Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 46 - 59)


Ms Hanne Stinson and Mr David Pollock

  Q46  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and welcome. This is really the second part of our inquiry. We reported yesterday on the first part. We are now looking at a number of areas, which we were not able to go into in sufficient depth during the first part and one of these is religious broadcasting. As you have seen, we have just been talking to a multi-faith group before you. We certainly have your written evidence, for which many thanks and we know who both of you are. May I start the questioning with two general points? You say that there is the clearest evidence that only a minority of the population holds any genuine religious beliefs, while the number explicitly denying religious belief is rapidly growing. That certainly was not the flavour of the evidence we were getting in the first session. Discuss.

  Ms Stinson: Part of this comes down to how you actually define what religious beliefs are and the extent to which somebody has to be religious in order to be classed as belonging to a religion or being religious or having some sort of religious or spiritual feeling. There is an increasing number of surveys which show rapidly growing numbers of non-religious people. Most face-to-face surveys show at least 30 per cent of adults, going up to 40 or 50 per cent and, with young people, going even higher, up to a DfES survey which shows 65 per cent of young people not having religious beliefs. I find it quite interesting that the census can bring up a figure of 70-plus per cent religious when other surveys will show, for example, that 40 per cent of the population cannot actually name any of the four gospels.

  Q47  Chairman: Your appendix shows these surveys.

  Ms Stinson: Yes, we show a number of surveys in the appendix.

  Q48  Chairman: What about humanism itself. Is there any evidence that is becoming ever more popular? How do you measure it?

  Ms Stinson: We do not have any figures for the number of humanists in the UK.

  Q49  Chairman: Is that a wise precaution? Why not?

  Ms Stinson: No, it is actually that awareness of humanism is very, very low and one might suggest that the BBC is partly to blame for that. We find that a very large number of non-religious people, when they come across humanism or when they come across the British Humanist Association, actually say they have been a humanist all my life, or for the last 20 years, and they never knew that was what it was called. They are very often very relieved to have found a group of people who actually share their beliefs. We would estimate that a significant proportion of the non-religious people within the UK are broadly humanist in their outlook, but we cannot put a figure on it, because people do not use the word.

  Q50  Chairman: One point which struck me, reading your evidence, was that you said basically there are two major institutional examples of access being granted to religion, the education system and the BBC. Then you went on to say that between them they cause immense damage to society. Why do you think that?

  Ms Stinson: I genuinely believe that it does. There are assumptions in very many circles, including the media and the BBC, that we still have a religious society. We have people who grow up being taught that the only source of morality is religion. I have been told very many times that I may be a humanist and I might claim that my morality does not come from religion, but of course it does because I grew up in a Christian society. I would very strongly challenge that: I do not think my morals do come from religion, I think they come from my common humanity. When you have a very large number of people who do not have religious beliefs, including of course a large number of people who have been brought up in a religion, but have lost their religious beliefs, who have been taught that morality is based on religion, you have a large number of people who then flounder while they try to work out where their morality actually comes from. The religions are very, very good at claiming that society is sliding into some sort of immoral or amoral situation and blaming it on the reduction in religious belief, when in fact it should be blamed on the fact that those people who do not have religious beliefs maybe have not been helped to formulate what their beliefs actually are. Having said that, I do not actually think that the non-religious are less moral than the religious anyway. If there is a problem, it is that people have not actually had support to formulate what their beliefs actually are.

  Q51  Chairman: "Immense damage" is a fairly strong criticism.

  Ms Stinson: I do think it does immense damage. It causes immense damage to society, because people are maybe floundering as to what the firm basis of their morality is and it causes immense damage to individuals who are forever being put down. This particularly goes for young people who are being told they cannot be moral because they do not have religious beliefs.

