Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by P Fisher

  1.  I am writing as a private individual who has been seriously offended by the BBC attitude to those of no faith. As this is the first time I have written such a submission I hope your Lordships will forgive any errors in its presentation. I am a humanist and I am currently writing a science-based novel, which explores the conflicting roles of religion and rationalism in society.

  2.  I hope to convince your Lordships that there is an entrenched, systematic and parochial bias in the BBC in favour of those who are religious, and against those of no faith. And, further, to show that this attitude is so serious, and potentially damaging, that reform of this attitude should be an important part of the proposed BBC charter.

  3.  I have previously submitted a complaint to the BBC about the attitude to non-believers in one of their religious programmes. I found the response to my complaint extremely unsatisfactory. As this submission does not directly relate to the complaint I do not propose to comment further on this matter. Your Lordships may, or may not, want to consider the circumstances of the handling of my complaint as you see fit.

  4.  Before I move on to the details of my argument I should first clarify my view that I am great supporter of the BBC I feel it is one of the world's finest institutions. I feel strongly that the existence of the BBC is one of those factors, which justify the use of the adjective "Great" when it is used in relation to the noun "Britain". My aim is to point out a direction in which the BBC should move in order to improve its already fine and enviable reputation.

  5.  I first intend to illustrate, what I think is the current position of the BBC in respect of the issues I've alluded to, and to point out the potential pitfalls of a continuation of this attitude. On Thursday 26 February 2004 a programme called What the World thinks of God was broadcast on BBC2, and, while my concern is not specifically about this programme, the attitudes expressed in it, are revealing in respect of the BBC's general attitude to those of no faith. I think that a discussion of the programme will provide a touchstone for some of the general points I want to make. What the World thinks of God was a panel discussion presented by Jeremy Vine. The programme discussed the results of a number of opinion surveys conducted around the world. One of the more specific points addressed was the decline of church attendance in the West.

  6.  There are four specific problems, which I would like the committee to consider:

    (i)  Bias in presentation of religious programming,

    (i)  The marginalisation and undermining of respect for those of no faith,

    (iii)  The failure of the BBC in its role as educator to provide a meaningful alternative to religiosity for those who find it impossible to accept theological truth claims,

    (iv)  The dangers of unbalancing important and relevant discussions about vital political and social issues by downplaying secular, rationalist arguments.


  7.  In common with many other BBC religious programmes the position taken by the presenter in What the World thinks of God was that the rise of secularism in the West in general, and Britain in particular, is a problem for society. The clear implication being that the decline in church attendance is associated with a perceived decline in moral standards. The general impression given in the programme was that religion is automatically good. The presenter, Jeremy Vine, continually referred to countries being "lower" in the polls if their level of religious belief was statistically smaller. The use of the word "lower" here could not be understood in any other sense than that of "worse". The public rightfully expects the BBC to be impartial. My concern here is that atheism is seen as the absence of meaningful ideology without exploring, or even alluding to the idea that humanist values and thinking have any intrinsic worth. It seemed to me a clear example of the BBC's general attitude that one way of thinking (faith based ideology) is more appropriate than any other. Towards the end of the programme Jeremy Vine asked one of the atheists on the panel, Sean Hughes, if he had changed his view as a result of what he had heard in the programme. I think it would be illuminating here to imagine such an approach in a programme discussing politics. Suppose a presenter was to see it as self evident that there was a decline in traditional moral standards in the country on the basis that more people were voting Labour instead of Conservative. Or, conversely, took it as read that the country was becoming less caring because more people were voting for the Conservative Party. Imagine, if your Lordships can, a programme where, for example, Michael Howard were asked if he had become more inclined to join the Labour Party on account of his listening to a speech by Tony Benn.


  8.  During the programme, What the World thinks of God, there were a number of interviews, some of which were conducted on the street with ordinary people and some were conducted with leading world figures. To be fair the interviewees expressed a very wide range of views, and some atheist views were included, but when the former Israeli leader, Shimon Perez, was interviewed he said he thought that a Godless man was not a human being. I was grossly offended by this remark, and this has led to my wish to bring this issue to you attention. Mr. Perez is, of course entitled to his view, but let's, once again, draw a parallel to another scenario. Imagine that he had said that gentiles, or Moslems, or Palestinians were not human beings. Such remarks would certainly not have been broadcast without extensive critical comment. What I am suggesting here is that the feelings of every population group should be recognised and respected in any fair and balanced society. It is of course entirely reasonable that the feelings certain people should not be respected if they do not respect the rights of others, such as criminals and extremists whom promote or participate in violence. But it is completely unacceptable for non-violent, law-abiding atheists to find themselves included in this bracket.

  9.  In many BBC programmes about religion there seems to be an underlying assumption that belief is something of great value. There can be no doubt that some people feel that their faith is a great asset to their lives so the assertion may therefore seem an innocuous one. However it carries within it a serious charge because if this position is accepted then, by implication, those without faith are in some way disabled, defective or lacking some crucial and essential attribute. I am not suggesting that there isn't a genuine dilemma here, but while it is obviously necessary to accept the right of individuals to hold whatever views they like, rational or not. It cannot be right to allow single groups to be disparaged in the way that non-believers are in religious programmes—including the one I've used as an example here. Nor is it—in my view—ever appropriate to put forward an unchallenged opinion that someone is less than human on the basis of their views, especially when such views are in the ascendant,[7] and are held by a significant proportion of the population.[8]


