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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Radio 4 Today monitoring

A report by NSS member Barry Thorpe.

Last year (and at other times!) several members wrote to Newsline complaining about the excessive amount of time devoted to religion on the Today programme. I had noticed this myself, so I thought I’d carry out a survey over a long enough period to be valid to find out whether the general feeling was true, or it was really the result of confirmation bias, that is, one remembers incidents that confirm an impression while forgetting those that don’t.

I thought three months would be long enough, and asked for volunteers through Newsline to help, pointing out that the NSS was giving up on TftD for a while, and it would not figure in the results. The survey was carried out between 4 January and 27 March 2010.

My thanks to all those that contributed, in particular Derek Ruskin, who determinedly added TftD to his reports, showing that it still continues to irritate. I wonder whether the irritation from this slot clouds listeners’ perceptions of the rest of Today. More on this later.

A point about the Today website: although the programme begins at 0600, content summaries and access to Listen Again are restricted to the part beginning at 0700, presumably because anything of importance mentioned before 0700 is reported in more detail afterwards. This will be frustrating to anyone who wishes to carry out a similar survey without listening for three hours each weekday.

Of the presenters, John Humphrys was the most effective in dealing with apologists, Evan Davies generally tried to be fair, while Justin Webb was generally weak. He is the ineffective replacement for Edward Stourton, who would have done a better job, Catholic though he is. The other stalwart, Naughtie, was generally soft on apologists. The only woman, Sarah Montague, didn’t appear much during the survey period.

In the 72 editions of the programme in the period monitored, there were 41 occasions when religion was featured in interviews. This number is far exceeded if (a) you include repeated mentions of the same topic in the same programme, and (b) assume that general reports about Northern Ireland and terrorism have some sort of connection with religion.

I condensed the observations to summaries on an Excel spreadsheet (available on request), and tried to allocate a BQ – bias quotient – to each one. The BQ scale starts at -1 and ends at 3:

-1 = secular atheist unopposed

0 = secular atheist with opposition

1 = to do with religion but neutral

2 = religious no opposing criticism

3 = gratuitous, confessional, uncritical, etc

This is, of course, a subjective exercise, but I hope not too unfair.

Unfortunately some of the data presented was incomplete, and did not enable me to determine whether the item was a straight news interview (perhaps qualifying for a 1 on the BQ score) or something more. In that case the figure of 41 religious mentions seems to be even more of an underestimate.

The BQ count is:

-1 0

0 5

1 15

2 21

3 12

The religion/belief count is:

non-specific 2

Muslim 7

Xian general 6

CofE 13 (several on women bishops)

RC (19 mostly child abuse)

Sikh 2 (the kirpan)

Humanist 1

As the survey progressed, we became aware that just as important as the irritating religious items were the ones that were NOT included. For example, in February the trial of Geert Wilders was in the news, but not on Today. On 17 March, an item about German RC child abuse and an interview with a married ex-priest were pulled at the last minute, and in the following week there was little or nothing on the RC child abuse until John Humphrys appeared at the end.

And yet there was always plenty of airtime for cultural events in distant places, and even more for the affairs of adulterous sportsmen, a regrettable indication of the extent to which Today is going tabloid.

Another common omission is the word “Muslim” or “Islamic” in those items about terrorist organisations, all of which were in fact Muslim. It seems that BBC staff are falling in with the artfully propagated notion that it would be racist to use the label. The fact that religion is a motivating factor is, apparently, not relevant.

My general impression is that the BBC’s attitude to reporting religion has improved somewhat under the new regime, but that there is still a long way to go before they can claim that their reporting of religious matters is fair and proportionate. Why all the fuss about women bishops, for example? - only a few people actually care. Certainly, people who thought that there was too much biased reporting of religion (can there be just enough?) were not completely misled by confirmation bias.

On the other hand, the BBC is still firmly in the rut of the Christian calendar, observing it faithfully with special programmes on Radio 3 and 4 (I don’t listen to the other stations – is it less obvious over there?).

Thought for the Day

This slot supposedly provides “spiritual” reflection on some event, presumably secular, in the news. This reasoning is used to justify its anomalous presence in a long news and current affairs programme. Yet on at least two occasions the Chief Rabbi began talking about a Jewish festival (Feast of the Tabernacles and then Pesher) and shoe-horned in some current event to justify his presence in the slot. During the period 29 March – 5 April, guess what – all the contributors were Christians going on about Easter, somehow wangling a mention of a news item in the process; one contributor even said “I know the connection is tenuous, but...”

Derek Ruskin is probably glad the three months survey is over, for he was in danger of apoplexy from TftD, particularly from the egregiously insulting Anne Atkins. Sample comment:

He (Bishop of Southwark) criminally misrepresented the scientific admission of ignorance (as to the understanding of dark matter) as an argument for faith in a god. This sort of thing, left unchallenged, is irresponsible at best and very dangerous at worst.

“Mary saw Lazarus walk after his corpse started to smell” ...words fail me! She (Anne Atkins) is daft and dangerous...

Anne Atkins should certainly be removed. On 6 April, she used as her “secular” news item the previous day’s Start the Week, itself religionised on Easter Monday having been recorded in Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Philip Pullman was being interviewed about his new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This was enough for Atkins to launch into a full-scale encomium on Jesus, pure Christian propaganda. (Note on this Start the Week: the other atheist - yes, there were two out of three interviewees! - was David Baddiel, who badly let the side down by confessing that he did not know where morals came from, an opening which Rowan Williams did not ignore. Do some homework, Mr Baddiel!)

Lionel Blue, one of the more engaging contributors, is well past it now, and should be retired. Giles Fraser had a fairly low irritation quotient until recently. Since he got a new job, he seems to have parted company with common sense.

John Bell of the Iona Community seems to be least offensive and least platitudinous (usually) of the Christian contributors.

If, on the other hand, you find these mini-homilies riveting, they are stored here, while a thorough-going analysis of them is here.