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God: TV's Holy Grail?

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A session about God at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

Surely not?

"We don't do God" said Alastair Campbell and in recent years most TV commissioners have seemed to agree. Programmes exploring religion and faith have largely disappeared from the commercial channels, leaving the publicly-funded BBC to carry the flame (with quotas to stiffen its resolve).

Yet Friday's Edinburgh session, "God: TV's Holy Grail?", was billed by the Festival organisers as one of this year's hottest debates.

and so it proved. There were feisty arguments about quotas, quality and the definition of religious broadcasting (are comedies such as Rev and Citizen Khan 'religious' programmes?) as well as examples of best practice (The Story of the Jews, The Ottomans, My Brother the Islamist, Richard Dawkins' The Enemies of Reason) and preview clips of The Ark and Simon Reeve's Sacred Rivers.

Chaired by Sian Williams, the presenter of BBC One's Sunday Morning Live, pitted Polly Toynbee, vice-president of the British Humanist association, against Radio 4 Feedback presenter Roger Bolton, a Trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting.

Also on the panel were the BBC's head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed; Ralph Lee, deputy chief creative officer of Channel 4 (which no longer has a head of religion); and the acclaimed screenwriter Tony Jordan who, after EastEnders, Hustle and Life on Mars, wrote The Nativity for the BBC and - coming soon - The Ark, starring David Threlfall as Noah.

So why now?

In recent months, religion has thrust itself onto the national and international stage. When David Cameron proclaimed that Britain was a Christian country - in effect saying "we DO do God" - 55 public figures wrote to the Daily Telegraph accusing him of fostering alienation and division, against the background of turmoil in the Middle East.

Reports that Hollywood had rediscovered the power of Bible stories - with Noah, Exodus and other epics in production - highlighted the success of the TV mini-series The Bible on the History channel, which was America's most watched cable show of 2013.

The return of Rev - the BBC Two comedy about the tribulations of an inner-city vicar and his wife, played by Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman - made the cover of Radio Times and other magazines, as well as a host of features in the national press. Praising it in his Sunday Times TV review, AA Gill criticised broadcasters' failure to engage properly with issues of faith and spirituality.

"Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life" he wrote. "Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn't modern, it's a failure to face modernity."

Ian Hislop, made the same point in Radio Times. Under the heading "Broadcasters must have faith in religious TV", he said programme-makers and audiences were looking for good stories: "There are few richer repositories of stories than the world's faiths and the extraordinary ways that human beings have attempted to find meaning through them."

So what better time, we thought, for a proper debate in at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the annual meeting point for 2,000 programme-makers, commissioners and opinion-formers? The organisers agreed - hence this session, which the Sandford St Martin Trust is sponsoring.

The Trust has been giving awards for the best programmes about religion, ethics and spirituality since 1978 - and you can see recent winners and this year's shortlist at www.sandfordawards.org.uk. But it it is fair to say that it has kept its light under a bushel. That is now changing and we are actively promoting excellence in broadcasting in ways such as this. This week, the award-winning BBC journalist and broadcaster Anna McNamee joins us in the new role of executive secretary, to steer the Trust's work in new directions.

Ian Hislop and Rev are both former Sandford prizewinners, demonstrating that the Awards cast their net widely, embracing drama, comedy, current affairs and history, as well as programmes that more obviously tick Ofcom's 'religion' box.

Simon Schama won this year's Sandford TV Award for his BBC Two series The Story of the Jews, and he too has observed how views are changing. He wrote recently: "My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong..."

Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4's Sunday programme, who chaired this year's Sandford TV panel, praised "some superb entries that take religion out of the ghetto and reflect the way it touches history, current affairs and the lives of ordinary people."

But he told Press Gazette that the British media generally suffered from a 'blind spot' about the importance of religion around the world which damaged its news coverage. He deplored the absence of religious affairs correspondents in national newspapers, following The Times's decision to make Ruth Gledhill's post redundant, and said "religious illiteracy" could lead to serious journalistic mistakes.

"Never ignore the power of religion" Stourton warned programme-makers and policy-makers in an article in the Sunday Telegraph: "You don't have to like religion, but do take it seriously."

Hopefully, after the Edinburgh debate, more commissioners and producers will do so.

Torin Douglas is Trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust.

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