J Peter Wilson, the Broadcasting Campaigns Consultant for Evangelical Alliance, spells out the harsh reality of Christian broadcasting in Britain.
Do you own a satellite or cable TV? If you do then you are blessed that you can watch Christian TV and listen to Christian radio via your TV set. But what happens, if like the majority of people in the UK, you just have a normal LW/MW/FM radio and a TV that receives programmes through an aerial not a dish? The answer is not much.
In what may seem to be a thoroughly gloomy picture, there are a few shafts of light. Premier Radio in 1995 became the only Christian broadcaster to win a permanent local radio licence in the UK. They commenced broadcasting on 10th June 1995 and have recently had their licence renewed until 2011. Premier has already built up a loyal listenership, despite the difficulty of having to market three frequencies, 1305, 1332 and 1413 AM to cover Greater London. In 2002 two Christian FM radio stations commenced broadcasting in Stoke-on-Trent (Cross Rhythms City Radio 101.8) and in Banbridge, County Down (Shine FM 106.1) for up to 12 months as part of a trial to see if community-based local radio is viable. This may not seem a lot but it is better than it used to be.
Before 1990 Christians could not own any independent broadcasting licence station in the UK, a situation enshrined in law by only three other countries in the world - Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Following the passing of the Broadcasting Act 1990 things have improved, but not by much. With the exception of satellite radio, local analogue AM/FM radio licences and satellite TV, Christians have been banned from applying for broadcasting licences and even these three types of licences are only at the discretion of either the Radio Authority or the Independent Television Commission. This means that only one section of the community, namely those of a religious faith, are banned from holding digital radio and national broadcasting licences. The opportunity to put this right is presented by the review of the licensing process in the forthcoming Communications Bill that was announced in the Queen's Speech to Parliament in November 2002.
Labelled as "disqualified persons" by the Broadcasting Bill, religious persons are immediately not just disadvantaged, but also totally excluded from, the developing highly competitive digital radio market. Christian radio and TV companies, their supporters and other Christians around the country do not understand why the discriminations cannot be removed allowing all broadcasters to operate under the same protective codes and regulations that are working now? The question is why can't tax-paying, law-abiding people who happen to hold office in a church or a religious charity, be treated the same as those who profess no faith or hold their spiritual life as private? That disqualification puts the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and any officer of a church into the same Broadcasting Law category as murderers and rapists.
The position of the Evangelical Alliance is that this disqualification is unnecessary and therefore discriminatory. Premier Radio, UCB, Cross Rhythms, Vision Channel, God TV and others are already operating under the general provisions in the 1990 Broadcasting Act that prevent unfit persons, cults and those who would prey on the weak and vulnerable from applying for licences. In principal Evangelical Alliance is against additional restrictions on religious broadcasters, as we believe that the existing broadcasting codes more than adequately cover all eventualities. The answer is the content regulation of programmes not ownership restriction.
Can any good come out of continuing this disqualification? This nation has signed international human right's conventions to say there should be no national governmental discrimination due to race, gender, language or religion. The current law perpetuates it.
For example Premier Christian Radio operates in the multi-ethnic capital of our country and it has already shown that its programmes appeal to a wide audience. Christianity is a multi-ethnic faith. Audience research shows that around 40% of Premier's listeners are non-white. If Government wants multi-ethnic groups participating in society then Christian broadcasting is an effective way of encouraging that participation. It is not without significance that a number of key public sector organisations such as the Armed Forces, The Metropolitan Police and Social Services choose Premier in order to reach the multi-ethnic community. Cross Rhythms City Radio in Stoke has similar stories of working with the local public sector organisations. Every week they work with the Police, Health, Education and Employment agencies, whilst running an exclusive partnership with the local paper to provide hourly local news and a regular slot with the newly elected City Mayor. In addition they are receiving feedback that Muslim shop owners are playing the station and their contemporary style of music is opening opportunities for Cross Rhythms DJs to play live in local pubs and clubs. These stations provide a facility that would be welcomed across the UK.
We are grateful to Parliament for starting to listen and consider the Christian broadcasting industry's problems. In June 2002 representatives of the Centre For Justice And Liberty, the Church O England and the Evangelical Alliance jointly gave evidence to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Communications Bill and in that evidence they asked that religious broadcasters should be treated the same as all other commercial radio broadcasters. [Minutes of Evidence Col 754] The report of this Joint Parliamentary Committee states, "The case for retention of the general prohibition on religious ownership of national digital radio licences, and for the compatibility of that prohibition with Convention rights, has not been established by the Government to our satisfaction. We recommend that the Government give these matters further consideration before presentation of the final Bill." Then in July, the Joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee asked Government to give "further thought to the need and justification for maintaining the disqualification of religious groups from holding national radio and television licences."
Again this point was raised when in the 22nd July Commons adjournment debate, David Amess MP said, "Hundreds of thousands of law-abiding tax-paying people throughout the country have been asking for Christian broadcasting for more than 12 years. Yet the Department for Culture, Media and Sport still justifies its ban by continuing to say that its aim is to satisfy as many viewers and listeners as possible." [Hansard Col 787]
At the end of the day, all the Evangelical Alliance is asking for is the opportunity for Christian broadcasters to continue making their contribution to good broadcasting, to inform, educate, entertain and win audience just like the secular companies. What's the problem? Why are public policy makers concerned that they may not be able to regulate religious broadcasters, when they are already doing that successfully with Premier Radio in London, the trial community radio stations - Cross Rhythms City Radio 101.8 and Shine FM 106.1 - and the satellite radio and TV Christian broadcasters?
It is recognised that Christians are much more likely to become involved in their communities than the average citizen. It is therefore ironic and counter-productive when the Government are seeking to encourage faith-based social action projects that a key communication vehicle to these communities is denied on the grounds of faith. Especially when there is an overwhelming demand as evidenced by hundreds of thousands of Christians across the UK for such stations.
In the light of the above it is outrageous to disqualify people in law because they hold office in a church, synagogue or religious charity. We have inherited a rich cultural heritage, which has led to religious and democratic freedom, however in the area of broadcasting this liberty has been hindered.
Over the forthcoming months the Evangelical Alliance, working in unity with other Christian organisations, is going to need your prayers and support in writing to Members of Parliament to make the new Communications Bill a Christian-friendly piece of legislation.
We already have a limited amount of quality religious programmes on the BBC but what is also needed is a flourishing independent Christian broadcasting sector. A sector that will serve the large number of people of faith across the UK. Christians need free and fair access to the airwaves.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.