Getting angry with BBC’s ‘Thought for the day’

Nothing exercises the ire of British humanists and atheists more than religionists’ monopoly of the “Thought for the Day” slot on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme.  Less than 4 minutes’ long, I have found on visiting Humanist groups around the UK that this irritates British secularists in the same way as Americans get hot under the collar about God on the dollar bill.  So, complaints ensued when, on Boxing Day (26th December), a guest editor on the programme was prevented from allowing an atheist to broadcast in that slot (though a Unitarian was recruited instead, and the atheist spoke an hour earlier). But developing a Humanist strategy to deal with this longstanding ban requires some understanding of how the BBC bureaucracy has worked since it was founded in the 1920s.

The “Today” programme is the three-hour news flagship of the BBC, broadcast between 6am and 9am Monday to Friday (and two hours on Saturday), and is seen as incredibly influential in British politics and national life. If you want be an opinion former in high places, you have to get on this programme. “Thought for the Day” is a live commentary (not prayer) slot broadcast within this programme at 7.50am. Started in 1970 (succeeding religious worship programmes dating to 1939), it is usually made by one of a select group of around 10 religious commentators, often clergy, drawn from Christians, Jews, Hindis, Muslims and others, though mostly Christians (and interestingly rarely inviting someone from Northern Ireland), supplemented by celebrity speakers (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the British Chief Rabbi, or, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI[1]).

Humanists and secularists have been seeking for generations to prize open this forbidden studio. The ban on non-believers speaking on “Thought for the Day” is frequently raised at Humanist and secularist meetings I attend. Individuals have told me how they have written to the “Today” programme editors to complain. But despite the increased presence of non-Christians in the studio, over the decades, no-religionists have never been admitted to the broadcasting list.

Secularist objections are generally threefold. First, religionists have plenty of other slots, including “Prayer for the Day” (broadcast at 5.45am), the “Act of Worship” (previously “Morning Worship”, at 10.45am), “Pause for Thought” (on Radio 2 at 9.15am), as well as, on Sunday mornings before 9.00am, a dominance of voice and music broadcasting across most of the dozens of local and national BBC radio stations, and various other slots on radio and television. Try BBC Radio Norfolk, Radio Scotland and their ilk on a Sunday morning, and you invariably get religion (with or without faith-nodding pop music).

The second problem is that the British people, the listeners (and funders through the Television Licence), now contain a large percentage with no religious identity. The 2011 Census put the UK figure at 26 per cent, whilst the recent YouGov poll (which excluded the highly religious Northern Ireland) put it at 38 per cent.[2] Those who never attend church, don’t have membership or an equivalent with a church, and those wouldn’t be able to name the top 10 religious figures in a faith, must now make up the clear majority of the British people.[3] Of no religionists, 84 per cent do not believe in God. These people, it is argued by secularists, are not represented in any regular broadcasting by the BBC, and are mostly excluded from those broadcasts which deal with ethics and philosophical musing.

The third problem is that “Thought for the Day” falls into the latter category. It is often more about ethics than it is about religion. The topics covered by the speakers range from the incredibly serious to the whimsical, and are topics on which Humanists, atheists and agnostics would also have clear contributions to make.  Even some existing speakers do not invoke a deity or prophet in their talks, but the clear difference a humanist would make would be to seek an ethical basis to behaviour from within ourselves, without external reference to scripture, holy person or deity. The ban on a Humanist is seen as unfair and irrational.

How does this situation persist? It seems inexplicable in a nation where two of the three largest political parties are led by proclaimed atheists, and the third seems to have been for much of his life less than a fully paid-up churchgoer and believer. True, churches are favoured as aiding government policies on social cohesion, the “big society” and charitable activity. And the BBC, frequently challenged by Conservative MPs over its supposed political  bias to the left, may regard religious broadcasts like “Thought for the Day” as useful mitigation of its alleged offences.  But yet, the persistence of religious monopoly of such commentary slots may strike many as puzzling as well as unfair.