  10.  In order to set the context of this next argument I hope your Lordships will indulge me by allowing me to illustrate my point by giving an account of my own experience. I was brought up in a Roman Catholic working class family and my parents had very strong religious beliefs. But, when I reached adulthood I began to think seriously about what I really did believe, and I found that I could not accept the explanations that I'd taken for granted as a child. I developed strong views about what I thought to be right and wrong based on respect for the feelings and rights of others: in short, I became a humanist. But—and this is the important point—I did not call myself a humanist because, although I had heard the expression, I did not know what it meant. I only found out about humanism much later while researching my book. It is clear to me that most people on the street would not know what humanism was either. I suspect that there must be millions of people who would benefit from knowing about ideologies in which they might find some basis for moral and ethical standards outside of a religious context. A great many people in this country have abandoned their faith as the country has become more secular. To a large extent this must be because the metaphysics of most theological teaching and Biblical truth claims conflict with modern scientific theory. Many such people are thoughtful and intelligent, and surely have the right to represented, informed and served by the state media. In my view there is a danger that non-believers are being left in a moral and ethical vacuum as there is no alternative presented other than those that demand belief in a deity, or some other transcendental or spiritual worldview.


  11.  The issue currently at the forefront of most minds in our society is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East and their activities. Discussions about the appropriate response of the West are therefore vital. It has become evident during recent history that, in many countries, even in the West, political ideologies have been underpinned and informed by religious dogma. In the United States, recent policy decisions are set with reference to narrow ideologies founded on religious beliefs and assumed moral certitude rather than pragmatic decisions based on pluralism, evidence and sound scientific knowledge. On both sides of the deeply regrettable division between the two great civilisations, there is the assumption that one's individual identity whether as Moslem, Christian or Jew is of fundamental importance. For me, humanism implies that we should recognise the importance of our common humanity as members of a family of sentient beings, and that this should take precedence over identities derived from national, cultural or religious groupings. It seems to me that this ideological position is important, relevant and distinctive, and it is essential that it be brought to the negotiating table. The question then arises as to who is in a position to present this case. Religious leaders have a vested interest in protecting the importance of the religious identity of their followers. Politicians will not make the case because of the danger that they will be thought unpatriotic. The private wing of the media is biased toward "sexy" confrontational politics. It is only the humanists that have a moral/ethical viewpoint which is not tainted by ideological self-interest, and it seems to me that it is only the BBC that is in a position to allow their contribution to be brought to the debate.

  12.  There seems to be a prevailing notion in our culture that lack of belief in a deity somehow equates to lack of conviction or ideology, as if it is understood that a belief which does not fit in with society's prevailing culture must automatically be dangerous and subversive. This is probably derived from historical notions of non-belief as being negative and corrosive to the common good, but this view no longer holds. Humanism has a forward-looking message of respect for human rights and positive human value systems. It is entirely appropriate, in fact essential, to have robust debate and for all views to be open to scrutiny. This can not happen if a seriously held and widespread point of view is never discussed.

  13.  Your Lordships may have different views on the degree you think religious influence has a role in policymaking. But it is clear that in order for this subject to be debated in an open and honest way that the public are not allowed to form the opinion that the only meaningful way forward depends on religion, merely because discussion of subjects like humanism and secular value systems are to some degree taboo subjects in the media. The view that this country has advanced and enlightened due to the increased secularisation—has never, as far as I'm aware, been considered in any BBC programme.


  14.  I recognise that some of the problems I have highlighted here relate to nuances of attitude and, even if you agree that the BBC should adopt a more balanced approach to ethics and moral systems, your Lordships may feel that it would be difficult to legislate to counter such subtle interaction. But some of the attitudes are not covert but overt. The BBC establishment has consistently opposed the production of broadcasts dedicated to secular ideas and values. They have resisted the inclusion of secular speakers on Thought for the Day on Radio 4, and as I understand it they have refused to allow a programme about humanism to be made for television. If the new charter demands that the BBC should provide a given level of religious programming, in fairness it should also demand that some programming should be given over to promote and educate people about alternative, secular, value systems.

  15.  I wholly accept, and would defend, the right of anyone to chose their own beliefs, and I very much welcome the current trend among religious leaders to seek common ground between different faiths in a spirit of mutual respect for the views and religious sentiments of others. However, if religions are to retain a moral high ground they must surely encourage their followers to tolerate not only those of other faiths but also those of a non-faith persuasion. And, if the BBC is to retain its reputation for impartiality and fairness it must reflect this position.

  16.  I understand that the BBC, and the media in general, to some extent reflect the views of the nation, and some of the attitudes I have sought to oppose here are widespread in the community. But the fact is that a very large number of thoughtful people have decided that, for them, religion does not make sense. It is only fair that the BBC respect their decision and provide them with representation and support. Currently there is a political debate raging about how to engage the public in politics and the failure of political parties to reach out meaningfully to the public. The issue of how the BBC reaches out to the nation parallels this problem. There has been almost no attempt by the BBC or other broadcast media to discuss humanism, nor even to tell people what it is. To dismiss secularism, and to deny atheists a voice, is to disenfranchise, and undermine respect, for what is a large proportion of the British public. I hope your Lordships will consider making it explicit in the charter that the BBC provide fair representation for all faith and non-faith adherents.

18 September 2005

7   36 per cent of people in the 18-34 age group in Britain define themselves as atheist or agnostic. In the population as a whole, 24 per cent say they have no religion. Amongst the over 65s, the non-religious are falls to 11 per cent. Mori poll (4,270 respondents) for The Tablet (20 May 2005). Back

8   35 per cent of British adults do not believe in God and 21 per cent don't know. (YouGov survey, December 2004). Back

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