Correspondence with the BBC
A. LETTER FROM
BHA TO GREG
BBC: 30 JULY 2003
Dear Mr Dyke
Humanist programming under the new Communications
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 timeour 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?"
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 humanistsit 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
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
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 religiona 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 viewsspeak 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
on grounds of religion or belief. Case law has demonstrated that
Humanism and atheism are to be treated as beliefs under the ECHR
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
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 partyreligious
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.
B. REPLY FROM
TO BHA: 28 AUGUST
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
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
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
C. FURTHER LETTER
FROM BHA TO
BBC: 15 OCTOBER 2003
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 minimaleffectively
non-existenttreatment 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
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 DfESsometimes
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
I look forward to hearing from you.
31 http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20030516.html Back
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