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BBC Radio 4’s commitment questioned as it axes religious programme

By Ann Marie Foley - 31 October, 2018

The BBC is to drop its long-running religious and ethical programme Something Understood amidst fears that the BBC is no longer committed to religious broadcasting.

Fergal Keane, a BBC correspondent and nephew of writer John B Keane, has presented some episodes of the programme, including those on compassion, real-life experiences and the place of the outsider in society.

Other journalists and commentators include Mark Tully, Remona Aly, John McCarthy, Rowan Williams and many others who explore in depth contemporary issues and aspects of belief.

The many archive episodes of Something Understood are available for repeat broadcasts; however, commentators have stated that such episodes will not continue to reflect “the role that religion plays in everyday life”, as the BBC claimed it is committed to during its last review of religious broadcasting.

“They [repeat programmes] will be less pertinent when it comes to addressing the evolving world or contemporary decisions made at home and abroad. In cancelling Something Understood, 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,” stated Jan McFarlane, the Bishop of Repton and Chair of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in broadcasting about all faiths in the UK.

Bishop Jan McFarlane

Bishop Jan McFarlane explained that when the BBC published its Religion and Ethics Review last year, the broadcaster stated its commitment to reforming output, and the Director-General of the BBC said that their plans “will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life”.

The Bishop suggested that the decision to replace the current series with archive implies that the BBC believes religion is “for yesterday and not for today”.

In response to a query from the Trust, the BBC issued a statement detailing “significant financial challenges” and the need to save £800 million by 2021 as the reason why tough choices had to be made.

“We’ve broadcast Something Understood for nearly 24 years and we know the decision to no longer make this programme will disappoint our audience but we have a full and rich back catalogue of the programme and we propose to fill the schedule with the best of the archive for the foreseeable future,” the BBC said in a statement.

It added that it wants to “increase the ambition of religious programmes”. It pointed to “the critically acclaimed” Morality in the 21st Century as an example of this, and series like Moral Maze and Sunday. Such programmes “continue to explore religious and ethical questions in depth,” stated the broadcaster.

The Sandford St Martin Trust, which contributed to the BBC’s review, stated that while Morality in the 21st Century, presented by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and broadcast last September, was “an ambitious and excellent” week-long series, the BBC will need to commission a lot more programmes to replace the 52 editions of Something Understood that were broadcast throughout the year.

Fergal Keane

Something Understood programmes on BBC 4’s player include programmes such as “Is there more than one path to God?” about challenging church doctrine with Mark Tully, “Something understood in Jerusalem” about visiting what is believed to be the site of the tomb of Jesus at Easter with Robin Griffith-Jones, and one on Gandhi and a Hindu festival.

BBC Radio 4 is famous for its flagship programmes such a the rural soap The Archers, Woman’s Hour and Desert Island Discs.

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