Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Annex IV

Correspondence with the BBC


  Dear Mr Dyke

Humanist programming under the new Communications Act

  I am writing to request a meeting in the light of section 264(6) of the new Communications Act.

  Your files will reveal that the British Humanist Association has for a long time—our files suggest at least 40 years expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of humanist programmes in the BBC's output.

  Most recently, we joined last year with the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association to demand that humanist speakers be invited to contribute to Thought for the Day. Your Governors have rejected that suggestion, preserving a status quo which in our eyes is completely unsatisfactory.

  We should like to clarify our position. We regard it as entirely proper that the BBC provide programmes about religion, including broadcasts of religious services and other programmes in which leaders of the Christian and other communities directly convey religious messages to believers. Indeed, we do not object to Thought for the Day sometimes including messages hostile to our beliefs, for example Anne Atkins on Thought for the Day, 16 May 2003: "Without God, where do we find absolutes of right and wrong? What is to stop a secular society sinking to depths of depravity that as yet we only dream of?"[31]

  We acknowledge that your output includes occasional programmes questioning the credibility of some religious claims and covering the harm done in the name of religion. We also acknowledge that many of your contributors are unbelievers, including many who are humanists—it could scarcely be otherwise when you look at the list of the names of our vice-presidents and distinguished supporters, and the membership of our humanist philosophers and scientists groups.

  But we look in vain for programmes parallel to the very extensive output you provide for religious believers. Unbelievers are left without any adequate articulation on the BBC's national radio or television channels of their beliefs and life stances.

  In letters you have sent to correspondents you have referred to the inclusion of secular voices in programmes such as The Moral Maze. However entertaining and provocative that programme is, it does not offer a forum for anyone to set out their fundamental beliefs. You have also mentioned the participation of unbelievers in religious programming such as Beyond Belief or Devout Sceptics. But in these programmes, the non-religious participants are responding to a religious agenda, rather than presenting their own beliefs.

  What one searches the BBC's schedules for in vain is any programme in which leading humanists broadcast directly to a humanist audience about Humanism. While the number of people who identify themselves as a humanist is relatively small, the 2001 census revealed that the second largest group in the population is those with no religion—a group that (at 14.8 per cent) is two-and-a-half times as large as all the non-Christian believers put together. These people have moral codes and beliefs, and they have their own answers to the "ultimate questions" over which religion at present has a near-monopoly in your programmes. We maintain that the BBC's public service role should include helping these people a high proportion of whom would share basically humanist views—speak to each other and learn more about the long and distinguished history of their philosophy.

  The BBC provides the equivalent to Christians in huge measure every day, and increasingly to other religions also. Sikh and Jewish contributors are frequently heard on Thought for the Day, although those religions can claim only 0.6 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively of the population, but the BBC has hitherto failed almost entirely to serve the considerably larger and growing audience of people with a non-religious life stance in the way it serves its religious viewers and listeners.

  The situation has, of course, changed since we last corresponded with you on this matter.

  The Communications Act, as you will be aware, requires that you provide "what appears to OFCOM to be a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with . . . religion and other beliefs". The Act defines belief for this purpose as "a collective belief in, or other adherence to, a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles or of mystical or transcendental doctrines". This definition clearly encompasses Humanism. You will also have noted that Lord McIntosh, introducing the amendment for the Government, said that its purpose was "to add a reference to other beliefs, which would include ethical systems or philosophies such as humanism or secularism".

  The basis of the wording lies, of course, in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act (1998), which refer to "religion or belief" and forbid discrimination by public authorities[32] on grounds of religion or belief. Case law has demonstrated that Humanism and atheism are to be treated as beliefs under the ECHR and HRA.

  If discrimination is to be avoided, the implication of the Communications Act would be that 5,000 hours of religious broadcasting (which we understand to be approximately your present output) needs (given the census results) to be balanced by over 950 hours of equivalent broadcasting for the non-religious population.

  In the light of the Communications Act, we would appreciate an opportunity to meet with you to discuss how you propose to implement these new obligations. If that proves impossible, perhaps you could arrange for us to meet with an appropriate senior manager. We would prefer not to have this meeting with staff from your Religion and Ethics department, since it is clear from their statements, for example Mr Bookbinder's letter in the Daily Telegraph on 23 July (our recent success fighting off the atheist lobby) that they are unwilling to respect the rights of people with non-religious beliefs.

  The Act gives examples of the sort of programmes that might be provided:

    (i)  programmes providing news and other information about different religions and other beliefs;

    (ii)  programmes about the history of different religions and other beliefs;


    (iii)  programmes showing acts of worship and other ceremonies and practices (including some showing acts of worship and other ceremonies in their entirety).

  The most basic requirement is information about beliefs. This must, in our view, include programmes in which humanists present humanist beliefs without any third party—religious or sceptical providing a commentary, and without the necessity for balance, since balance is already overwhelmingly present in the weight of religious programming in the current schedules.

  We believe we can be helpful and constructive in assisting you meet this new public service obligation and we look forward to a productive dialogue.

Yours sincerely,

Hanne Stinson

Executive Director


  Dear Ms Stinson

  Thank you for your letter of 30 July, previously acknowledged, requesting a meeting about coverage of the Humanist viewpoint in our programmes in view of the new Communications Act.

  It is helpful to have your appreciation of the BBC's range of religious programmes and your recognition that we also commission programmes which question the value and achievement of religion.

  However, I must dispute the statistic which leads you to assert that the Humanist perspective is entitled to some 950 hours of annual coverage. The 14.8 per cent of the population who said in the recent census that they had no religion does not equate with the very small number of people who are active humanists. There is no evidence that this 14.8 per cent has any interest in programmes about humanism.