  Q52  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I should like to explore why as non-religious, alternative, humanistic value people you feel you are hard done by in BBC coverage. It seems to me that there is an assumed value system in the BBC which quite often irritates its critics, which is, if not humanist, essentially humanistic. There seems to be a belief in enlightenment and the perfectibility of society; there seems to be a belief in rationality, there seems to be a belief in tolerance and diversity, there seems to be a belief in respecting the planet. If you were to do a value analysis of the implicit values of the BBC, I am unclear that they would not at least substantially overlap with a humanistic—I shall not say humanist—view of the world. Certainly, rather than speculating what the value system of the BBC is, if you look at their output, whether it is in terms of news and current affairs or in terms of drama or in terms of soap operas, I would find it extremely difficult to look at it and say that those programmes did not by and large, over time, mostly have a moral and humanistic underpinning. Forgetting the fact that you do not like the religious people and you think they are getting too much, what is it you object to in the run-of-the-mill coverage of the BBC of whatever genre it is?

  Ms Stinson: We heard this morning people claiming that most of the output of the BBC was secular and this is something we are told very, very often. When it comes to the values which come across in the BBC, I would say that those values are actually generally the values which are shared between the religious and the non-religious because most values are actually shared between both groups of people. The BBC regularly claims that there is this little bit of religion and all the rest of broadcasting is secular, hence that ought to be enough for us. We would say that a small percentage is religious and all the rest is general and is for everybody, and that the BBC is actually making the wrong comparison when they link that small percentage of religious against the rest as secular. What they should be doing is actually comparing the small percentage of religious broadcasting against the non-existent percentage of broadcasting about specifically humanistic, positive, non-religious beliefs. I do not mean atheism; I mean positive non-religious beliefs, because that is where the gap is.

  Mr Pollock: Clearly the BBC's output is such as you describe it: it is largely based on values which could be described as humanistic. What we object to is neither that, nor the existence of religious broadcasting which obviously provides a valuable service for a minority audience, but one which values it considerably. What we are objecting to is that the BBC is quite deliberately ignoring the requirements which are placed on it by the Human Rights Act as a public authority and by the Communications Act in section 264 to treat equally religions and beliefs across the spectrum. The European Convention on Human Rights says that there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Case law has established that humanism counts as a belief. The Government in its general policymaking accepts that humanism is a belief. The Government in their own amendment to the Communications Bill, when it was going through your House, said that the requirement to provide programmes about religion needed to be extended to cover religion and other beliefs. They mentioned humanism in that context in the House. The BBC has ignored all of that. Our freedom of information inquiry at the beginning of this year showed that they had not generated a single piece of paper relative to that quite significant change in their obligations. Nevertheless, without having considered what the law required, they tell us constantly that they are confident that their output meets the requirements. What is lacking is anything which is parallel to that part of religious broadcasting which is unmediated, Christians talking Christianity to Christians, which amounts on Radio Four to over three hours per week. There is obviously similar programming elsewhere, but that is a key element of it. There is nothing ever like that of humanists talking humanism to humanists. The result is, to get back to My Lord Chairman's first question, that the very large majority of the non-religious population, itself at least a large minority of the total population, is unable to articulate with any confidence their own life stance. They live implicitly humanist lives. The essentials of humanism are a naturalistic world view, a rejection of dogma and a morality based on consequences, mainly for people and the planet. That describes the basic outlook of the great majority of non-religious people in the country. Those are the essentials of humanism. They do not know that it is humanism, and they are not able to articulate it. When it comes to trying to teach their children morality, they do not have the confidence to do it. Very many non-religious people still send their children to religious schools because they think that might give them a grounding in morality. The linking of religion and morality, which has no logic whatsoever, is constantly found.

  Q53  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Forgive me, but this is a little bit like the trade union point I was making to the religious representatives: in terms of industrial demands you want comparability and you want a slice of the pie and so on.

  Mr Pollock: Yes, we do, so long as there is religious broadcasting, unmediated, direct from religious leaders to their followers, we do not see why we should be discriminated against.

