Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 2005

Ms Hanne Stinson and Mr David Pollock

  Q60  Lord Peston: So it does bring us back to the view of Lord Holme of Cheltenham that what you want is another three-minute polemic.

  Ms Stinson: No; no.

  Chairman: I think there is a question of balance there. It might be useful if we took that specific example with the BBC when they come.

  Q61  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I should like to start way back. When you were making your introductory statement it occurred to me first of all that the percentage of humanists was quite small. The second point is: what about your own lobbying for your organisation. Surely more could go on that and would get it a higher profile. For example, do you start earlier, in schools? Are you trying to get this thought about in schools? If what you are saying is that the whole approach of morality and ethical approach is really being ignored to the detriment of how people develop, then this is a very good point to start. Having said all that, it is not exactly the BBC, but it is what we are talking about today. I should have thought you clearly made a good case for why you should be included, why a non-religious religion should be included in something like CRAC. What particular role do you think they should be playing? Should they be there to see that the situation you describe actually does not happen or was better balanced?

  Ms Stinson: May I start by responding on the issue of schools and starting early? For many, many years the British Humanist Association has been working together with religious groups in order to improve religious education, and it has been one of our major pieces of work for the last 40 years, if not longer. Our aim there has always been not to get religious education out of schools, but to make it better quality and ensure that it covers and teaches a really good understanding of the different religious beliefs and of non-religious beliefs. In fact I think some very important progress was made quite recently with the introduction of the national framework for religious education which does now include non-religious beliefs and specifically humanism. It is not compulsory of course, so we do not know to what extent schools will actually pick that up, though there is quite a lot of evidence that they are. We do see that as extremely important and if all children do learn about other religions, preferably with and from children with other beliefs, which is why we are also opposed to separate education in faith schools, which is a big issue which we obviously cannot go into, we think that is actually extremely important. The other thing which is extremely important is that the children who have non-religious views, who express those in schools, have those views respected and they are very often not. We get an awful lot of complaints from parents who say "My little Johnny came home and do you know what the teacher said to him?" and it was absolutely outrageous. We hear it and it is absolutely outrageous. The teacher will say they do not respect the child's views because they are wrong. That is the sort of thing teachers sometimes say in schools. That undermines children. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

  Q62  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: It was really about the role of CRAC.

  Ms Stinson: If the BBC were to take on board that they have this responsibility to produce programming on religious and on non-religious beliefs such as humanism, then I think there would be a very, very obvious role for humanist representatives on the CRAC; I see no question of it. The reason why we would want it now is because, while a lot of religious programming is perfectly acceptable and we have no problem with it, we would want to feel that there is actually a mediating body which says "If you're doing that, shouldn't you be doing this".

  Q63  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: If the percentage of those who are humanists, or those with non-religious beliefs, is quite small, what sort of proportion would you be looking for?

  Ms Stinson: I do not think I said that the percentage of humanists is small. If the percentage of non-religious is 30, 40 maybe 50 per cent and we are saying that most of those people, from the evidence we have, lead a broadly humanist life, even if they cannot articulate it as humanism and even if they do not call it humanism, then that is actually quite a large percentage. I do not want to come here and say we should have so many hours on Radio Four and so many hours on this or the other. It is, however, important that there should be a regular slot which actually expounds humanist views on particular topics; it would not be dogma, it would be exploring issues. And there should also be some programmes which actually explore it in more depth.

  Q64  Lord Maxton: Like Lord Peston I should declare an interest too. I am a member of the all-party humanist group and I would go even further than Lord Peston in declaring that I am an atheist, but I am also an anti-clerical atheist in that I do not believe that religion is beneficial to our society. If we look around the world at the present time, religion is at the source of many—not all but many—of the conflicts we see, even within our own country: in Northern Ireland or where I come from in the west of Scotland. It may be mainly in terms of football, but that is still there and sectarianism is rife. That is why I believe that the BBC is damaging our society, not quite in the same way as you do, but because it is my view that it helps to sustain something which is dying and gives it life support and it would be better for the western secular liberal democratic world if it did die. Would you like to comment?

  Ms Stinson: I have some sympathy with that view. I do believe that the BBC is artificially sustaining something which is declining. Where I think I would take a slightly different line is that I recognise that within our society religion is very important to a percentage of the population. I would not want to be so extreme as to say that those people should not have an opportunity to hear that sort of view on the BBC. I should like to see more of the sort of challenging programme that the group which was here earlier was talking about, where there is really in-depth analysis of some of the issues around religion. I think that would be beneficial and I would support them totally on that. I do see a place for religious broadcasting, obviously particularly for those who are housebound, and until the churches improve their distribution of material then that is good.

