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 oneindeed 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
outputfor example on anatomymakes 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 qualitya 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