevnties. That instinct about the increasing diversity of belief is supported by the facts, but assumptions about inevitable across-the-board decline do not.
Christian belief itself has proven more resilient than many predicted. In Ipsos MORI's long-term tracking study, belief in God has declined, both over the past decade and over past fifty years, though it still stands at some 56% of the population. But in recent years, belief in life after death, in guardian angels, over a longer period belief in hell, all appear to have increased.
In a recent survey commissioned by Theos, well over half of those questioned said they believed Jesus rose from the dead. Adding a splendid, if theologically complex note, that included 12% of people who said they were atheists. In a way, that says it all – out there, attitudes and beliefs often don't fit into the tidy-minded categories of the in-principle argument about religion. And for many people, "vague faith" clearly still means "vague Christianity".
And our experience with programming over the past decade also suggests that that picture of growing disbelief and disenchantment was too simple.
A watershed for me was the death of Cardinal Basil Hume. BBC Television decided to carry the funeral mass for Cardinal Hume here in this cathedral live – a decision which provoked some internal debate and which was certainly not expected by many to appeal to the typical BBC One daytime audience. Far from it. More people watched it than watched the normal schedule and we know, because they told us, that they greatly appreciated it.
In the same vein, across TV, radio and the web, there was immense interest in the final days and funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict.
There are all sorts of possible explanations for this phenomenon - John Paul II's global profile, political impact and – dare I say it – celebrity status; the mystique and televisual allure of an ancient, colourful ritual; a general hunger and respect for clear moral leadership, even if that leadership is predicated on a set of beliefs you do not share; and so on. The point is that there had been nothing quite like it in the history of religion on TV and radio, nor indeed in the modern history of the papacy.
Programmes like The Monastery or more recently Extreme Pilgrim and the audience reaction to them suggest to me not just a persistence but a sharp revival of interest in the spiritual potential of traditional religious practice and belief, while the way the public have embraced programmes like An Island Parish, the resilience of titles like Songs Of Praise despite vastly more intense competitive pressures, imply that interest in religion as lived in communities and between people continues to feel relevant and valuable to millions.
And of course, for reasons I've already made clear, beyond our religious output, faith and religion have come inescapable in the news, in current affairs, in discussion programmes and so on. And old debates have revived.
A week ago, speaking here, Tony Blair made the case for faith as a means of addressing large-scale global tensions and conflicts. By contrast, Richard Dawkins has been making the case, in print but also often on the airwaves, that religion is so socially destructive, so evil, that religious education is tantamount to child abuse. What both of them agree about, and this is beginning to feel like a new consensus, is that it matters, that the question of religion is an important one.
The future of faith and religion in the media
So what does the future hold for faith and the media? Well, in our newspapers we can already see the debate I've just talked about, and the renewal of interest in the intellectual and moral battle between religion and atheism, being played out. So too the complex and difficult story of the interaction of religion with some of the world's geopolitical fault-lines.
In broadcasting, the picture is also evolving.
It is true, as commercial pressures play on the provision of public service content on television beyond the BBC, that the hours that ITV1 has felt able to devote to specialist religious output have declined. True too that when Ofcom asks the public to weigh the importance of such specialist religious output, they tend to score it pretty low.
But I would caution against pessimism. Channel 4 has commissioned some exceptional religious output in recent years and I believe we've seen a remarkable creative revival and a new spirit of experimentation in religious programming at the BBC. Religion has come out of its box and today at the BBC, it's just as likely to mean The Liverpool Nativity live on BBC Three as The Daily Service on Radio 4 LW.
And yet our commitment to reflect the central role and the continuing life of traditional Christianity in the UK through programmes like The Daily Service is undiminished.
This January, we celebrated its 80th birthday and the moment when Kathleen Cordeaux, a member of the public and a very persistent one at that, finally badgered John Reith into providing the public with "something daily of God and his love".
We'll also continue to do everything we can to reflect the UK's other faiths and to do justice to belief-systems which do not involve, or indeed deny the validity of, religious and spiritual beliefs.
But we want to be bold. No programme, I think, has demonstrated that more in recent years than The Passion, which was broadcast in Holy Week this March. No programme more clearly points to the journey on which we've come, the journey I've been setting out this evening.
It is quite simply inconceivable that the BBC in the Seventies or Eighties or indeed the Nineties would have stripped a drama about Christ's passion across BBC One's primetime schedule. And even had such a piece been commissioned, I think it is also inconceivable that such a piece would have been quite like The Passion.
The benchmark, in a way, is the last major attempt by BBC Television to tell the story of Jesus, the 1969 Dennis Potter drama Son Of Man. It's a formidable, in many ways unforgettable piece with a creative validity of its own, but it's interesting that it's the 2008 drama rather than the 1969 one which feels able to take the question of the Resurrection head on and, in Frank Deasy's wonderful screenplay, to do it both originally and uncompromisingly.
We're determined that that spirit of boldness and unexpectedness should continue. There are other very ambitious projects already in the works - a set of films about the Bible for BBC One which represent the biggest commission our Religion and Ethics department has ever won; a new history of Christianity; and so on. And we want to go on exploring ways of using non-factual genres – drama, comedy – as well as live events and our growing creativity on the web and multimedia to bring the topics of faith and belief to life for audiences.
