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Religion on the BBC

Aaqil Ahmed

Head of BBC Religion & Ethics

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On Wednesday this week, the Church Of England's Synod will debate a motion tabled by Nigel Holmes on the issue of religious broadcasting on television. The motion says coverage that was, "once exemplary, now marginalises the few such programmes which remain" and "completely ignored the Christian significance of Good Friday 2009". In a background paper that accompanies this motion, Nigel says the hours of religious and ethical TV broadcast on the BBC have fallen from 177 in 1987, to 155 in 2007.

Ahead of the Synod, the Sunday Telegraph did an interview with me that explored these issues. The article appeared on Sunday under the headline "Church is 'living in the past' says BBC chief". Great headline - but the truth lets the story down. The problem is: I am that BBC chief and I definitely didn't say that. In fact there were a lot of things in the Sunday Telegraph article that surprised me when I read them.

As the BBC's Head of Religion I feel that simply totting up the number of hours of religion we broadcast is not a fair way to measure its value. More is not always better. The range and quality of our programmes - the vast array of live worship; music and documentaries to mark Christian festivals across BBC TV radio and online; Songs Of Praise; landmark documentary series like the recent A History Of Christianity with Diarmaid McCulloch - and the ease with which people can view those programmes on TV and now online thanks to iPlayer, I feel are equally important.

The Sunday Telegraph article quotes me as saying that the BBC should not give Christianity preferential treatment. The question I was actually asked was whether minority faiths should be treated differently from other faiths - to which I replied that all faiths should be treated in the same way and that I don't believe in treating any faith differently. It's all a bit different when you put it in its proper context, isn't it?

The article in the Church Times (editor's note: the full interview is firewalled until Friday 12th February) is a truer reflection of my point of view - and a laudably accurate treatment of the interview I gave them.

In truth, hours of TV religion programming change year-on-year and there is no trend downwards. And, for the record, we are currently broadcasting 164 hours of religious programmes a year on BBC Television (and this figure does not take into account drama, arts and news programmes which also cover religious and ethical topics). We have some great new commissions at Easter, from a special service at King's College entitled Easter At King's, and a documentary about the meaning of Easter for Good Friday on BBC One, to an investigation into whether Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs today in secular Britain (also for BBC One).

We're also investing more in our coverage of religious festivals and worship programmes.

Religion on the BBC is safe in my hands. Watch the output and forget the prophets of doom.

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