Precis of a talk by Ed Stourton
November 08th 2010
The Keys: 14 October 2010.
We had a full house for a very engaging talk by Edward Stourton, the writer and broadcaster.
Ed Stourton was born in Nigeria in 1957, and spent most of his childhood and teenage years living abroad – Switzerland, Malta and Ghana. He was head boy both of his primary school, and of Ampleforth. He comes from a family of recusant Catholics – who kept the faith, despite being excluded from public life – over centuries. He joined the staff of ITN soon after leaving Trinity College, Cambridge and in 1982, became a founder-member Channel 4’ News. He joined the BBC in 1988 and has been there ever since, as reporter and presenter. He currently presents the Sunday Programme on Radio 4, and makes outstanding radio documentaries, for which he has won an award.
Ed Stourton chose to speak about life at the BBC, especially in relation to faith issues. He said that from the beginning, the BBC took religion “very seriously”: in the 1928, Sir John Reith had a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randell Davidson, and in the 1928 BBC Handbook, it was pledged that “nothing of a controversial nature shall ever be broadcast” in the religious context over the BBC. Reith felt that a “thorough-going, optimistic and manly religion” should be represented over the airwaves. The BBC was never anti-religious, but religious in a particular way. Until well into the 1960s, it was Anglican Establishment – indeed, until that decade religious broadcasters were recruited from the (Anglican) clergy.
Within the BBC “religion and ethics” department, there are thoughtful and even anguished discussions about how to phrase an item. After the death of Stephen Milligan MP, [who died apparently because of the consequences of a bizarre auto-erotic act], the BBC agonised on how to report this. At first, they chose not to spell out the details of the case because it might be “intrusive and distressing” to his family. Of course, once it was blazoned over the front pages of the tabloids, this had to change.
There was, he said, a certain parellel between the BBC and the Vatican, as institutions. There is a certain sense, perhaps, within both institutions of bosses mainly talking to each other. Perhaps there is not enough listening to the people outside. For example, it really wasn’t appreciated within the Corporation how much Palestinian politics had been Islamicised (within the context of Hamas in Gaza). We saw something of this in the run-up to Benedict’s recent visit [a particular attitude taken within the Corporation.]. And similarly at the time that the marriage of Charles and Diana was beginning to break up. The Corporation was maintaining a position it had come to from within its own thought-processes – that tittle-tattle about the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage was just that.
The BBC is full of incredibly clever people, of higher civil service quality, but incredibly clever people do not always pick up on grass-roots feelings.
With the Pope’s visit, once it began, the “ceremony” people at the BBC took over. They are very good at doing ceremonial reportage, and so the tone changed.
Overall, he believed that the BBC was not, as many people of faith claim, affirmatively secularist or anti-religion. Sometimes people within the Corporation are puzzled by religion. Sometimes there are blind spots. But there was also a real concern to do things in the right way, appropriately and fairly.
Ed’s own address was not very long, which left time for more questions and discussion. Josephine Quintevalle (who is involved in ethics lobbying to protect embryonic life) made the point that there was a big difference between the regional BBC and the metropolitan. Regional BBC was always more open to hearing the pro-life point of view. (Her experience was the mainstream BBC was most definitely, and actively, promoting a pro-euthanasia attitude – she had argued with Jeremy Vine about assisted suicide, and he seemed “not to see the point at all” of opposing it.) Ed agreed that mainstream BBC did indeed have a predominantly metropolitan outlook; and yet, he was opposed to such innovations as a move to Salford, because it would, in the end, prove very expensive.
In answer to another questioner who drew a parallel with the Church of England and the military – both of which aren’t quite as assured in their sense of purpose than they might once have been – Ed Stourton agreed that there were elements of a “hierarchical structure” at the BBC. There was now a “compliance culture” which had reached an absurd degree – so much had to be “referred up” (this really followed on from the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode). In one case, he had had some difficulty over mentioning that a playwright had committed suicide, although it was a simple and proven fact that she had. But there were question-marks over whether that might prove offensive. The compliance culture tends to mean that the broadcasters are less trusted by the bosses.
Then there was a cleavage, anyway, between the bosses and the actual journalists. Reporters and journalists are more in touch with the real world.
BBC reporters are not supposed to reveal their own political persuasion, so as to maintain balance and neutrality. The time would come, Ed suggested, when the question of a journalist’s or presenter’s religion might also be an issue.
David Twiston-Davies asked our speaker if there was any situation in which he would feel moved to resign. The speaker’s answer was that he had never had to confront a situation of that kind, and did not expect to: but of course nothing can ever be ruled out altogether.
Joanna Bogle said that what she found strange was that people from the BBC didn’t always seem to undertand that people of faith had their own views and values, which were worthy of respect. She, Joanna, perfectly respected that in, say, any train carriage there would be a variety of people with differing views, but the BBC seemed to have a rather uniform mindset.
Ed responded by referring to how large the Corporation was – and TV and radio were quite different anyway. A speaker who noted that TV was now very secular, very obviously at times of Christian feasts, that she often turned off because there was nothing to see. Ed Stourton said that the big difference, really, between radio and TV – especially Radio 4 – was that in radio, the broadcasters really knew their audiences, and were at one with them, whereas TV was restlessly caught between competing values and markets.
Lynette Burrows gave a spirited vote of thanks at the end of the evening, and after much applause Fr Peter gave the closing prayer.