Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

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.


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 Christians—at 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 beliefs.)

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 Christians.

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 continue—albeit with an even-handed approach—as 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 Christianity—neither 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

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