  Q65  Lord Maxton: At the end of the day, as in education, it is the job of the religious organisations to provide the education. As I said to someone earlier, a person who is housebound has often been a member of a church. Surely they would much prefer to have a DVD or a video of the church service taking place in that church on that Sunday, provided by the church and often perhaps delivered by their own minister or whoever might be in charge of that church. Is that not a much better way of doing it than having this broad sweep of religion on television?

  Mr Pollock: If the BBC proposed abolishing all religious broadcasting of the type I was mentioning earlier, religious people talking religion directly to a religious audience, we would not object. If it is going to continue, we should like to have our share of it. It might be valuable just to go back to your original question to illustrate the double stance of humanists. As humanists individually, obviously we disagree with religious views of the world and we think they are mistaken. We sometimes think that they do harm. If religion disappeared gradually from the world, we would think on balance that it would probably be a better place. Our other stance is our stance towards living in the community, in a society together with people who disagree with us. There we support the sort of open democratic society which respects rights, supports non-discrimination and so on. Hanne is very busy at the moment on the steering group of the Government's planned Commission for Equality and Human Rights. We put a lot of our work into promoting the idea of non-discrimination, of proper rights for all groups and respect between them. When it comes to that, there is a need for broadcasting to reflect the state of the world.

  Q66  Lord Maxton: I do not disagree with that. I believe entirely in the right of anybody to believe in any religion but it seems to me that the BBC and education do what in the Labour Party we used to call positive discrimination. In other words, it actually positively expounds that point of view rather than allowing the organisations themselves to do the education.

  Mr Pollock: That is the whole tenor of our evidence to you. They are perhaps blind to what they are doing, but that is exactly what they are doing.

  Q67  Bishop of Manchester: You might welcome a decline in religion, but the truth of the matter is that on a world scale religion is growing numerically and in influence. That is the situation we are in at the moment and there is plenty of statistical backing to show that point. I would accept some of what Lord Maxton says in terms of religion being at the root of quite a lot of the problems; by no means all and he did not say "all" either. It is quite clearly. When that is the case, it is often because the violence, the conflicts have been fed by ignorance and prejudice, which therefore to my mind—and I should be interested in your comments on this—suggests that, far from putting religion into a ghetto slot on some separate channel for those who want to watch it, it is actually increasingly important to have well-informed and carefully put together programmes, which enable people to be less ignorant and less prejudiced on these things. I suspect that we would agree on that. Where I am trying to tease out your position in all this, and you have said a lot with which I agree, is that I am not quite sure on what base you are building your particular viewpoints. One moment you talk about non-religious beliefs and then we suddenly switch over and you are talking about humanists. When Lord Peston says he has non-religious beliefs, he comes to it from an atheistic viewpoint and therefore would not feel presumably properly represented by you. Here you are and it is very good to be able to engage in this conversation, but what really is your, for want of a better expression, power base? Can you legitimately claim to be speaking for that quite wide range of people with non-religious beliefs? In fact, if I may, I hope not unfairly, press the point, understandably you said you would not be able to give a percentage of people in the country who had humanist beliefs, either by recognising themselves or not. Are you able actually to say what the membership of the British Humanist Association is?

  Ms Stinson: I am very happy to do that. At the moment the membership of the British Humanist Association is just over 5,000 individual members. There are also 50-something affiliated groups around the country who are separate, so the membership is not counted in that. That is a very small membership. If I also tell you, that until I became the Executive Director of the British Humanist Association I was not a member, even though I have been a humanist all my life, that says something about why people actually join an organisation.

  Q68  Bishop of Manchester: Yes, I could use that argument about the Christian church.

  Ms Stinson: There is no pressure at all on humanists, no expectation that they will join anything. People join the British Humanist Association because they support our work. Whether it is our educational work, whether it is our ceremonies or whether it is our lobbying and campaigning, they do it specifically for that purpose, not just in order to express their humanism. I was interested in what you said about the decline of religion in this country compared with the growth elsewhere, because I think that is no doubt true.

  Q69  Bishop of Manchester: I do not think I expressed it quite like that.

