- There are grossly unfair restrictions on religious broadcasting in the UK. Christian and other religious organisations are effectively banned from holding many types of broadcasting licences and broadcasting codes impose restrictions on religious broadcasting that do not apply to secular broadcasting.
- The 1990 Broadcasting Act was introduced to regulate independent broadcasting (i.e. non-BBC output). The Act made all religious bodies “disqualified persons” for the purposes of holding a licence to broadcast. It was only at the discretion of the Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission (ITC) that certain types of licence could be granted to these disqualified religious bodies.1 (The functions of the Radio Authority and ITC are now carried out by Ofcom.)
- The licences potentially available to religious groups under this discretion were:
- Local analogue radio licences;
- Satellite (TV and radio) licences; and
- Cable (TV and radio) licences.
- The 1996 Broadcasting Act extended the automatic disqualification for religious ownership to all digital licences, including local and national radio, TV and the new multiplexes.2
- In 1999 a Ten Minute Rule Bill to remove restrictions on the ownership of broadcasting licences by religious bodies was passed by 138 votes to 9.3 However, as a backbencher’s bill it was never expected to become law.
- The Communications Act 2003 maintained the general disqualification of religious broadcasters. The act prevents Christians and other religious persons, bodies and broadcasters from holding the following licences:4
- A channel 3 or 5 licence;
- A national sound broadcasting licence;
- A public teletext licence;
- An additional television service licence;
- A television multiplex licence; or
- A radio multiplex licence.
- In addition, an officer in a religious body – such as a church elder, a vicar or a member of the Parochial Church Council – is prevented from having control of any companies with the above licences.5
- The Act does allow religious broadcasters to apply to Ofcom for digital programme service licences.6
- During the passage of the Communications Act 2003 through Parliament, the House of Lords voted to remove “disqualification of religious persons” from the Bill. However, the House of Commons voted by 314 to 175 to re-impose the disqualification.7
- Religious programmes on non-specialist channels (e.g. ITV1) are subject to more restrictive regulation than secular programmes. For example, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code prohibits ‘recruitment’ through religious programmes.8 This saw an end to the full broadcasting of evangelistic rallies by Billy Graham. These were shown throughout the 1980s, complete with an appeal to the viewer, without controversy.9
- The Ofcom code does not place a similar ban on recruitment by secular groups. Political parties, for example, routinely attempt to recruit members at the end of party political broadcasts. Discussion programmes, documentaries and even dramas sometimes end with an invitation for viewers to make contact with a particular organisation or special interest group, giving contact details.
- The Ofcom code also singles out specialist religious channels (e.g. UCB) for targeted prohibitions against “exploitation” of audience susceptibilities and “abusive treatment” of other beliefs.10 While Christians would oppose exploitation and abusive treatment in any event, it cannot be denied that secular programmes frequently exploit audience susceptibilities and abuse beliefs contrary to those held by the programme makers, but they are not subject to the same restrictions.
- There are a handful of religious bodies who hold a local analogue radio licence. Premier and UCB also broadcast nationally on DAB digital radio. A number of religious bodies broadcast both radio and TV output on satellite and cable.
Christian freedoms and heritage
Christianity is the largest faith represented in the UK. Whatever conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the majority of the population claim a Christian religious allegiance, it is obvious that many of the major tenets of secular humanism are denied by the vast bulk of the population. (See Christian freedoms and heritage.)
Christians are commanded to share the Gospel
Jesus’ final command to his followers before his ascension was that they should “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Telling others about Christ and his teachings is central to the Christian life (1 Peter 3:15-16). The broadcast media is probably the most influential means of communicating ideas in the UK. Many Christians wish to see the Gospel faithfully communicated to the masses through this vital medium.
The state is to provide freedom for the Gospel
1 Timothy 2:1-4 states:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
As this passage indicates, the fact that government imposes order is for the benefit of the Gospel. We are to pray for governing authorities that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. For Christians, freedom to live out their calling to preach the gospel includes having the same freedom to use the broadcast media as secular humanists currently have.
The passage also makes clear that this kind of freedom and civic order is good because it facilitates the Gospel. God wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. Laws which restrict Christian freedom inhibit the spread of the Gospel.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it is with you” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
It is offensive
The basic position of broadcasting law in relation to faith groups is that it is hostile towards them solely on the basis of their religion. It is a matter of great offence to Christians that they are labelled in legislation as inherently untrustworthy to broadcast.
Christian broadcasting is not only for Christians
A religious broadcaster is just as capable of producing output which appeals to a broad audience as a secular broadcaster. But the current law does not give them the opportunity. All kinds of people with all kinds of ideas can invest in media as a means of communicating their ideas. The only people singled out for exclusion because of their ideas are religious people because of their personal beliefs.
All religions are affected by the ban, but it is particularly ironic that the Christian faith should be so restricted given the UK’s strong Christian heritage (see Christian freedoms and heritage).
- 1Broadcasting Act 1990, Schedule 2, Part II, para. 2
- 2Broadcasting Act 1996, Part III, Section 73; Broadcasting Act 1996, Schedule 2, Part III, para. 10
- 3House of Commons, Hansard, 13 July 1999, cols 166-169
- 4Communications Act 2003, Part III, Section 348
- 5Broadcasting Act 1990, Schedule 2, Part II, para. 2
- 6Communications Act 2003, Section 348; Explanatory notes to the Communications Act 2003, Section 348
- 7House of Commons, Hansard, 14 July 2003, col. 114
- 8The Ofcom Broadcasting Code, March 2013, para. 4.5
- 9Quicke, A and Quicke, J, Hidden Agendas: The Politics of Religious Broadcasting in Britain 1987-1991, Dominion Kings Grant Publications Inc, 1992, pages 65-67
- 10The Ofcom Broadcasting Code, March 2013, paras 4.2 and 4.6