The digital revolution is transforming every kind of broadcasting, but I think its impact will be particularly profound in the case of faith. The ability to use the web to explore topics in greater detail with resources like the BBC's own religion website, the chance to use on demand applications like our iPlayer to explore great content whenever and ultimately wherever you want it, above all, the connectivity and interactivity that enables communities to form and to create and debate their own content - all of these developments are already enriching and expanding the way millions of people think about and encounter religion.
At one level, the web is the Wild West, a gift to cults and conspiracy-theorists, at its very worst a dangerous new channel for spreading fear and hate. But it's also potentially a wonderful new way of sharing knowledge and personal experience and of doing it in a far more individually relevant way than conventional broadcasting can ever do. This is why it's such a big emphasis for the BBC right now.
In some ways, then, we have been creatively liberated. But we also have to accept that we are also being confronted by some difficult new dilemmas.
When I became Director-General of the BBC in 2004, the conventional wisdom – unsurprisingly, given the Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton saga – was that the most difficult editorial decisions were bound to be about political stories and about the BBC's political independence. Perhaps that will eventually turn out to be the case.
To date, though, no decision about political coverage has been remotely as contentious or as widely debated as the decision we made about the programme Jerry Springer - The Opera. In news, one of the trickiest judgements we've been called upon to make in my time as editor-in-chief was exactly how much to show on the air of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
Although people invariably try to parse decisions like these for general trends, we try to approach each editorial choice on its own merits. In the case of Jerry Springer, I believed that the arguments in favour of broadcast – albeit broadcast with very careful warnings so that anyone who might be offended by the programme would know to switch it off – I believed that these arguments, and above all the right of the public to make up their own minds whether to watch or not, outweighed the arguments against.
In the case of the cartoons, we elected to show a little more of them than the newspapers did and were criticised by some as a result. We didn't do it because we wished to cause offence, but because we thought that, without some level of depiction, it would be impossible for many viewers to understand the story at all.
But the decisions do not always go one way. In the case of the animated comedy, Popetown, we decided that the balance of argument fell the other way and we dropped the programme.
I have two observations on the new dilemmas that are being thrown up. The first is that we are forced much more often, not just to weigh editorial decisions carefully – we've always had to do that – but to stand up publicly for our fundamental editorial values, and to do so in an atmosphere that can sometimes feel rather menacing. In the case of Jerry Springer, one of the things I and some of my colleagues learned is that the depiction of religious figures is not always an abstract or academic matter. Occasionally it can mean the need for a security guard outside your home.
But there is no point having a BBC which isn't prepared to stand up and be counted; which will do everything it can to mitigate potential religious offence; but which will always be forthright in the defence of freedom of speech and of impartiality.
We are being tested in new ways. But we can and will meet these new challenges.
My second observation is a different one. There is no question that, whatever else it has done, the sense of religion as a resurgent force has brought, for some at least, both bewilderment and fear in its wake. More than that, there have been occasions during these editorial controversies when it's seemed to me that almost every party to the debate – from out-and-out sceptics to those of the most conservative religious persuasion, and almost every group in between – have come to think of themselves as a beleaguered minority, whose interests and whose voice are likely to drowned out.
Alongside this surprisingly widespread sense of victimhood, another development - which is a growing nervousness about some aspects of the debate about faith, especially and perhaps understandably, a nervousness about discussion about Islam and its relationship to the traditions and values of British and Western society as a whole.
Whatever one thinks of what the Archbishop of Canterbury had to say on the subject of British and sharia law and I am not expressing a view about that, I thought this sense of "careless talk costs lives" was very evident in the media coverage that followed his remarks.
And I believe that the UK's public service broadcasters, and especially the BBC, have a particular set of responsibilities on both these counts. We have a duty to ensure that no group – whether they are Christians or Muslims or agnostics or anything else – feels excluded or that their beliefs or customs will be treated with less courtesy and respect than others. And we have a special responsibility to ensure that, whatever the difficulties and the sensitivities, the debate about faith and society and about the way people with very different beliefs encounter each other – that this debate should not be foreclosed or censored.
I began tonight by emphasising the serendipity and uncertainty of the effect of broadcasting.
I've said we don't know how the history of religion itself will work out. Nor do we know what the future history of faith and media holds in store. We don't know what the seeds will be or where they will fall.
We don't know how public attitudes and appetite will develop. They have ears, but will they listen? And what will they listen to?
We don't know what will happen to media, though we do know that it is going through a profound and utterly unprecedented revolution. Many of the largest and best established media organisations – our equivalent, if you like, of the great cathedrals and mosques and synagogues – are going through a process of fragmentation of readership and audience very analogous to the challenge facing some churches and faith-groups.
In this climate, it would be very easy to become downbeat about the ability and willingness of the media to deal with the issue of religion and faith with the seriousness and commitment it deserves.
In the end, I can only speak for the BBC. But I believe that we can – indeed that we can and are finding new ways of doing it.
The promise of public service broadcasting was never to reach all of the people all of the time with everything we do. We need a proper humility about the place broadcasting occupies in people's lives and about the speed and the extent to which any programme, no matter how good, how worthwhile, can impart knowledge or inspire change.
But I believe, as committed public service broadcasters have always believed, that what we do can sometimes have a transformational power. That it can be a force for enlightenment in the broadest sense. A force for good. And, on those occasions when it does connect, when it really hits home, that it can bear disproportionate fruit.
Sometimes not much. Sometimes nothing. But sometimes – who knows? – 30, 60 or even a 100-fold.
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