‘Opponents of godliness’: The declining influence of organized religion in the UK, and the arrival of Channel 4.

Authors: Wallis, R.

Start date: 17 June 2015

During the early 1980s, there was a high level of expectation attached to the provision of a fourth television service in the UK. Unlike BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, Channel 4 was set up to be a publisher-broadcaster, commercially self-funding, but with a public service remit to cater for minority groups. For the churches, the new channel initially looked as if it might provide fresh impetus for religious broadcasting, believed by many to be moribund. This paper examines the circumstances surrounding Jesus: The Evidence, a highly controversial Easter documentary series commissioned by Channel 4 during its first year. Unlike the traditional slate of devotional Lenten and Easter programming that UK audiences had long been used to, this series was interrogative, skeptical, and self-consciously provocative. According to its pre-transmission publicity, the series would come as ‘a profound shock to many’. Jesus: The Evidence certainly caused a shock, but one of a different order to that imagined by the broadcaster’s Press Relations department. The paper suggests that the public furore sparked by the series arose from an escalating sense of disentitlement related to a very particular earlier history. It charts the general shift away from the precedent established in the 1920s by the BBC’s first Director General, to the advent of Channel 4, by which time this earlier position had come to be viewed as less than impartial. The paper identifies the principal points of contestation at the heart of the controversy, and concludes that it was emblematic of a growing cultural dissonance between the religious and the broadcasting institutions.

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