Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by D J Cutts

  The BBC represents the values of the nation to itself and to the world. In examining the way the BBC regards religion it is important to reflect both on the assumptions that are made about the value of religion as such (as opposed to ethics or morals) in 21st century Britain. It is important to make the distinction between religious observance and ethical thinking. Some justification for the broadcasting of religious programming is based on a false concatenation of these elements of philosophy. This is a mistake, albeit a common one—indeed it pervades much of the current education system, where Religion but not Philosophy is taught at GCSE.

  A substantial part of our society is influenced by our religious heritage, but only a small proportion of the population observes the rites of any religion. The number of different traditions prevalent here has increased but we are a seven day secular society, in a way not imaginable 50 years ago, and Sunday is no longer dedicated to Church. Religion should properly become a private matter, for the individual to consider and honour, or not, in his own way. Neither the state nor national institutions should presume to promote or impose any particular religious view or portfolio of views. This applies to the BBC in particular, since it has a strong connection with the population.

  However, the BBC has some remnants of missionary zeal. This may be more apparent at some times than others. For, example, for many avid Today listeners the insertion of the Thought for the Day, sourced from Religious Broadcasting Department, is out of place and an unwelcome intrusion into the programme. It often introduces nonsense where clear thinking comment might really be useful; it is staffed by preachers from various faiths and sects to all appearances by "buggins turn" and it leans on assumptions of God which don't wash for a substantial proportion of listeners. In the general run of news, editors often include quotes from Archbishops on ethical issues without any balancing content . . . for example the only quote on a recent news bulletin regarding your Lordship's debate about voluntary Euthanasia referred to opposition being based on the idea that life was a "gift from God". This sort of thin thinking doesn't help resolve a difficult problem. The inclusion of faith views in news coverage at the expense of clear ethical thought is a disservice to the nation.

  In the new charter Religion should be treated like any other interest or hobby in the BBC's approach to it, both in content and in governance. Of course religion, atheism, philosophy and ethics should all be the subject of programmes, documentaries, drama and stories. If there is a demand for Songs of Praise, then there can be no objection in principle to its inclusion in the schedule, but it has leeway not accorded to normal music output in its judgement about quality. Would the music department show this if the content of the songs was secular?

  Examine, in contrast, the fate of the recent programme by Jonathan Miller about Unbelief. This was thoughtfully done, of high quality, and presented by a broadcaster whose other output—for example on anatomy—makes it to prime time. What happened to this programme? It was shown on BBC4 late at night and is not scheduled for repeat, even on BBC2. This editorial behaviour shows a disturbing bias not just against understanding, but against clear thought. Another programme, a cartoon called Popetown, was cancelled, apparently after strong lobbying from the Catholic Church, but according to the BBC's complaints system, because it was of low quality—a criterion that does not always get applied to religious content. We were not allowed to make any judgement on Popetown because it was censored. Fortunately we were allowed to see Jerry Springer, despite the aggressive lobby against it.

  These illustrations show a bias in the BBC towards religious points of view which, if they were shown in a political context, would be unacceptable. In the 21st Century they should be unacceptable in this case as well. So the BBC needs to be reformed to remove this bias from the system. There should no more be representatives of religions or sects in the control of the BBC than committees of gardeners or antique dealers, whose interests are covered more thoroughly in popular output. The Corporation should perhaps have a Philosophy correspondent as well as Religious Affairs correspondent, but it should not have an advisory committee on religion with any special privileges to influence content or regulation, neither should the membership of the Governors or any other body have any like bias.

9 October 2005

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