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Something misunderstood: Why the BBC was wrong to cancel one of its most-loved religious shows

Roger Bolton responds to the news that BBC Radio 4 has halted Something Understood

Last week, something funny happened to Radio 4’s Something Understood series. ‘Funny’ in the sense of peculiar. You could also add ‘ominous’ and ‘disturbing’.

The series had been put out to tender, and various radio indies, and a BBC in house department, had done considerable work on their proposals, which had been submitted. All that remained was for interviews to take place, fortunate applicants told of their success, and the disappointed to drown their sorrows and work out how to do better next time.

Something Understood is a unique series which runs for 52 weeks a year and which combines the best in music, poetry, and prose to reflect on issues of religious and ethical importance, or, as the BBC website says, “Ethical and Religious discussion that examines some of the larger questions of life”.

Well not for much longer, the series has been cancelled, mid tender, something unprecedented in my experience. It is to be replaced by past editions from the archive. There will be no new commissions such as the one for Sunday 11th November called 'The Art of Faith', in which former Archbishop Rowan Williams discusses with the sculptor Antony Gormley the relationship between art and faith.

The BBC pleads poverty, although its financial situation has not changed since the series was put out to tender. If it had to be cancelled, why not take that decision before producers had done a lot of expensive work preparing their submissions, work for which they will not be compensated? Setting that issue aside, what one can say is that cuts as well as commissions tell us where the Corporation’s priorities lie, and that does not seem to be in the field of religion and ethics.

The BBC, of course, denies this and says, “We are putting into action our plans to increase the ambition of religious programmes, and the critically acclaimed ‘Morality in the 21st century’ is an example of this, plus series like the Moral Maze and Sunday continue to explore religious and ethical questions in depth”.

Well, as a former presenter of Sunday, I can say that, as it is a news and current affairs magazine, it cannot approach the depth of spiritual reflection and ethical discussion regularly displayed in Something Understood, which devotes all its time to exploring one issue, and is not distracted by the latest controversy.

The Sandford St Martin Trust, which runs the major programme awards in this area, reacted rather drily to the BBC statement. “Morality in the 21st century….was indeed an ambitious and excellent week long series”, (but), "the BBC will need to commission many more such strands to replace the 52 editions of Something Understood broadcast throughout the year". 

You have to be a super optimist to believe that will happen.

There is a real sense of disappointment, perhaps betrayal, among those who welcomed what they believed was the landmark publication of the Corporation’s Religion and Ethics Review in December, 2017, and to which many of them had contributed.

The review said that the BBC was committed to reforming its output and the BBC Director General said then that their plans “ will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life”.

In response to the latest cutback the Chair of the Sandford St Martin Trust, Bishop Jan McFarlane, says “I fear the BBC has reneged on its professed commitment to religious and ethical broadcasting less than a year since the publication of its review”.

I have no doubt that many of the key people behind the review were genuine in their hopes for it, but it is one thing to have a policy, partly designed to silence outside criticism from stakeholders, and another to ensure that it is put into practice.

That requires money, airtime, and a senior executive who is specifically tasked with implementing it.

There is no such person, no money, and the airtime is in the hands of the individual directorates, who clearly have other priorities. Parts of the organisation are religiously illiterate, and as a whole there must be a real question of whether it is fit for purpose in this area.

It is a sad story, but it also displays a failure to understand modern Britain, and indeed the world, where faith is increasing, not diminishing. For example, there have never been as many Christians around the globe as there are now.

We cannot understand this country if we do not understand the role of Christianity in making it, and we will never have good relations between all our different faith groups unless we understand what they believe and why.

We look to the BBC, our national broadcaster, to help lead the way to greater understanding and more intelligent and thoughtful discourse. It looks as though we are going to be disappointed, again.

Something Misunderstood indeed.

Roger Bolton is a former presenter of the BBC’s Sunday programme, and chair of the trustees of Premier

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