Letter from J Rodell
It would be appreciated if you could draw the
attention of the House of Lords BBC Charter Review Committee to
the following comments in response to their inquiry. I offer these
on an individual basis, although I am aware that they are largely
shared by fellow humanists and others who hold views on ethics
and morality independent of religious belief.
1. STATUS OF
Firstly I would like to make clear my strong support
for the continued status of the BBC as an independent broadcaster
largely financed from the license fee. Having travelled to many
other parts of the world, I think it is fair to say that much
of the BBC's output, notably Radio 4, is unrivalled in breadth,
depth, quality and freedom from government and commercial influence.
The license fee, along with the appropriate governance arrangements,
seems to be the best guarantee that this will continue.
2.1 However, I believe it is time to review the
BBC's remit in respect of religious broadcasting. The current
position is exemplified by the Thought for the Day slot
on the Radio 4 Today programme.
2.2 According to the 2001 Census, "people
with no religion" form the second largest group in the country
after Christiansat 15pct nearly three times the size of
all non-Christian religions added together. Yet the BBC Religious
Broadcasting unit refuses to include humanist or other non-religious
speakers among the Thought for the Day contributors, while
continuing to include at least one speaker who uses the slot as
a platform to evangelise Christian beliefs.
2.3 The implication of omitting non-religious
speakers is that the Religious Broadcasting unit considers that
only those with a belief in the supernatural can claim legitimate
views on moral issues. This is both untrue and rather insulting.
(Indeed, as an atheist I believe that all codes of morality are/have
been of human origin, often produced by gifted thinkers and leaders,
but in most cases informed by one of a variety of erroneous supernatural
2.4 The Thought for the Day issue is,
I believe, symptomatic of an underlying lack of clarity on the
role of the BBC in the religious sphere.
3.1 Religious belief is, of course, a sensitive
issue, especially following recent events. The future role of
the BBC's religious output needs to be considered in the wider
context of the debate on multiculturalism, and bearing in mind
the BBC's role in the "British Establishment" and hence
in the elusive concept of "Britishness". Clearly it
needs to maintain wide appeal and adapt to changing times.
3.2 It could be argued that, as 70 per cent of
the population is Christian, and the Church of England is formally
established, the BBC should be a bastion of CoE Christianity.
But this would alienate the 30 per cent of the population who
are not Christian, along with the significant proportion of non-CoE
3.3 A more realistic and "future proof"
approach would be for the BBC's remit to be clearly secular and
even-handed. That would not mean an absence of broadcasting on
religious topics, just as political neutrality does not imply
an absence of broadcasting on political topics: Thought for
the Day would continuealbeit with an even-handed approachas
would many of the excellent programmes exploring religions, religious
history and thinking, morality and so on. Nor would it prevent
formal occasions that take place under the auspices of the established
church, such as State weddings and funerals, from being broadcast.
But it would mean a responsibility fairly to reflect the views
in the country in everyday output.
3.4 One type of output would not, however, be
compatible with a strict interpretation of "secular and even-handed"
and that is the broadcasting of Christian services for their own
sake, such as in Songs of Praise. In these cases the BBC
is effectively using license-payers money to provide a service
to Christianityneither secular nor even-handed. I can see
that this would be a problem given the popularity of these programmes,
their traditional status and the fact that they are often watched
and listened to by the elderly or otherwise housebound. A possible
solution could be a transitional arrangement leading to the establishment
of a separate digital channel for such output, perhaps funded
commercially or by donation but outside the BBC umbrella.
My primary purpose in writing is therefore to urge
a change in the BBC's Charter. Bring religion into line with politics
by making the BBC responsible for maintaining a secular and even-handed
approach to this important and sensitive topic.
9 October 2005