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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

RESPONSE TO THE REVIEW OF THE BBC ROYAL CHARTER 31 MARCH 2004

Who we are:
The National Secular Society (NSS) campaigns for the rights of the non-religious, and for a society free from religious privilege. It was established in 1866 by the radical MP Charles Bradlaugh.

RESPONSE TO CONSULTATION:
1. We do not think it an exaggeration to say that everyone who lives in Britain has had their life enriched by the BBC. The Corporation is one of the most unifying institutions in the country, and its importance to the quality of our national life cannot be overstated.

2. The National Secular Society opposes any action or policy change that would result in the unique value of the BBC being diminished.

3. Because of the ease of travel, most modern viewers and listeners have had the opportunity to see and hear the broadcasting systems of other countries, and can therefore make comparisons. Those doing so generally conclude that Britain has the best broadcasting services in the world.

4. The American system is often quoted as bringing almost endless choice, but the quantity is in inverse proportion to the quality. Public Service Broadcasting does exist in the USA, and it is of reasonable quality, but its programmes are interspersed with a constant stream of desperate – sometimes piteous - pleas for money from listeners to keep it going. It gives the impression of fragility and impermanence and somehow creates a sense of anxiety in listeners.

5. American TV and radio news programmes are generally inferior to the BBC’s in several respects,. They are politically biased (mostly right wing), parochial and tend to report world affairs only when they have direct relevance to the US.

6. In comparison, the BBC’s news gathering is fiercely independent and has an admirably international focus. Its marvellous documentary output and nature programmes are the envy of the world. Its children’s programmes are innovative, its drama output is generally top-notch and its comedy programmes keep the nation laughing.

7. In the BBC – and to an extent other public broadcasting services – we have something of which we should be justly proud. There is nothing else like it in the world and we should, as a nation, do everything in our power to preserve it.

The BBC’s Critics
8. Admittedly, the British press complain remorselessly about the BBC, but this is often motivated by their proprietors’ self-interest. Because its output is so vast there will invariably be artistic failures, but that is the wonder of the BBC’s constant striving to produce excellence. It is the BBC’s very “bigness” that allows this experimentation.

9. Commercial competitors are using their press platforms to create the impression that the BBC is inefficient, profligate, anti-competitive and unworthy of the licence fee. But when we look at the poor quality of what their own services offer, and the substantial amounts of money required to access them, we think the case for the continuation of the BBC is unarguable. Such blatantly self-interested attacks on the BBC should be disregarded.

10. If licence payers paid individually (through purchasing tickets for the cinema, theatre, concerts etc.) in one week, it would exceed the licence fee many times over. This also reveals the stupendous value provided by the BBC, which is even greater when concessions are made to the elderly, for example.

11. A suggestion has been made that the licence fee should be shared among commercial channels, too, so that they could make programmes that commercial constraints do not allow. We consider this to be ill advised because commercial television, driven by advertising revenue, will inevitably keep programmes with popular appeal for its peak viewing slots so that it can generate maximum advertising money. It could be expected conversely that “worthy” but less popular programmes made with public money, will be shunted away at obscure times of the day, as schedule fillers.

The scale and licence fee enable risks to be taken

12. Not having commercial pressure on the BBC to attain “ratings” places the Corporation ideally to take programming risks, which benefit viewers and audiences. A benefit of this arrangement is that it enables the BBC to be innovative in programme making and to stretch its audience, rather than pandering to the lowest level of taste in order to maximise audience numbers. The Corporation should, of course, be monitored for quality control, but it should not be expected or required to compete with commercial operators for audiences. There is nothing wrong with the BBC providing popular entertainment, provided it is of the highest quality.

13. The BBC has demonstrated that it is well placed to react to new developments in technology and changing platforms. It should be a requirement that the BBC continue to develop new technologies and innovate in service delivery.

RECOMMENDATION:
a) We recommend that the value of the BBC as a unique national asset be recognised and that the licence fee be continued in the way that it is at present. As one commentator said: “The BBC is not broken, so why are we trying to fix it?”

Regulation
14. The National Secular Society seeks to speak out for those who have no religious beliefs, or who see religion as a private matter. It also seeks to ensure that the non-religious are not disadvantaged —– not just absolutely, but also relatively —- by the privileging of religious interests. We have formally complained that the BBC does not adequately reflect the large minority of people who have no religious belief, but who want to see their philosophies and life-stances reflected on the BBC.

