When it comes to religion, the BBC is showing its age

Posted: Mon, 14th Nov 2022 by Megan Manson

When it comes to religion, the BBC is showing its age

Radio 4's discriminatory 'Thought for the Day' slot is totemic of religious privilege at the BBC and should be the starting point for reform, says Megan Manson.

The BBC is celebrating 100 years since its founding, making it the oldest national broadcaster in the world. This is a remarkable achievement and is testament to the BBC's consistent effort to keep ahead with the times. As director of BBC content Charlotte Moore says: "The BBC's future depends on remaining relevant to all our licence fee payers and reflecting modern Britain in an authentic way."

The BBC's commitment to staying relevant is typified by its increasingly ambitious diversity targets. In 2017 it had no targets regarding women and LGBT people. In 2020 it aimed for 50% women in its recruitment and on screen portrayal, and 8% for LGBT. It also aimed for 15% Black, Asian and ethnic minorities and 8% people with a disability in its workforce and on screen portrayal.

But there's one dark, dusty corner of the BBC which has remained stubbornly resistant to all attempts at modernisation and inclusion. And that's the 'Thought for the Day' slot of Radio 4's Today programme.

Described by the former Today presenter John Humphrys as "discriminatory", "inappropriate" and "deeply, deeply boring", TftD is perhaps the only part of the BBC that takes pride in cleaving to exclusivity and increasingly abandoned worldviews. The slot gives nearly three minutes' airtime during Radio 4's flagship programme to prominent religious public figures to bestow their godly wisdom unto the nation. And it's only given to religious public figures. Not once in its 40+ year history has a nonreligious person delivered TftD.

Understandably, many nonreligious listeners feel insulted and excluded by TftD's policy of only inviting religious speakers. The policy implies religious voices offer some sort of unique wisdom that would be inappropriate to challenge and should be treated with deference.

The nonreligious likely comprise the largest religion or belief group in the UK. NatCen's British Social Attitudes surveys consistently find the percentage of nonreligious in the UK to be above 50%. It's hard to see how TftD lives up to "reflecting modern Britain in an authentic way" when it alienates over half the population by excluding people who have something to say from a nonreligious perspective.

And it's not just nonreligious thinkers who are discriminated against by TftD. Is your religion not considered one of the 'major faiths' by the BBC? Bad news, your thoughts are not welcome either. Over the years, Pagans have tried multiple times to get a representative on TftD, only to be told that their religion isn't big enough (although some estimate the number of Pagans in the UK to be similar to the number of Hindus, who are allowed on TftD).

The idea of barring religious minorities from TftD seems completely at odds with the BBC's wider policies of actively ensuring minority ethnicities and sexualities are represented in its broadcasting.

It's no accident that TftD is so unbalanced. It's one of the legacies of the BBC's first general manager, John Reith, a hardline Calvinist who took the role after feeling a "divine calling" to do so. Under Reith, the BBC did not broadcast on Sunday before 12:30pm to give listeners time to attend church, and for the rest of the day it only broadcast religious services, classical music and other 'non-frivolous' programming.

Religious privilege was baked into the Beeb from the outset. This is reflected in the words of the BBC's fifth director general William Haley in 1948: "We are citizens of a Christian country, and the BBC - an institution set up by the state - bases its policy upon a positive attitude towards the Christian values. It seeks to safeguard those values and to foster acceptance of them. The whole preponderant weight of its programmes is directed to this end".

That same religious privilege is mirrored by the state at large. Echoing TftD's soft proselytism that greets morning listeners as they commute to work, sittings in both chambers in parliament begin with Anglican prayers, while millions of children across the country will be compelled to sit through some form of Christian prayer every day enforced by collective worship laws. For a largely irreligious country, waking up to some form of call to prayer is strangely inescapable.

The symptoms of systemic deference to religion at the BBC extend beyond TftD. For the really early birds, Radio 4 has 'Prayer for the Day' at 5:43am, and Radio 2's breakfast show includes its own TftD entitled 'Pause for Thought'. On TV we have 'Songs of Praise', a show which only features Christian worship and has a strongly evangelising approach.

And then there's the BBC's cringing coverage of religious affairs which regularly seems at pains to play up positive perspectives of religion while whitewashing the negatives. In 2010, BBC 1 and BBC 2's coverage of the pope's visit to the UK clocked up to over 12 hours. There was also coverage on Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and other BBC TV, radio and online services, in addition to Catholic-themed current affairs programmes and documentaries.

During this visit, the NSS and others organised the biggest protest against a papal visit in history, with over 20,000 taking part. The protest aimed to highlight the Vatican's role in the concealment of child abuse and its denial of justice for victims. There were also protests about the Vatican's damaging stance on social issues such as women's rights and LGBT equality.

The protest received a few minutes' coverage on the BBC, much of it critical.

While it may be short slot, TftD is totemic of the spectre of religious privilege haunting the BBC. That's why it attracts such ire and frustration from those who object to its discriminatory premise and its consequential irrelevance and dreariness for growing numbers of people.

Perhaps the BBC needs to listen to one of the many oft-repeated platitudes on TftD, and 'take time to reflect'. The centenary is a great opportunity for our national broadcaster to take time to reflect on how it can age gracefully. It may be 100 years old but it needn't look it. A fresher, more critical, and more inclusive approach to religion and belief would keep it relevant to the increasingly irreligious and religiously-diverse country it serves. And ensuring all thoughts, not just those from the religious elites, are welcome on Thought for the Day would be a good place to start.

Reform Thought for the Day

In its current format Thought for the Day is discriminatory and shows too much deference to religion. Help us convince the BBC to change it.

Tags: Thought for the Day