BBC television’s religious coverage is in the hands of “secular and sceptical” executives, who view religious programmes as a “rather tiresome obligation”, according to one of the corporation’s senior presenters.
Roger Bolton, who presents Radio 4’s Feedback, told an awards ceremony in London that the religious perspective was often “bafflingly absent” both on air and behind the scenes in editorial discussions.
He also said that BBC News should appoint a religion editor – of a similar seniority and prominence to business editor Robert Peston – to appear prominently on its radio and TV bulletins.
Bolton was presenting the Sandford St Martin Trust Television Awards, which honour excellence in religious broadcasting.
“BBC television, unlike BBC Radio, seems to be in the hands of the secular and sceptical, who view religious coverage as a rather tiresome obligation to be minimized rather than a rich and promising area to explore,” said Bolton.
Bolton said that the corporation’s new head of religion, Aaqil Ahmed, had a proven record in his previous job at Channel 4, but that at the BBC, his “playing field” was “more the size of a fives court than a football pitch.”
Mr Ahmed, who joined the BBC last year, is the corporation’s first Muslim head of religion, and only the second non-Christian to hold the job.
Bolton said that a lack of interest from channel controllers made the head of religion’s job “like knitting fog”.
He added that the lack of a religion editor was a “key weakness” for BBC news.
“BBC News requires a religion editor, able to appear on the networks to interpret the latest religious story at home and abroad, but more importantly to bring a religious perspective to the vast range of areas such as foreign affairs and medical dilemmas where that perspective is so often, and so bafflingly, absent,” said Bolton.
At the ceremony, the Premier Television award went to Channel 4 for an episode of its series The Bible: a History, with the BBC picking up the three lesser television awards. The BBC won all five radio awards.
Bolton was chairman of the judges for the television awards.
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC’s commitment to religion and ethics broadcasting is unequivocal. BBC News and Current Affairs has a dedicated religion correspondent, and topical religious and ethical affairs stories are featured across all our BBC networks.
“There is no downward trend in our religion and ethics television output, with over 164 hours broadcast last year, and this year our investment in Festival programming on BBC One – which marks major religious festivals – has increased.”
Bolton’s speech comes after the Church of England General Synod earlier this year voted to express “deep concern” about a reduction in religious broadcasting across British television – but drew back from singling out the BBC for criticism.
A Church of England spokesman said: “There is much to be celebrated in the BBC’s religious broadcasting output, as tonight’s awards testify.
“We have consistently called for the corporation to devote appropriate resources to ensuring high-quality provision of content reflecting and exploring religion across the breadth of its output, including news and current affairs.
“Developing sufficient in-house knowledge in a topic as important to society as religion and ethics is critical to meeting this demand, which is shared by people of all faiths and none.”