Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the British Humanist Association

  1.  The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the principal organisation representing the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people living in the UK. It exists to promote Humanism and support and represent those who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. The census of 2001 showed that those with no religion were the second largest "belief group" at 15.5 per cent, and two and a half times more numerous than all non-Christian religions put together. Other surveys consistently report much higher proportions of people without a belief in god(s), particularly among the young.[16] By no means are all these people humanists, but our experience is that the majority of people without religious beliefs, when they hear what Humanism is, say they have unknowingly long been humanists themselves.

  2.  On the basis of our commitment to an open society and our deep commitment to equality, human rights and democracy, we believe that public bodies such as the BBC need to exercise a policy of disinterested impartiality towards contending beliefs within society so long as their adherents conform to the conventions and laws of the society. In light of this position, we comment below on the duties of a public service broadcaster.


  3.  Broadcasting is perhaps the most important means whereby the members of a modern open society can communicate with each other and jointly address the challenges that face them. Public service broadcasting is vital to the fulfilment of this function, and the BBC is immeasurably more committed to meeting this need than any other broadcaster. Such broadcasting can be secured only if the BBC's independence is guaranteed. It requires a protected environment and cannot be expected to survive in an uninhibited marketplace. Independence is potentially threatened by over-commitment to commercial targets, by interference by government and by any over-identification with particular interest groups.


  4.  In this memorandum we confine ourselves to one example of over-identification of particular interest to  humanists: namely, the disproportionate allocation of broadcasting time to religious believers (overwhelmingly Christian) addressing believers about their religion, and the total and explicit rejection of any comparable broadcasting by non-believers including humanists.

  5.  We welcome the principle expressed in pp 40-1 of the Green Paper that the BBC should "provide a range of programming reflecting different religions and other beliefs that is appropriate to multifaith Britain." In our view, the rights of non-religious belief groups have not in the past been respected by the BBC.

  6.  We therefore support a firm embedding within the Charter (and wherever else the aims of the BBC are to be expressed or monitored) of the obligation on the BBC to cater, without discrimination, for the different belief groups in our society.

  7.  The British Humanist Association of course seeks to promote the humanist life-stance as an alternative to (among others) religious beliefs, but as active proponents of an open society we do not seek any privilege in doing so. Correspondingly, however, while we recognise and respect the deep commitment of other people to religious and other non-humanist views, we object to any privileged position accorded to them by virtue of their beliefs. The BBC, however, gives religion, and the Christian religion in particular, just such a privileged position. Thus, we see that in its response to the Green Paper, the BBC says:

    Radio and television schedules will continue to give prominence to religious programming, including acts of worship and important events in the religious calendar, as indicated in the Green Paper. The scheduling of religious programmes will be monitored to ensure the output is placed to serve different faith audiences effectively.[17]

  8.  We do not take issue with the BBC's provision of religious programmes for that proportion of the UK population that has strong religious convictions. We simply ask that equivalent programming be provided for the non-religious, including programmes that will help the large number of people who do not hold religious beliefs to explore what they do believe, and how those beliefs affect the way they lead their lives.

  9.  There is growing recognition that, in line with the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, the entire spectrum of fundamental beliefs, embracing not just the various religions but also non-religious beliefs with a comparable function, should be treated without discrimination. This is what the Act[18] itself requires, as do (for example) the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and the current Equality Bill. Moreover, as the result of an amendment introduced by the Government itself, the Communications Act 2003 (at section 264(6)(f)) explicitly requires that public service broadcasters should provide programmes about "religion and other beliefs" (characterised as "collective belief(s) in, or other adherence to, a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles or of mystical or transcendental doctrines"—section 264(13)).

  10.  It seems to us that the BBC, with its Reithian commitment to religious broadcasting, fails completely to live up to this requirement and—despite our repeated representations and despite the wording of the new Communications Act—shows little or no sign of correcting its long established bias. In fact, the Director-General in a letter of 16 August 2004 wrote to us: "we feel that the BBC's programming schedule meets all public service requirements with regard to religion and other beliefs . . . imposed on the BBC by the Communications Act." Surprisingly, two requests under the Freedom of Information Act revealed no evidence that the requirement in the Communications Act that relates to non-religious belief has been discussed within the BBC. No papers on this subject were produced.

  11.  Two illustrations of why the BBC's programming does not meet the public service requirements will suffice: the explicit and repeated refusal to allow speakers from non-religious belief traditions to contribute to Radio 4's Thought for the Day although Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and others regularly contribute, and the fact that Radio 4 broadcasts every week almost three-and-a-half hours of direct broadcasting by believers to believers—mainly but not exclusively Christian.[19] This excludes the several magazine programmes dealing with religion. The position is similar but less marked on Radio 2 and television. Though there is some very small provision for non-Christian religions, there is absolutely no comparable provision for what is (according to the census) the second-largest group in the spectrum of religion or belief—namely those with a non-religious outlook, including humanists.

  12.  In fact, the BBC appears to regard non-religious life stances as without content, and the non-religious as merely lacking a dimension to their lives, or to believe that the small numbers of people[20] involved do not warrant programmes on the subject. Responses from the BBC have also claimed that the humanist outlook is reflected in dramas and documentaries, in science and history programmes, and programmes about public policy.