  Q54  Lord Peston: I suppose I ought to declare an interest as an atheist, which is much more extreme than you. I am still a bit lost. Dr Singh, in his evidence earlier, made a point which we did not follow up enough, which was that he wanted us to distinguish between religion, by which I think he meant organised religion, and spirituality. Would you accept that distinction as well?

  Ms Stinson: Spirituality is a very, very difficult word.

  Q55  Lord Peston: Let me then say, for example, that I would have regarded both David Hume and Bertrand Russell as deeply spiritual people; indeed both have written very clearly about yearning for something more but unfortunately there is nothing, that sort of thing. So the distinction, at least in my mind, is very important and I wonder whether that is your view.

  Ms Stinson: It depends on how you use the word. Very often it is used as though it is part of religion, with the implication that you cannot be spiritual if you are not religious. In the sense in which you have just used it, I think humanists can be just as spiritual as any religious person; there is the same sense of awe and wonder when they hear music or see a wonderful view, all those sorts of things, or how nature actually works, and in that sense just as spiritual; and that too is the important element of broadcasting.

  Q56  Lord Peston: Therefore going back to My Lord Chairman's opening question to you about your view on the damage religion does, you are arguing really that it is organised religion which is doing the damage.

  Ms Stinson: I was not actually talking about the damage religion does.

  Q57  Lord Peston: I am sorry; you were saying the BBC does the damage. You are quite right.

  Ms Stinson: It is the lack of broadcasting about non-religious positive beliefs which I think is damaging. Religion can be damaging in some circumstances, but basically we are not anti-religious and we are not anti-religious broadcasting.

  Q58  Lord Peston: When Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked you about wanting a fair share, you made the point that religion—it seems to me and I agree with you—is of its essence dogmatic. I do not see how it can be other than dogmatic and be a religion. I can then understand programmes which put forward a dogma. What I have difficulty understanding and therefore I am less exercised than you are, is how you could have a programme which was non-dogmatic. In other words, if I were asked to comment in two minutes on Thought for the Day, and I take your point that you ought to have some ability to do that, my problem would be that I would meander on for two minutes explaining what the problem was. I would never get around even to doing what they do, which is in the end lay down some piece of dogma. I do not know why you want to get into that game at all.

  Ms Stinson: We certainly do not want to lay down dogma. There is a very clear place for exploring issues from a humanist perspective and if you did have humanist Thoughts for the Day they would be much more questioning and exploratory and trying to pull out the underlying issues, very often the moral issues, than the average Thought for the Day is.

  Mr Pollock: May I give an example perhaps? Quite recently, on the morning that Lord Joffe's Bill was going through the House, Jonathan Sachs was on Thought for the Day giving a strongly anti-euthanasia, anti-assisted dying thought from a religious perspective. It would be perfectly possible to do a humanist Thought for the Day which talked about the value of life, wherein lies the value of life, why a residual life of pain and no prospects for improvement might seem to a person to lack value, and that there should be a permissive attitude towards euthanasia. That would be helpful to a lot of people in the population who are otherwise left only with a religious morality being voiced on the air.

  Q59  Lord Peston: I was about to raise the subject of Lord Joffe's Bill myself. Surely Lord Joffe's Bill and his case for it got an extremely good airing on the BBC from very effective people? I agree that they did not get that little slot that Jonathan Sachs got, but no-one could argue surely that the case, exactly as you have just put it forward yourself now, was not aired very fully on the BBC.

  Ms Stinson: What happened that morning on Today is that we had an excellent item on the Bill: we had Lord Joffe, we had the Bishop, it was very, very even-handed, it was balanced and both points of view, the religious point of view and Lord Joffe's point of view were given a very, very good airing. I was listening to that and I thought that it was a good balanced piece of reporting. Immediately after that, or a couple of minutes after that, we had a three-minute polemic on one side, which was totally unmediated, which I felt therefore totally unbalanced that whole item.

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