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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

BBC thinks its job is to promote religion

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

This week I made a contribution to a programme about “exploring faith” that will be broadcast later this month on Radio 2. I suppose I should be cheering that at least they thought to include a secular voice in the endless religious programming. But at the same time, I have to ask why they are making such programmes when patently the audience is not demanding them.

There is absolutely no evidence that people tune in to Radio 2 (the easy listening channel) to hear about Jesus. Generally they tune in for Tammy Wynette, Deep Purple or Terry Wogan. But there we are – the BBC has obviously reached the conclusion that it is its duty to not only provide a bit of religion, but to provide lots of it and to openly evangelise on its behalf.

Of course, the ultimate expression of the religious discrimination and partisanship that goes on at the BBC is the execrable Thought for the Day. It has become a symbol of the Corporation’s obsession with religion, an obsession that is not shared by the licence payers who have to foot the bill.

When Ofcom asked viewers and listeners to place in order of importance a list of twenty genres of programme, religion was placed next to last. Other research shows that when religious programmes start, viewers and listeners flee almost in their entirety to other channels that have more interesting programmes on offer.

So, it wasn’t a surprise when one of our members wrote to Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, to complain about a particularly biased Thought for the Day and was given the usual brush off. However, Mr Damazer went a little further than the usual patronising dismissal, and revealed a bit more of the thinking that goes on at the BBC. His response is so astonishing that we are reproducing it in full:

In response to your query about Thought for the Day on Radio Four, this reply is on behalf of everyone at the BBC you have contacted.

TfTD is commissioned as a theological reflection on current events. It is not an opinion piece. All contributors are told to ground their ‘thought’ in their own theological tradition, using the words of scripture or liturgy that have been worn smooth as a pebble by centuries of repetition and devotion. Their authority is drawn from faiths that have survived the centuries, including periods of persecution and intense scrutiny and still proved themselves valid. It is therefore a unique voice on the BBC. I would contend that the BBC should strive to maintain its ‘uniqueness’ in an increasingly overcrowded market place and serve the audience by giving them a chance to hear a perspective from the great faith traditions that have shaped our society and continue to wield enormous influence over current events.

So if you change the commissioning brief to allow in secular voices it would no longer be Thought for the Day and I hear no appetite for such a change from Radio Four.

I do not accept that the majority of the country are [sic] atheistic or agnostic. The last census showed 71% declaring themselves Christian and another 8% spiritual. Since then with immigration continuing apace from countries more religious than our own I see no reason to think the religious majority has declined. In a survey a few years ago Radio Four discovered that one in four of its audience go to a worship service every week so we know there is a lot of interest in the subject.

Secularism has not swept religion aside as some would have hoped, indeed some academics are writing about the new visibility of religion, albeit more fractured and fragmented than before. With religion so high on the agenda it would be a strange time to change the one place where it is possible to hear the intelligent religious voice in a secular setting and understand something of why millions if not billions of people still put faith at the centre of their lives.

The founding director of the BBC, Lord Reith, said that the BBC was the “nation’s church”. Lord Reith was a pious man and like all Christians felt it was his duty to try to bring others to the fold. It seems Mark Damazer is determined to keep the Reithian legacy of the 1920s flourishing into the 21st century. But should he be using public money to promote his religion to quite this extent?


3 October 2008


Published Fri, 03 Oct 2008