An open letter to George Entwistle, who will take over as Director General of the BBC in September.
The letter was written by Andrew Graystone, Director of the Church and Media Network, which exists to build a bridge between the church and the media.
It is in touch with key people from both sectors and its annual conference draws both high profile speakers from the church and the media, as well as media practitioners at all levels.
I’m delighted that you are taking on the role of Director-General. It’s been a real pleasure to get to know you a little in your previous jobs at the BBC, just as I had the privilege of getting to know your predecessor Mark Thompson.
Everything I know about you tells me that you’re a good person for the job – and boy, it will be a challenge. You’re not just running a huge institution with an eye-watering budget. You’re also going to have a large role in shaping our national culture over the next few years.
Every time you walk into the new Broadcasting House building, you will pass under the inscription put there in 1934 by your famous predecessor John Reith.
The words talk about the virtues that Reith saw as important in a broadcaster: things like honesty, justice, truth and that strangely archaic but very resonant term, purity. It may be tempting to think that those virtues belong to a pre-digital era.
But in fact they are far older than broadcasting itself. Reith based the inscription on a verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Those virtues are transferrable across ages and technologies. In the few times we’ve met I have got the impression that you are as committed to those values as John Reith was.
But, as the Leveson Inquiry has taught us, virtue is sorely tested in a competitive media environment. I hope that every time you walk under that inscription you will be encouraged and inspired again to lead the corporation in ways that make those virtues central.
Inevitably you will get some criticism from time to time. Some of it may be justified, and some will undoubtedly be cruel. I hope and pray that the thick skin that you’ve sometimes needed as editor of Newsnight and Panorama will serve you well.
Sometimes, in my experience, the Christian community has been the wounder. We may even have looked like an enemy of the BBC sometimes. I’m sorry about that
. The truth is that there’s a huge overlap of values and motivations between the Christian church and the BBC. We both hold the welfare of the nation close to our hearts. Neither of us is perfect.
We both have our weaknesses and we both make mistakes. But make no mistake, we in the church value the BBC for its vision to inform, educate and entertain with integrity.
If there has been an arms-length, overly-critical relationship sometimes, I hope we can move past it. Christians want to see a healthy BBC serving the nation with excellent output.
So I hope you will come to see the Christian community as friends of the BBC; maybe critical friends sometimes, but friends none the less.
Many Christians care about the quality and scheduling of religious programmes on BBC TV and radio. A few programmes, like Songs of Praise and The Daily Service are older than either of us. They are time-tested and treasured by their audiences. Please don’t mess with them.
Whatever the BBC Press Office tells us from time to time, most of us feel that religious content has slipped in the BBC’s priorities over the years. That old habit of trading statistics about how many hours of religion have been broadcast over the past year doesn’t really answer this.
What really matters is something much less tangible but far more important : the picture of belief that is painted by the BBC’s overall output.
Taken in the round, most media output seems to suggest that faith is a minority interest. In fact, whilst this year’s census may well show that the number of attendant believers has declined a bit, it remains true that a huge proportion of the BBC’s audience are card-carrying believers.
We would love to see the livelier, younger, growing parts of the church represented on TV sometimes. We hate it when we are made to feel marginal or out of date. It’s just not true.
Occasionally reporters are careless or ill-informed about religion. We can spot the mistakes a mile off. Sometimes they are trivial. (There’s no such thing as a “Reverend.” And an evangelist is not the same as an evangelical.)
But taken together, it feels as if some programme-makers are reporting on things they just don’t understand. Perhaps we could help by explaining ourselves better. Let’s talk about this.
This isn’t just a sectarian appeal for religious programmes for religious people. We know that people of all faiths and none take questions of belief, behaviour and character really seriously.
When these questions are treated in ways that caricature or polarise believers we end up with heat not light. We look to the BBC for some nuance in addressing the big human questions – and not just in explicitly religious output but in drama, current affairs and children’s programmes for instance.
The BBC probably does this better than any other broadcaster. Please make sure that that seriousness of purpose continues and grows under your leadership.
I recognise that you’ve taken on a massive job. You’ll be working very long hours and carrying huge burdens. More than once your predecessor had to break into a family holiday to deal with a crisis.
I guess that goes with the territory. Undoubtedly your wife and children will bear some of the strain of this with you. I hope that you will be able to find strength in each other and in God.
We will pray for you.
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