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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

BBC Trust findings on Thought for the Day and non-religious content on the BBC

The following press release was issued by the BBC on 17 November 2009 following official complains, including one from the NSS, about Thought for the Day, the religious slot on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.


BBC Trust findings on Thought for the Day and non-religious content on the BBC

17 November 2009

The BBC Trust today announced its findings on a number of appeals about the broadcast of Radio 4's Thought for the Day and BBC editorial policy on non-religious content.

The Trust found that the editorial policy of only allowing religious contributors to participate on Thought for the Day does not breach either the BBC Editorial Guideline on impartiality or the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs in its programming. However, the Trust confirmed that Thought for the Day must comply with requirements of due impartiality and that any future complaints on particular broadcasts of Thought for the Day would be judged against these standards on a case-by-case basis.

The Trust found that Thought for the Day is religious output and that it is a matter of editorial discretion for the BBC Executive and its Director General as Editor-in-Chief as to whether the BBC broadcasts a slot commenting on an issue of the day from a faith perspective.

The Trust also found that the BBC's approach to featuring non-religious content and contributors in mainstream programming is consistent with the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs in BBC programming.

Richard Tait, Chairman of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) which considered the editorial elements of each appeal, said:

"We understand that some people feel strongly about this issue and have given it careful consideration. However, we have concluded that the current arrangements do not breach BBC Editorial Guidelines and specifically requirements of due impartiality in content.

"We recognise that there may be cases in the future where concerns are raised about content on Thought for the Day, however, these should be dealt with as and when they arise in line with other editorial matters and procedures."

BBC Trust Vice-Chairman Dr Chitra Bharucha, Chairman of the Trust’s General Appeals Panel (GAP) which considered all other elements of each appeal, said:

"We considered the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs and the BBC's broader responsibility to broadcast a range of views and reflections, whether from non-religious contributors or otherwise, throughout mainstream programming. In particular, we considered whether allowing only religious contributors to participate on Thought for the Day was contrary to the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs across its output.

"We found that there was no breach of the BBC's duty in respect of these appeals."

The Trust considered that it was a matter for the BBC Executive Board as to whether the remit of Thought for the Day should remain the same or be changed in the future. The Trust would like to hear more from the Executive in due course on how they handle religious and non-religious opinion and reflection on BBC services.

Whilst the substantive issues raised by the appeals were not upheld, three specific issues about complaints handling by the BBC Executive were upheld and an apology issued by the Trust to those appellants affected.

ENDS

Notes to editors

  1. The BBC Trust’s full finding is available here:

A summary of the finding is available here:

  1. The BBC's Editorial Guidelines, which are designed to help everyone who makes content for the BBC make editorial decisions, include the following about impartiality:

    "Impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to our output. Our approach to achieving it will therefore vary according to the nature of the subject, the type of output, the likely audience expectation and the extent to which the content and approach is signposted to our audiences.

    "Impartiality is described in the Agreement as "due impartiality". It requires us to be fair and open minded when examining the evidence and weighing all the material facts, as well as being objective and even handed in our approach to a subject. It does not require the representation of every argument or facet of every argument on every occasion or an equal division of time for each view.

    "News, in whatever form, must be presented with due impartiality."

  2. Collectively the appellants made some or all of the following arguments:
    • The exclusion of non-religious contributors from Thought for the Day is contrary to the BBC Editorial Guideline on impartiality
    • It is not appropriate to allow religious contributors an unchallenged platform to comment on news and current affairs, particularly on contentious material
    • The programme title is objectionable, inaccurate and misleading in that it does not make clear that Thought for the Day is intended to be religious and limited to religious participants
    • A religious slot should not be positioned within a news and current affairs programme such as Today
    • The exclusion of non-religious commentators on Thought for the Day amounts to a breach of the BBC Public Purpose remit to reflect religious and other beliefs
    • The exclusion of non-religious contributors from Thought for the Day amounts to unfair treatment of non-religious contributors and/or discrimination in law.
  3. The ESC considered points including whether:
    • The exclusion of non-religious contributors from Thought for the Day is contrary to the BBC Editorial Guideline on impartiality and / or other BBC Editorial Guidelines
    • The programme title is objectionable, misleading or inaccurate.
    • The BBC Editorial Guidelines allow this type of slot to be positioned within a news and current affairs programme such as Today.
  4. The GAP considered points including whether:
    • The exclusion of non-religious commentators on Thought for the Day amounts to a breach of the BBC Public Purpose remit to reflect religious and other beliefs
    • The BBC approach to the Public Purpose to reflect religious and other beliefs is consistent with the Public Purpose Remit set by the Trust and Public Purpose Plan delivered by the Executive
    • The exclusion of non-religious contributors from Thought for the Day amounts to unfair treatment of non-religious contributors and/or discrimination in law.
  5. The findings of the two committees can be summarised as follows:
    • The ESC found that Thought for the Day is a stand alone strand and a reflection on the issues of the day from a faith perspective. It concluded that Thought for the Day is religious in content
    • The ESC confirmed that the approach to due impartiality had to be adequate and appropriate to such a slot. The ESC found that due impartiality in this context does not require the more rigorous approach to due impartiality expected of news and current affairs
    • The ESC did not agree that the fact that the choice of contributors to Thought for the Day is limited to those of religious faith amounts, in itself, to a breach of due impartiality
    • The ESC stated that it would consider complaints regarding particular broadcasts as and when they arose in order to determine whether any BBC Editorial Guideline might have been breached
    • The ESC found that Thought for the Day is properly signposted. The ESC did not agree that the programme title was misleading or inaccurate
    • The ESC found that Thought for the Day’s positioning does not mislead audiences. The ESC was satisfied that audiences expect a faith perspective on the issues discussed on Thought for the Day
    • The GAP found that that the BBC’s approach to featuring non-religious content and contributors in mainstream programming is consistent with the BBC Public Purpose remit to reflect religious and other beliefs
    • The GAP found that the exclusion of non-religious commentators from Thought for the Day does not amount to a breach of the BBC Public Purpose Remit to reflect religious and other beliefs. The GAP found that the public purpose will be fulfilled provided the BBC features non-religious beliefs in mainstream programming elsewhere across the UK public services
    • The GAP found that it has not been established that the exclusion of non-religious contributors from Thought for the Day might amount to unfair treatment of non-religious contributors and / or discrimination in law.
  6. Concerns by three of the appellants on complaints handling by the BBC Executive were upheld on the basis that the core complaint had not been addressed in each case. The committees agreed that an apology should be made by the Trust to the affected appellants.