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Christian broadcasters in Britain seek freedom from government’s grip

WASHINGTON (BP)–You could say radio was “born” Christian. The first transmission to hit the airwaves on Dec. 24, 1906, was a religious service that included the carol “O Holy Night,” readings from the gospel of Luke and the singing of a sacred song (Handel’s “Largo”).

As broadcast historian J. Harold Ellens recounted: “… God chose this time, the eve of the birth of Christ, to foretell the most significant development of the 20th century.”

How things have changed. While the United States still enjoys relative freedom to air Christian programming, broadcasters in other countries are not so blessed. After 14 years, United Christian Broadcasters in the United Kingdom are still asking for freedom to broadcast, and although Premier Radio has won the right to remain exclusively Christian, renewal of their license is in jeopardy.

“We’ve been fighting two battles,” David Heron, chairman of Premier, told Crosswalk.com. First was the pressure to change into a multi-faith, rather than solely Christian, radio station. “But, we’ve received some delightfully good news since May 16,” Heron said. The government informed Premier that their “exclusively Christian character will be preserved.”

Heron credits the 50,000 people who prayed and petitioned the government with influencing the outcome.

If forced to revamp its format to “multi-faith,” Premier would have needed to carry Muslim, Buddhist and other non-Christian “religious” programming.

The second battle, the one for a digital broadcasting license, goes on. Under Britain’s 1990 Broadcasting Act, religious stations are disqualified from applying for any of the new digital licenses now being offered. Under British law, only the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a state-owned station, can transmit religious programs nationally.

Premier is “in discussions” with radio authorities about approving their application for a digital license, Heron said. But it will require legislation, actually an act of Parliament, to change the laws. While Parliament is considering a bill to overturn the ban on national religious radio stations, it could take a couple of years, Heron said. “And in two years, all digital licenses will be allotted to other stations.”

Peter Kerridge, managing director of Premier, noted all other stations that own digital licenses are entitled to an automatic renewal. “But Premier has been informed that it is not entitled to the same treatment and cannot have an automatic renewal and indeed may have to apply early for its license,” Kerridge said.

Heron explains the government’s rationale: First, because Britain is “multicultural,” an exclusively Christian station would not serve enough people. Second, spectrum is in short supply. And third, the bill was intended to protect the public from private owners, such as U.S. televangelists, who might make fund-raising appeals.

Premier is the only Christian organization in Britain ever to be awarded a Medium Wave license, apart from special temporary licenses. As such, it is the only station on the regular airwaves broadcasting specifically Christian programming 24 hours a day.

Since Premier’s launch in 1995, the station has grown to encompass 200,000 people, almost 20 percent of the region’s churchgoers, listening every week. In addition, thousands listen on the Internet.

“Many people in London and the South East have found Premier to be truly inspirational,” Kerridge said. “Thousands of people every hour of every day tune in and find their faith is built, their spirits encouraged, their hope is born.”

Meanwhile, United Christian Broadcasters (UCB), an evangelical radio company, is suing the British government in the European Court of Human Rights to gain broadcasting access on a national radio frequency. UCB has hundreds of thousands of listeners across Europe, but for the past decade the UCB has repeatedly been denied permission to broadcast on national radio frequencies in the United Kingdom.

“That means people with expensive satellites can get us,” said Gareth Littler, UCB managing director, “but no one can tune in with a portable radio or in a car — where most people listen to the radio these days.”

Christians in Britain, including 300,000 supporters of UCB, are joining a growing movement voicing strong concern about freedom of speech. The issue unites Christians from a wide range of denominations and organizations who are concerned that the ban against religious broadcasting is both unjust and undemocratic, Littler said.

Some 6,500 Christians responded to a government white paper asking for lifting of the radio ban. But, Littler said, the government excluded the 6,500 responses when presenting its analysis.

Around the same time, Britain’s Broadcast Minister agreed to meet with UCB officials to discuss religious broadcasting. At the last minute, Littler recounted, UCB was excluded from the consultation. “Suddenly, our opponents, the BBC Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC) — who were used to lobby for the ban against any Christian broadcasting except for Public Service, in the first place — were called in to represent us.

“At UCB we are speechless,” Littler added, “both in disappointment and in the stark reality of being unable to broadcast Christian music to those who wish to hear it. We hope and pray that the government will stop banning Christians and instead start listening to them.”
Chismar is Religion Today editor for Crosswalk.com. Used by permission.

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  • Janet Chismar