The reason is the way the BBC has evolved.[4] Religious broadcasting, perhaps surprisingly, developed rather slowly, building up from the late 1920s to the 1940s, reaching a peak of proportion of hours broadcast during and shortly after the Second World War. Behind this growth lay a typical BBC emulation of civil service bureaucracy, with a Religious Broadcasting Department (now called Religion and Ethics) headed in most decades by a Christian clergyman as Head, backed by a carefully selected advisory committee of clergy called the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC). This became a highly organised ‘religious front at the BBC,  with a bunker mentality dedicated to sustaining religious broadcasts come what may. The Head of Religious Broadcasting lost his role as censor of Sunday programmes in the late 1940s, but he retained strong influence amongst the Christian members of the BBC Board of Governors. Succeeding Heads fought off the loss of religious programmes, especially on radio, though television from 1957 became much more independent in relation to putting out discussion and documentary programmes free from the tentacles of CRAC.

By the mid 1960s, television had greatly secularised its output, and religion was increasingly confined to the famous “God slot” on Sunday evenings (on both BBC and commercial stations) from around 6.15 to 7.25pm. BBC comedy and current affairs had become deeply irreverent of the churches and organised religions – no more so than Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A culture of questioning the ethical standards of religions in decline reigned from in the sixties and seventies.

But conditions on BBC radio were different. Here, the Head of Religious Broadcasting and CRAC had dug their heels in from the mid 1950s to resist the loss of slots, of control of discussion programmes, and, above all, of loss of anything to do with ethics. This essentially Protestant (and mostly Anglican) department conceded to Roman Catholic broadcasting in the 1950s, to multi-faith broadcasting in the later 1960s, but resisted any attempt to admit Humanists and secularists (who were knocking hard on the BBC’s door between 1956 and 1970).[5]

And this resistance they have sustained to the present day, despite the appointment of a Muslim Head of department in 2009 (which aroused some Christian objections).[6] It means that non-religious people seem to be excluded from Religion & Ethics Department programmes without a religionist interlocutor (a policy established in the 1950s to ensure no-religionist views are never permitted to go unchallenged, and still apparently going strong). It means exclusion from some debates in which secularists have a direct interest – such as the one currently on the BBC Religion & Ethics website on “Should Britain become a secular state?”[7] which involves a Christian and a Muslim.

So, letters to the editor of the “Today” programme are likely to be ineffectual. Understanding  the BBC bureaucracy means that those campaigning for improved no-religionist access to the airwaves on ethical and life-stance issues may need to campaign direct to sympathetic BBC trustees and to politicians – a course of action that worked in 1954-55 and allowed Margaret Knight to get to air for her two lectures on “Morality Without Religion”.[8] Knight fought hard to avoid a Christian interlocutor on air, and won the right to two programmes free from one, though she conceded a scripted discussion with a missionary in a third.

The question is: could a Margaret Knight succeed today? An outside observer might think this is not permitted under the rules enforced by the Religion & Ethics Department for its slots. Almost 60 years on, Britain has secularised enormously, but the BBC structure has (perhaps without its trustees realising it) reinforced the view that, when it comes to ethics, having a faith is considered better than no faith. That irks in Humanist and secularist circles.

[3] I don’t know if the last question has ever been asked, but in 2007 Americans knew more about the ingredients of Big Macs than about the 10 commandments;  .

[4] The following paragraphs are based on my own research in Callum G Brown, ‘”The Unholy Mrs Knight” and the BBC: secular humanism and the threat to the Christian nation, c.1945-1960’, English Historical Review vol. 127 (2012), pp. 345-376. They also draw upon Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom; volume IV Sound and Vision (Oxford, 1979), pp. 800-3; idem, ‘Christ and the Media: secularization, rationalism and sectarianism in the history of British broadcasting, 1922-1976,’ in Eileen Barker, J.A. Beckford and K. Dobbelaere (eds.), Secularization, Rationalism and Sectarianism (Oxford, 1993), p. 278; Kenneth M. Wolfe, The Churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation 1922-1956: the Politics of Broadcast Religion (London, 1984), pp. 445-54; Susan Budd, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheist and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960 (London, 1977), pp. 170, 259

[5] Some religious groups were deliberately excluded. These included the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christian Scientists, two churches which kept up an incessant but fruitless campaign from the 1930s for access to the microphone.

[8] Knight enjoyed the active support of one BBC governor, Professor (later Baroness) Barbara Wootton (1897-1988), who was a leading socialist rationalist and sociologist.

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