15. Although the Religious Affairs Department has changed its name to Religion and Ethics, there is little evidence that the focus of programme-making has changed to any great extent to embrace the religious, philosophical and ethical plurality of Britain in 2004 – perhaps the most pluralist country in the world.

16. One of the main duties of the BBC is to reflect the totality of life and interests in Britain. Therefore, we do not object to religious programming, provided it is proportionate. However, as things stand, the BBC places far too great an emphasis on religious programming, often to the detriment of exploring other ethical life stances.

17. The over-emphasis on religious has persisted despite numerous complaints to the BBC, often to senior executives, about the excess of religion-centred programmes that are broadcast, and the dearth of programming sympathetic to or reflective of the millions of non-believers, be they secularists, humanists, atheists, agnostics or other shades of non-believers. The digital revolution gives plenty of opportunities for religious material of minority interest to be moved to non-mainstream digital platforms, but it is doggedly kept on the mainstream channels. Rarely is the opportunity taken even to open up some of this time to specifically secular or humanist etc. output. The French equivalent of the NSS – Libre Pensée —- is given a regular monthly slot in France but no such offer has been made in the UK. This is despite the fact that while spiritual and philosophic enquiry of a much wider kind is underway in Britain, survey after survey shows that interest in religion is spiralling downward.

Evidence of the decline of religious adherence and belief and of Britain’s scepticism
18. According to Christian Research, Church of England membership has dropped (despite a rising population) every decade from 1930 (3.656 million) to 2000 (1.360 million). Church attendance in Britain has dropped from 11.8% of the adult population in 1980 to 7.9% in 2000 and an estimated 7.1% in 2005. A survey of nearly 30,000 children published in The 4th R for the 3rd Millennium showed nearly 60% of them defined themselves as atheist or agnostic.

19. According to the BBC’s own Soul of Britain questionnaire in 2000: Only 62% believed in God, and 51% did not belong to any particular religion.

20. A worldwide poll entitled What the World Thinks of God commissioned from ICM and screened by the BBC in February 2004 compared UK attitudes to religion with nine other countries worldwide. It included numerous questions on propensity to religious belief, the extent to which religion was considered a force for good or ill. The UK was overwhelmingly the most secular/sceptical country in the survey, coming consistently most or second most secular/sceptical in the questions.

21. Rather than these huge reductions in interest in organised religion or scepticism about it being reflected in broadcast output, the reverse has been the case. It is almost as if no opportunity is lost to insinuate religion into programmes, even those for which it is — or should be — incidental. We are not alone in perceiving that the Reithian conception of the BBC as “the nation’s church” still holds sway.

22. We have no regular opportunity to give a counterview, and certainly no question of an uncontested spot. We have had to complain about being banished like no other minority would be from the unchallenged Thought for the Day slot, sometimes also used to abuse secularists or secularism. Our objections were aired once, briefly, in Points of View. Our campaign over Thought for the Day clearly illustrates this unfairness and lack of balance. The National Secular Society has been trying for 30 years to gain admittance for non-believers to this slot, and the latest effort last year was also rebuffed, despite the fact that there was widespread public support for it.

23. We felt that our complaint was very poorly handled. When we eventually forced the Corporation’s hand through a legal action, the complaint was handed over to a senior executive in the very department that produces Thought for the Day to investigate, rather than someone even remotely independent. Needless to say, she came to the conclusion that no change should be made to the format of the programme.

24. The head of religion and ethics, Alan Bookbinder, wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (23 July 2004) “And our recent success fighting off the atheist lobby” and told Feedback (13 February 2004): “I don’t think that the secular mind can understand the distinction between a political message and spiritual message”. This reveals how the non-religious are disparaged. There would have been a huge outcry, especially given the seniority of the BBC employee, if this first quote had been about the religious lobby or the second one about the religious mind. We responded that it was not the business of the BBC to “see off” any section of the community. It is the BBC’s stated duty to cater for all sections of society in its output, but insufficient effort is made to cater for the millions of non-believers, yet minority religions are well catered for.

25. Our complaints were adjudicated by the board of governors, on the basis of the report already mentioned. They, too, rejected our complaint. We had to resort to challengeing the BBC under the Human Rights Act even to spur the Governors to take our complaint seriously. But we feel strongly that we should not have had to make such a threat in the first place. More fundamentally, complainants should not have to resort to the courts to obtain impartiality or what should be best practice.

