Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by M Ward

  1.  I write as an individual citizen; though I am a member of the British Humanist Association and an officer of the Secondary Heads Association these views are entirely my own.

2.  The Church of England, and religion more generally, has a privileged position in our society. Part of that privilege is the special place that religious broadcasting has in the BBC charter.

3.  To the extent that the public has an interest in religion, a desire to reflect upon it and to understand it better, this would surely be reflected in BBC programming without such a special place? The protection given to religious broadcasting raises the suspicion that it is intended not to inform but to persuade, that it is an attempt to (mis-)use religion as an instrument of social control.

4.  As a teacher, as a college principal, and in my current role, I have been and remain a supporter of religious education. Religion is a significant part of the lives of many of our citizens, and it is important for all its forms to be widely and well understood. Such an educative role sits well with the founding principles of the BBC.

5.  But it is imperative that religious education, in the BBC as well as in schools and colleges, be education about religion and not education in religion. It must be even-handed as to the truths and merits of the different great religions, and as to the truth and merits of religion as such when set against non-religious world views.

6.  The present rules on religious broadcasting are not helpful as they give a special place to, and create a bias in favour of, a religious and specifically Christian world view.

7.  Time is set aside specifically for worship and for programmes effectively arguing for this world view. There is a tendency for it to be seen as the norm, even when alternatives are presented alongside it.

8.  Particularly offensive to many non-believers is the not infrequent confusion of morality with religion. Religions set out moral principles, many of them admirable, which can be the basis of the moral lives of their adherents. Non-believers derive their moral principles from other sources, and seem to lead lives about as good and fulfilling as their religious neighbours. This last point is insufficiently reflected both within and outside religious broadcasting per se.

9.  There is, to be fair, an expectation of some degree of balance. Many BBC religious programmes do try to reflect a wide variety of world views by, for example, inviting their proponents onto discussion programmes.

10.  However, this is often partial and revealing of the bias referred to above. A panel discussing women bishops in the Church of England might quite reasonably be composed of members of that church. A panel discussing a more general issue (society's attitude to abortion or homosexuality for example) should not be composed only of religious people, and still less of adherents of only one religion.

11.  A particular issue, symptomatic of this general bias, is the Radio Four Thought for the Day. Presenters are selected according to a blatantly discriminatory criterion; they must be members of a recognised religious group. Virtually any religion will do, but they must believe in something metaphysical. The result is poor quality radio: a lot of people must hit the button when it comes on, as I often do. More important is that it is also highly and indefensibly partisan in a way that should have no place at the BBC.

12.  It is clear that efforts have been made to make religious broadcasting more even-handed as between different religions and denominations, though with only partial success. The need to be even-handed between religious and non-religious world views has yet to be properly acknowledged and addressed, at least within religious broadcasting.

13.  The BBC charter should be amended to remove a specific requirement for religious broadcasting, which can be encompassed in the BBC's general intention to educate and inform.

14.  Failing that, it should be a requirement that programming be even-handed on matters that are controversial in our society. This should apply not only between different religions and denominations, but also between religious and non-religious philosophies of life.

4 October 2005

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