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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Religious broadcasting on the BBC

We think that the BBC devotes too much of its resources to the provision of exclusively religious programming, particularly when research has shown that very few people watch it. Given the changing demographics of the UK, as shown by the 2011 Census, we feel that the BBC's focus on Christianity is increasingly anachronistic and out of proportion.

We are unclear as to why the BBC puts such a pronounced focus on it, and given its status as a publicly funded broadcaster, we argue that the focus is essentially discriminatory against those whose views are rarely represented.

Thought for the Day

Whilst there are a number of BBC national and local programmes dedicated to faith, including for example, Beyond Belief, Heart and Soul: Faith Perspectives, Sunday: Religious News, Alleluia!, Sunday Worship, Songs of Praise, and resources for collective worship in schools, one particularly problematic example of this phenomenon is Radio 4's Thought for the Day peak time slot which is broadcast daily on Radio 4's flagship news Today programme at 7.45am.

As part of Radio 4's anchor news programme, speakers on Thought for the Day often make contributions that go beyond reflections on faith. They often make contentious remarks and claims, and have even used the slot for lobbying during the passage of bills through Parliament. Only on this programme are controversial political views allowed to pass unchallenged. We argue that this contradicts everything that the BBC is supposed the stand for: fairness, balance, and a voice reflecting a wide-range of views across the country, made available to all. In view of the inequity that we feel occurs by including an exclusively religious slot as part of Radio 4's flagship news programme, we argue that either the Thought for the Day slot should be discontinued or should be made open to non-religious viewpoints as well.

In response to the idea that Thought for the Day could be opened up so as to give a voice to those of no religion (an idea, incidentally, that has had express support from two of the presenters of the Today programme, John Humphreys and Evan Davis), the BBC Executive last year said that whilst it was undertaking its own research into "the mix and flavour of its Religion and Ethics content", it did "not propose to revisit the issue of atheists or humanists taking part in Thought for the Day".

The BBC Trust prevented its own impartiality adviser from formally recommending that secular speakers be allowed on Radio 4's Thought for the Day. This came as a result of a review conducted by the BBC Trust into the breadth of opinion that is permitted to be heard on the BBC, including a review of the BBC's religious output, which the National Secular Society had been invited to take part in and had raised once more the issue of the exclusion of non-religious voices from Thought for the Day.

NSS concerns and the BBC's response

In 2009, the BBC Trust rejected a formal complaint from the NSS regarding the exclusive and discriminatory nature of Thought for the Day.

It found that the editorial policy of only allowing religious contributors to participate on Thought for the Day did not breach either the BBC Editorial Guidelines on impartiality or the BBC's duty to reflect religious and other beliefs in its programming. Whilst it rejected our complaint, it did confirm that Thought for the Day must comply with requirements of due impartiality and that any future complaints on particular broadcasts would be judged against these standards on a case-by-case basis.

Despite this, in 2013, a NSS complaint about a Thought for the Day broadcast by Lord Singh that was used to deliver biased commentary on a topical political controversy, without any right to reply or attempt to provide due impartiality, was rejected.

See also:

Read the BBC Trust's Complaints and Appeals Board findings

Listen to Lord Singh's Thought for the Day broadcast

BBC once more rejects non-religious voices on Thought for the Day

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