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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Protest about religious broadcasting seminar

Mr Michael Grade
Chairman
BBC

12 May 2005

Dear Mr Grade

Religious Broadcasting – Meeting on 13 May

We understand that, together with the BBC board of Governors, you will be discussing the BBC’s approach to religious broadcasting on Friday 13 May. We would like to contribute to that debate with the following:

We accept that the BBC is a public service broadcaster and that it has a duty to broadcast programmes that “reflect, and engage with, the lives, interests and concerns of people from different backgrounds and circumstances” (BBC: Faith Communities). This basis allows for religious programmes, but not on the scale that is broadcast currently, far less than that being demanded. No other sectional interest has such access to the air waves or has a large-scale dedicated department within the BBC.

As you know, the Corporation’s history of religious input is a long one. Indeed, its founding father, Lord Reith said the BBC should aim to be “the nation’s church”. But the era in which Lord Reith lived — and his own very strong personal convictions — should not be permitted to continue to dictate viewing in the 21st century.

Objective studies showing low and reducing interest in religion
Although the churches point to the latest census which showed that 72% of people in this country defined themselves as “Christian”, this does not mean however that they are “practising Christians” or even believing Christians, as many other polls have shown. Church attendances have been declining for the past sixty years to the point that it is only 7% on an average Sunday and Sunday schools, once attended by over a million children, are now largely extinct.

The BBC’s own study What the World Thinks of God suggested that the UK was probably the most religiously sceptical country in the world. This was borne out by a large-scale survey published by the Home Office in 2004 which asked participants to state which “things would say something important about you, if you were describing yourself?” For the population as a whole, religion came ninth, after Family, Kind of work you do, Age and life stage, Interests, Level of education, Nationality, Gender, and Level of income. The importance of religion was admittedly much higher for the small minority of evangelical Christians from the West Indian tradition, and pious Muslims.

A report from Ofcom into viewing habits showed that only 10% of viewers placed any value on religious programmes. Other research from the Human Capital consultancy shows that this may be an overestimate. In homes that have access to Sky Television, religious programmes broadcast by terrestrial channels suffer an audience fall-off of 84%.

These facts show that those claiming there to be a widespread yearning for more religious broadcasting are not only doing so without any factual basis, we believe that the reverse is true.

Why is the BBC is grossly over-emphasising the importance of religion in the lives of its viewers?
The Corporation is being influenced far too much by individuals and groups with a vested interest in this, to the detriment of those with opposing views. The Bishop of Manchester in particular and his many religious colleagues understandably take every opportunity to puff up the importance of religion and claim that the nation is yearning for more and more religious broadcasting: that is their raison d’etre. The Church of England (including its Synod) has been pressing the BBC to increase its religious output for many years. These may seem to be powerful voices, but they are far from representative, and less than a million people attend CofE services on the average Sunday.

Your own head of religion, Alan Bookbinder, was this week reported to be mystified by the “sense of crisis” that has been generated about religious broadcasting. We share his view, indeed we feel the “sense of crisis” to be a self-serving invention. The only real concern is being expressed by vested religious interests who wish to use the special access to the public that the BBC controls to promote their own ideoligies. However much broadcasting time is allocated, they will claim it is never enough and indeed their calls are becoming ever more shrill as public interest in religion continues to wane.

We are also aware that there are enthusiastic, evangelical Christians on the board of governors, and that you are being pressed by various religious interest groups as well as the CRAC to allocate more and more resources to religion.
The continued exclusion of non-believers from Thought for the Day and especially the absence of any alternative proposal to afford an equivalent slot for those excluded is testimony to this undue influence and the Corporation’s inexcusable unwillingness, so far, to confront it. We hope this will change.

Need for balance in which voices are heard
On the BBC website “Faith communities” predictably head the list of “accountability meetings” and Central Religious Advisory Committee’s campaigning role is not just tolerated but legitimised in its remit. The — generally opposite, or at least counterbalancing — view of the non-religious is conspicuously not catered for, and this is an intolerable dereliction of the Corporation’s duty to reflect the make up of UK society. We formally request that this imbalance be corrected and are happy to provide representatives if requested.

We understand that as well as the Governors and CRAC, experts are being invited to this meeting. I hope the Corporation will show good faith and invite at least one non-religious representative and have cleared my diary so would be available if called.

What we are calling for

1. Consultation of the non-religious and less deference to religious demands, as noted above. This should be part of a review to reduce the power and lobbying powers of the CRAC, on which (renamed body) non-believers should be proportionately represented.

2. A substantial reduction in the thousands of hours that are devoted to religion — particularly on radio — and of religious propaganda surreptitiously inserted into other programmes. We particularly object to the disproportionately high amounts of licence-payers’ money spent in this area relative to the audience/viewing figures.

3. We call for the excessive hours devoted to religion to be balanced by many more programmes that represent the views (especially in matters of philosophy and ethics) of the huge proportion of the population that reject the claims of religion, or are indifferent to organised religion.

We understand that the description of your forthcoming debate is reportedly to “find new ways to engage the audience with religion”. If correct, it suggests a starting point that is biased. It should not be the BBC’s job to undertake proselytising for religions. If the audience does not wish to “engage” with religion — and overwhelmingly does not — it is not a legitimate function of the Corporation to expend large sums of public money trying to persuade the public to so engage. Evangelising is the business of the church, but it should not be that of the BBC. If the BBC is determined to drum up interest in and enthusiasm for one particular ideology, it should surely in the interests of balance be duty bound to do so for others. If this less satisfactory line is to be taken, we ask formally at least for an atheist/agnostic and rationalist department to be established to balance the Religion (and, nominally, Ethics) one in Manchester.

We look forward to your detailed response to our concerns and proposals.

Yours faithfully,
Keith Porteous Wood,
Executive Director