The excellent weekly 'Newsline' from the National Secular Society today revealed what happened when someone wrote to the BBC to complain about a Thought For The Day broadcast which was even more biased than usual.
To the complainant's suprise, Radio Four Controller Mark Damazer replied as follows:
'In response to your query about Thought for the Day on Radio Four, this reply is on behalf of everyone at the BBC you have contacted.
TfTD is commissioned as a theological reflection on current events. It is not an opinion piece. All contributors are told to ground their 'thought' in their own theological tradition, using the words of scripture or liturgy that have been worn smooth as a pebble by centuries of repetition and devotion. Their authority is drawn from faiths that have survived the centuries, including periods of persecution and intense scrutiny and still proved themselves valid. It is therefore a unique voice on the BBC. I would contend that the BBC should strive to maintain its 'uniqueness' in an increasingly overcrowded market place and serve the audience by giving them a chance to hear a perspective from the great faith traditions that have shaped our society and continue to wield enormous influence over current events. So if you change the commissioning brief to allow in secular voices it would no longer be Thought for the Day and I hear no appetite for such a change from Radio Four. I do not accept that the majority of the country are [sic] atheistic or agnostic. The last census showed 71% declaring themselves Christian and another 8% spiritual. Since then with immigration continuing apace from countries more religious than our own I see no reason to think the religious majority has declined. In a survey a few years ago Radio Four discovered that one in four of its audience go to a worship service every week so we know there is a lot of interest in the subject. Secularism has not swept religion aside as some would have hoped, indeed some academics are writing about the new visibility of religion, albeit more fractured and fragmented than before. With religion so high on the agenda it would be a strange time to change the one place where it is possible to hear the intelligent religious voice in a secular setting and understand something of why millions if not billions of people still put faith at the centre of their lives. '
Jaw-droppingly stupid, but about par for the course for Damazer.
A couple of years ago, at the request of an octagenarian friend who got tired of hurling himself across the kitchen to switch stations when the Sunday Service came on, I organised the following letter to Damazer, which was signed by 24 Manx regular Radio Four listeners, mostly of a similar vintage:
'We are a group of dedicated Radio 4 listeners from the Isle of Man. However, even your excellent station could be improved, and even our dedication could be tested if it is not.
We write with a simple request for change which would considerably improve our lot.
Would you consider giving non-religious listeners a long-wave opt-out at 8.20 AM on Sundays?
Many thousand loyal Radio 4 listeners are forced to choose either to turn to another channel or switch off when ‘Sunday Worship’ begins. For such unbelievers Radio 4 is essential morning listening.
The expense of filling this time would, we believe, be minimal. The return, in terms of new listeners attracted to your general programming but not inclined to hear sermons during breakfast, should be more than adequate compensation, '
He never replied, but then BBC service to the Isle of Man has always been rubbish. My friend was himself a Beeb reporter in the days when they wore dinner suits to read the news and saw it as yet more evidence of a once fine institution's slide into audiovisual excrement.
As it happens, I've had previous experience of poor BBC quality -but at least then they got round to replying to my complaint.
When I found out senior BBC management were meeting 'faith leaders' to beef up religious broadcasting as part of an exercise called “Taking Belief Seriously”, I wrote saying (amongst other things):
'At a time when religious belief amongst well informed people has never been lower it is ridiculous to regard the 'problem' of emptying churches as a social ill which licence payers should be asked to help solve. It seems to me the problem of emptying churches is one for churches to solve, not society, and certainly not the vast majority of the UK public (who have rejected religious belief as too ridiculous and organised religion as too easy a hidey hole for those who seek to destroy democracy). In short, perhaps religionists should recognise that people simply have higher moral standards these days.
Pandering to the superstitious is an unacceptable policy for a publically funded body, and it is interesting to compare your total lack of interest when the non-religious complain about religious bias. For example, I note your failure to address problems with a programme you still laughingly call 'Thought for the Day', even though thought is remarkably absent from the contributions of the religious minority exclusively featured on that programme.
There are probably more regular illegal drug takers or alcoholics than churchgoers in the UK. Given the 'problems' caused to those 'misunderstood minorities' by drug education programmes, should we expect that, in the interests of fairness, the BBC will be meeting drug dealers and addicts worried that their source of delusion and income is under threat? It seems no more ridiculous than your response to those whose livelihood depends upon the peddling of religious mythology.'
'As a public service broadcaster the BBC has a responsibility to meet the needs of all audiences. Over 75% of the adult audience claim some religious allegiance (2001 census).Much of the BBC's output approaches the world from a secular, non-religious point of view. A minority of the BBC's output has specifically religious content - some of it celebratory and affirming, some of it journalistic and scrutinising - while other programmes, such as Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief, have addressed atheism directly. On Friday 13 May the BBC Governors held a seminar, attended by Mark Thompson, senior executives and a panel of invited experts, to discuss the BBC's religious and belief programming. The BBC has a public service responsibility to provide religious programming. The purpose of this seminar was not to find ways of increasing religious output, but to discuss how the BBC can best meet this commitment by providing programmes of the highest quality. The seminar also explored how different faiths and beliefs could be reflected across a range of genres. '
But it gets worse than that. Consider, for example, the role of an organisation called the Churches Media Council on BBC policy. Their strongest influence is the Evangelical Alliance. One CMC protegee of the EA's ridiculous Joel Edwards not only 'advises' both the EA and the BBC on religious broadcasting but with another hat on is actually the BBC producer responsible for this year's gobsmackingly dumb telefilm of the Easter myth.
How much worse can it get?
My BBC licence demand arrived today, as it happens, which gave me my own Thought For The Day.
If Damazer ever replies to our letter I'll pay the price of the stamp towards the licence fee. If they put non-religious commentators on Thought For The Day (as Manx Radio have for years) I'll pay a quid. If they sack Damazer and tell Edwards and his knuckle-dragging friends to take a running jump I might even pay the lot in one instalment, rather than, say, 10p weekly at the local Post Office.
Maybe a lot more of us should consider action like this, until the Beeb starts providing what they say we're paying for.
3 years ago