  13.  We are told (a) that they broadcast programmes about the harm done in the name of religion and raising "questions about religion's legitimacy"—but these are not about Humanism and will rarely if ever mention it; (b) that persons who happen to be humanist often take part in programmes—even though they do so not as humanists but as scientists or writers, for example; and (c) that the non-religious are sometimes asked to appear in religious magazine programmes—where they are almost invariably asked to respond to religious speakers, so that they are positioned as foils to the believers, and can explain their views only in the context of religious belief. Not only that, but of course humanists can have little idea when such items will appear, so that the BBC apparently expects them to listen or watch in hope through hours of religious material in order to hear the odd contested word supporting their own views. The reality is that the majority of people with non-religious beliefs are unlikely to watch or listen to many religious programmes.

  14.  Greg Dyke as director-general summed up the BBC's position in a letter of 28 August 2003: ". . . demand for programmes [about Humanism] is . . . met by items on programmes such as The Heaven and Earth Show, or radio programmes presented by humanist scientists". We do not agree.

  15.  At a time when religion is in decline (a poll commissioned by the BBC itself for the Heaven and Earth Show in September 2003 showed 26 per cent of atheists or agnostics and another 24 per cent who were "spiritually inclined but don't really belong to an organised religion"), it should not be the role of a public service broadcaster in an open society artificially to sustain religious belief, whether by providing religion with a disproportionate amount of air time or by excluding rival beliefs from the principal medium whereby groups in society can make themselves heard. Rather than provide a platform only for those who denounce the alleged rootlessness and immorality of the present generation, or indeed the increasing secularisation of society, the BBC should also be helping those with constructive and coherent alternative life-stances and non-religious answers to "ultimate questions" to test them on the public. If society is suffering from moral confusion and spiritual anomie as is often alleged then it is vital that alternatives to the failing tradition of supernatural religion be explored, not suppressed. Humanism is the principal and worthy alternative.

  16.  Religious programmes, and religious teaching in other contexts, often claim that only religion can provide the basis for morality. This not only insults the large number of people who lead ethical lives without religious beliefs, but also encourages the large number of people who reject the religion they were brought up in to question the basis of their morality. While the vast majority of non-believers find that they are perfectly capable of living moral lives without recourse to any external authority, there can be little doubt that programmes which explore non-religious lifestances that base morality in our common humanity would help to ground people's moral values, and hence would also benefit society as a whole. If the BBC were to produce programmes of this kind, it would be an excellent example of public service broadcasting.

  17.  In their paper Building Public Value last year the BBC endorsed the principles of universality, fairness and equity, and accountability, referred to the need to "foster [. . .] greater audience understanding of cultural differences across the UK population" in areas including "faith", to "faithfully reflect [. . .] modern Britain's diversity in mainstream as well as specialist programmes", and to "listen [. . .] to [the] concerns and priorities [of the UK's minorities], and reflect [. . .] those concerns in the future development of services". They pledged to "make special efforts to connect with the UK's . . . minorities and to encourage members of these minorities to offer their talent and energy to BBC programmes and services".

  18.  Sadly the BBC shows absolutely no intention of fulfilling this policy in respect of the large non-religious minority in the Britain. Therefore, though (as we say above) we welcome the provision on pp 40-1 of the Green Paper, we would wish to see the requirement to provide programmes about "different religions and other beliefs" explicitly qualified by the addition of the words "including non-religious beliefs such as Humanism". Otherwise we are clear that the BBC will in all likelihood continue to ignore their statutory and moral duty.

May 2005

Sat:  Prayer for the Day (2 mins) + Thought for the Day (3 mins)
Sun:  Something Understood (30 mins *2) + Sunday Worship (38 mins)
M-F:  Prayer for the Day (2 mins) + Thought for the Day (3 mins) + Daily Service (15 mins)
R4 total = 203 minutes/week (3 hours 23 mins) direct committed pastoral religious broadcasting. At times of religious festivals, this provision is substantially expanded.

16   65 per cent of young people are not religious according to Young People in Britain, a 2004 research report for the DfES. Back

17, p 22. Back

18   The Act refers to "religion or belief", a phrase that has been established in case law to include atheism, Humanism and other non-religious lifestances. See for example: "As enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a `democratic society' within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, sceptics and the unconcerned.-Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397, para 31 See also Manoussakis v Greece: (1996), EHRR 387, para 47; McFeekly v UK: (1981), 3 EHRR 161; Campbell and Cosans v UK: (1982), 4 EHRR 293 para 36 (re Article 2-right to education). Note also: Article 18 [of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the wording of which was closely followed by Article 9] protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions-UN Human Rights Committee, 1993 (General Comment no 22(48) (Art 18) adopted on 20 July 1993, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, 27 September 1993, p 1.). Back

19   Typically: Back

20   There are no figures for the number of humanists, or for the number of people who lead their lives in accordance with broadly humanist principles, in the UK. We would suggest that the majority of people with non-religious beliefs do live their lives by broadly humanist principles, even if they do not use the word. Back

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