26. The BBC Charter makes clear that although each individual programme need not be balanced in itself, producers should ensure balance is maintained over a period taking the output as a whole. We reject the BBC’s counter argument that balance to Thought for the Day is achieved through the remainder of the three hours of Today (administered by a different department) being secular. Unlike TftD the Today interviews are all contended, and broadly of equal interest to the religious and non-religious alike. We also feel Today itself also suffers from the over-emphasis on religion common to Radio 4: bishops, for example, are generally asked to pontificate on moral questions. There is no balance in Thought for the Day, nor in the Religion and Ethics Department’s output generally, nor in the overall output, especially on Radio 4.

27. We were frustrated that the BBC were left to adjudicate against themselves on this issue. We felt that there was little objectivity in the way in which our complaint was dealt with, and that we did not receive a fair hearing.

28. We recognise that after the Hutton Enquiry there is a danger of calls for the BBC to become more “answerable” to government departments. This would be highly undesirable. The BBC’s news and current affairs departments must remain independent – and be seen to remain independent – outside the direct – or indirect -— control of Whitehall.

29. The BBC’s journalism is admired and respected throughout the world. The relatively trivial errors identified by the Hutton report (which in any case were widely considered to be hypercritical of the BBC) should be used as a pretext for bringing the BBC’s news gathering or dissemination into thrall of the government, either directly or through a quango.

30. One criticism in the Hutton report chimes with our own experience, however. It relates to a need for objectivity and independence in dealing with serious complaints. We recommend that the BBC’s procedures for investigating and reacting to accusations of unfairness, lack of balance or inaccuracy in its news reporting be examined. We offer as a model the system being operated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. If the ABC is unable to resolve complaints about bias, inaccuracy or unfair treatment in its programmes, it has appointed a panel of outside adjudicators to whom complaints can be referred. Details of ABC’s Complaints Review, and a short interview about it, are reproduced in the Appendix.

31. We think that very serious consideration be given to the BBC implementing a version of this appeals procedure. When a similar situation arose to that of the Andrew Gilligan affair, in which the ABC’s objectivity in reporting the Iraq war was called into question by an Australian politician, it was resolved by the use of this procedure, and there was no need for recourse to a public enquiry.

FURTHER RECOMMENDATIONS:

b) An enquiry being instituted into the extent of the BBC’s coverage of religious and ethical matters. Our contention is that religion is given too much emphasis, particularly on Radio 4, to the detriment of other moral philosophies and ethical life-stances and open criticism of religious perspectives, all of which should be given greater coverage.

c) That a symptom of this privileging of religion is the existence of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, which operates in private but has a mandate to press the BBC for more religious programming. We recommend that the CRAC be disbanded or its remit extended to recognise that other points of view exist.

d) We strongly recommend that the BBC is asked to implement an appeal for complainants who are not satisfied with the BBC’s internal complaints procedures. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s procedures could be considered as a model.

Acknowledgement
We would like to express our gratitude to one particular member of the NSS, Will Wyatt - former Chief Executive of BBC Broadcast, who has helped in the preparation of this report.

APPENDIX

The workings of the Complaints Review Executive is explained on the ABC’s website as follows:

“If you are not satisfied with the ABC’s response to a written complaint about serious bias, lack of balance or unfair treatment you may be able to have the decision reviewed by the Independent Complaints Review Panel. The ICRP can only look into complaints about these issues.
The ICRP has been established by the ABC Board to facilitate independent review of complaints at no cost to the complainant. Members are appointed by the Board on the basis of their backgrounds in:

  • Journalistic ethics and practice
  • Media operations
  • Electronic media and program production
  • Complaints handling or other review processes
  • Assessing public issues”

Asked on Radio Four’s Feedback programme whether this system would work for the BBC, Professor Michael Chesterman, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, said: “I think it’s well worth considering. You still have questions raised about who appoints the panel and controls the composition and in fact it was said in the context of the present set of complaints of bias by Senator Alston that we were defective as an independent body because we’re appointed by the ABC. But then the argument can be put that if you have a government-appointed regulatory body you can run into the same problem on the other side – that that body can be controlled by the government of the day – may be able to be controlled by the government of the day. If you put that one on one side, and if you like trust the bona fides of the ABC or the BBC or whoever it is in setting up a regulator which seeks and wishes to be genuinely independent, then it can and should work.”