  Our research suggests that the demand for programmes ". . . in which leading humanists broadcast directly to humanists about Humanism . . . is very small, and easily met by items on programmes such as The Heaven and Earth Show, or radio programmes presented by humanist scientists. We also have a BBC Four series in production about the history of atheism, presented by Jonathan Miller. We are advised that this range and number of programmes more than adequately addresses any question of discrimination under European Human Rights legislation."

  You mention section 264 of the Communications Act. This requires Ofcom to report on whether public service broadcasters are fulfilling the purposes of public service television broadcasting. One element of this assessment is whether, looking at all the television services provided by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five and the Welsh Authority as a whole, there is, in Ofcom's view, a suitable quantity of programmes dealing with religion and other beliefs. In the light of our programming mentioned above, we are confident that Ofcom will report favourably in respect of the BBC on this point.

  Thank you for your offer to help us meet the public service obligations expressed in the Communications Act. However, if you are unwilling to meet the BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics, who, as I'm sure you know, is an agnostic, on the basis of the information you have provided I don't believe that a meeting with me or anyone else will be helpful. I will ensure that our Religion and Ethics department is aware of this correspondence. I am sure they will continue to bear the Humanist point of view in mind for future coverage in our programmes whenever an appropriate opportunity arises.

Yours sincerely,

Greg Dyke


  Dear Mr Dyke

  Thank you for your letter of 28 August. I am sorry to have been so long in responding.

  We are disappointed at your reply, which we do not see as an adequate answer to the points we made in our letter of 30 July. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge some fault in probably misleading you as to what we were in fact proposing.

  For example, we are certainly not seeking anything like 950 hours of annual coverage of the Humanist viewpoint and we regret that a rhetorical point seemed to be meant literally. In practical terms, we are looking for a gradual increase in the number of programmes, perhaps mainly on radio in the first instance, since this is often more suited to the presentation of ideas.

  Humanists, as you say, make up only a proportion of the 14.8 per cent of the population who have no religion. Our point, however, is that a large proportion of that 14.8 per cent are leading humanist lives to at least the same extent that a large proportion of the 71.7 per cent of nominal Christians are leading Christian lives. It is also our experience that very many non-believers who have never thought of themselves as humanists will, when they hear or read about Humanism, immediately identify themselves as having been humanists all their lives, and this confirmation of their beliefs and approach to life may be extremely important to them. These people, as well as those who already identify themselves as humanists, are entitled to programmes that affirm or articulate their beliefs. As far as we can see, they are not offered any such programmes.

  The examples you give make our point. A recent Heaven and Earth Show put an atheist up against believers in a confrontation. It was not a programme about atheism but about belief. Similarly, the first two, at least, of the Radio 4 series Amongst the Unbelievers are devoted to people reflecting on the religions they have lost (Catholicism and Judaism), and Devout Sceptics generally has that same religion-centred focus. Radio programmes presented by humanist scientists are about science, not about Humanism, and are as relevant to the argument as a claim that the balance is kept by the large number of completely secular programmes on sport, cooking and politics.

  You refer also to the forthcoming Jonathan Miller series on atheism, but this will presumably be a critical/historical examination of rejection of belief in gods, not a presentation of atheism for atheists, and even that would not, in any case, be about Humanism. Your examples indeed betray a confusion of atheism and Humanism.

  Humanism is about Humanism, not about the rejection of religion. What we are seeking is no more anti-religious than Christian programmes are anti-Muslim. May I press you to say when the BBC last broadcast a programme (other than on local radio) that presented and examined Humanism?

  The difference between the BBC's minimal—effectively non-existent—treatment of Humanism and the many hours each week of straight presentation of Christianity by Christians to Christians (and lesser amounts of time for other religions) is blatant.

  It may or may not be narrowly defensible under the Communications Act (we doubt it and shall, if it regrettably becomes necessary, put our case about that to OFCOM), but getting away with it should surely not be the BBC's governing principle.

  We are not seeking a confrontation with the BBC but a constructive dialogue leading to some recognition in the schedules. The Government recognises that we have a distinctive and valuable viewpoint. We have had constructive meetings in the recent past with officials and/or ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office, the DTI, and the DfES—sometimes at the Government's initiative. Our deeply considered proposals on a law on incitement to religious hatred were quoted extensively and broadly favourable by the relevant Lords Select Committee, to whom we gave both written and oral evidence. The Government specifically named Humanism in introducing the relevant wording of section 264(6) of the new Communications Act.

  It would seem odd if, at a time when in pursuit of an agenda of inclusiveness, Government departments and ministers meet us without demur and find those meetings valuable, and when Parliament has specifically sought to ensure that programmes about Humanism are broadcast, the BBC should persist in what appears close to an attitude of disdain.

  We had hoped that the new Act would be seen by the BBC as an opportunity for a positive change. Sparring by post is an unproductive game and what we seek is a constructive and positive dialogue.

  I am therefore asking you to reconsider our request for a meeting. If you are unwilling or unable to meet us yourself and can only offer a meeting with Mr Bookbinder, we shall of course accept. However, we shall do so in the expectation that he will approach the meeting with an open mind and will not be armed with a brief to defend the BBC's current policy to the end.

  I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Hanne Stinson

Executive Director

31 Back

32   We assume that you agree that the BBC is a public authority: it was cited as an example of one during the passage of the Human Rights Act-see Hansard HC 17.6.98, col 411. Back

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