New hope for an end to religious monopoly on Thought for the Day

New hope was expressed this week that the long-running campaign to open up the BBC programme Thought for the Day to non-religious voices may be about to make a breakthrough.

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The BBC Trust launched an enquiry after the National Secular Society, and hundreds of individuals and groups, made complaints about the religious monopoly on this three minute slot on the Today programme. The results of the enquiry are expected later this year. (The BBC Trust is its governing body. It is operationally independent of BBC management and external bodies, and aims to act in the best interests of licence fee payers.)

After exhausting the BBC’s long and frustrating regular complaints appeal procedure, the NSS provided a fifteen-page dossier to the Trust detailing the history of its protest about Thought for the Day, and about the discriminatory nature of the programme.

The Trust will only take up complaints if, after the complainant has exhausted the complaints procedure, it considers the issue of sufficiently wide importance. It will then be ruled on by the board of trustees. They are independent of the BBC Executive and are charged with giving equal weight to complaints and to the BBC’S own position.

The NSS had not made its latest complaint public. The revelation of the BBC Trust investigation was made by Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, who was answering complaints on the Feedback programme.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, who has been pushing this complaint through the various stages of the procedure, said: “The Society and its members have been pursuing this complaint hard. We started in the 1960s, and even embarked on court action against the BBC some years ago. We are optimistic that, this time, the independent body of the BBC Trust will accept that Thought for the Day is discriminatory and unfair on a number of levels.

“As we complained, ‘This exclusion prevents the audience, whether religious or not, from being exposed to the unchallenged thoughts of the non-religious, in direct contravention of the BBC’s formal obligation to Reflect the different religious and other beliefs in the UK.’ Not only does it represent a lack of balance – which is against the BBC Charter - but it also discriminates against the non-religious audience in the sense that they cannot hear their own views reflected.”

Mr Wood said that “Often, contributors to Thought for the Day make contentious remarks and claims, and even lobby during the passage of bills through Parliament. Only on this programme are such controversial views allowed to pass unchallenged. This contradicts everything that the BBC is supposed to stand for: fairness, balance, a voice for everyone in the country and for a wide range of views to be made available to all. We are not asking for the religious to be banished from this slot, but simply that it be opened up to a wider range of voices, some of which will come from an overtly secular perspective, and some will simply express a non-religious point of view that will be of interest to the Today programme audience. The BBC would not dare discriminate against any group other than non-believers in this way; those who do not belong to any religion make up almost half of the population.”

“Alternatively, our preference would be for the programme to be scrapped altogether.”