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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

BBC Trust rejects NSS Thought for the Day complaint

The NSS’s complaint about the exclusive and discriminatory nature of Thought for the Day was rejected this week by the BBC Trust.

The Trust’s various committees said that the slot did not breach guidelines on impartiality as it was recognised as a religious slot and therefore did not fall under the same rules as those that applied to news and current affairs. It said it was within the discretion of the BBC Executive as to whether such a programme should be broadcast.

However, the Trust said that individual editions which tackled controversial subjects might breach the guidelines and said it would consider all complaints about such alleged breaches.

The Trust said that non-religious voices could be heard throughout the output of the BBC, although it did not address the point that such voices are not permitted unchallenged access to the airways to put their point, as happens with religious speakers on Thought for the Day. All other voices are moderated by an interviewer or challenged by someone from a differing viewpoint. Thought for the Day, uniquely, gives an unchallengeable platform to religious voices.

The Trust accepted that the BBC had failed to answer complaints about the programme adequately and apologised to some of the individual complainants.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, which launched the appeal to the Trust, said: “Naturally we are very disappointed. This is a campaign we have been waging for fifty years, ever since Thought for the Day and its predecessors were first broadcast on the BBC. Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs. It says to them that their ‘thoughts’ are not worth hearing and that somehow religious opinions are more worthy of a special, unchallengeable platform.”

Mr Sanderson said that contributors on Thought for the Day often made political points at times when controversial issues are being debated in Parliament. He said: “Whether it’s euthanasia or gay rights, abortion or foreign aid, the religious speakers have a platform on the flagship news programme to put a biased point of view that no-one can question them about. Nobody else on the Today programme can get away with that.”

Mr Sanderson said that the campaign to open up Thought for the Day would continue. “This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. We have evidence that public opinion is heavily on our side and we will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.

“The BBC Trust has ruled that previous complaints about this religious bias have been mishandled and that the BBC should apologise. But it has done little better itself and has failed its first major test as the champion of the viewer and the upholder of the BBC’s claims of impartiality and fairness.

Read the BBC’s press release

Published Tue, 17 Nov 2009