  Ms Stinson: When you said that, what instantly came into my mind was that the number of religious people in this country is declining. The influence of religion in this country is growing and there is no doubt about that. The extent to which the religions are consulted by the Government and by local authorities and so on is growing. Their influence via the BBC is growing. It is far more common now for the BBC to call in a religious person in order to give a moral view, which is something of an issue for us anyway, on a particular issue, whether it is stem cell research or abortion or anything like that. The influence is growing enormously and that is actually why, suddenly, although our membership is still very small, it started growing because non-religious people, who for a long time had not thought about religion very much, leading their lives by broad and humanist principles and not worrying about religion, are suddenly saying that they are being influenced now by religion in a way they do not want to be. They can see religion is influencing all sorts of things in a way they do not want, such as Lord Joffe's Bill, where 82 per cent of the population is actually in favour of legislation but the religions are against it. They are asking why religion now has all this influence, and that is a very large difference in British society.

  Bishop of Manchester: On a point of accuracy there, not all those opposed to Lord Joffe's Bill are opposing it from a religious viewpoint.

  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: And not all those in support of it are not religious.

  Ms Stinson: I accept that

  Q70  Lord Kalms: Would it be right to assume that you are a proselyte organisation?

  Ms Stinson: No.

  Q71  Lord Kalms: You are not proactive in trying to encourage people to join your organisation.

  Ms Stinson: We should like people to join our organisation, but we are not interested in converting religious people to humanism. Where we are interested is in supporting non-religious people, who have broadly humanist views, to articulate those and understand those more clearly. I do not think that is proselytising.

  Q72  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: On a point of clarification, may I ask whether you can be an atheist and be a humanist.

  Ms Stinson: Oh, yes.

  Mr Pollock: Yes.

  Q73  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You can. So as a hater of one religion or all religions you can still be a humanist.

  Mr Pollock: For humanists and for man in his natural state almost, religion is an irrelevance. We do not define ourselves by reference to religion. We define ourselves as the people we are with the views we have. When it turns to defining our answers to what are generally called ultimate questions, ours are humanist answers. We share a lot with religious people because they, like us, take these ultimate questions seriously. What is the meaning of life? What does death mean? What should our purpose be? What is the root of our morality and so on? Religion does not obsess me. I do not define myself by my lack of religion.

  Ms Stinson: I would say that both atheism and agnosticism are negative responses to religion in the sense that they are saying "I do not believe that". Either I definitely believe that is not true or I do not believe it but I cannot actually prove that it is not, and those are two different positions. Somebody who leads their life by humanist principles has in a sense a negative starting point; saying what I am not. Whenever I say what I am, I say I am a humanist because I try to lead an ethical life on the basis of humanist morality.

  Q74  Lord Kalms: May I come back to your submission? You make some very strong points about a space in which to represent your views; I am not arguing against that. In paragraph 32 you say very specifically "We want the BBC to cease discriminating against non-religious beliefs by recognising that they are part of the same spectrum as religion and should be treated on equal terms". That is not actually a very strong argument; in fact it is the weakest argument in your whole paper. I do not quite see how you can say that non-religious beliefs are in the same spectrum as religious beliefs and you are asking now for equal time. It is a little bit like saying that there is a pet lover programme on the BBC and they should give equal time to those who dislike pets. The two sides have nothing to do with each other: religious beliefs are a powerful force in our society and non-religious beliefs may well also be, if you argue with your 5,000 members, a powerful force, but to equate the two is not a serious issue, they are two separate, complete arguments.

  Ms Stinson: No, they are not. I would say my non-religious belief, my humanism, is as powerful a force for me as a religious person's religious beliefs are. What we are talking about is the way I view the world, or a religious person views the world. It is a life stance, it is a basic philosophy, it is the way we understand the world. Some people have a religious way of understanding the world and some people have a non-religious way of understanding the world, and on that basis it is a spectrum. It is also recognised in the Human Rights Act that equates those beliefs, whether they are religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs, because it is the way we answer ultimate questions. That is the distinction, that is the range, the spectrum of beliefs, which is about the position you take on yourself as a person, on the world, your world view, your life stance, your beliefs.

  Q75  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: You say that the BBC should cease discriminating against you. Are you actually therefore saying that the BBC is deliberately discriminating?

  Ms Stinson: I think we have to assume that it is deliberate because for the last 40 years we have been asking them not to discriminate. The sort of answer we get back is the sort of answer I alluded to earlier, that 90-odd per cent of the output is secular. They have not taken on board the argument I made just now, which is that there is this spectrum of views, of world views, of life stances, on which they should not discriminate. Yes, we do feel discriminated against.

  Q76  Chairman: Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen makes a very important point. You say that the BBC is discriminating against you. What would it take to persuade you that they were not discriminating against you? What is it really? As this is a Committee about the BBC, what is it you really want from the BBC?

  Mr Pollock: That they should obey the law in the Human Rights Act which tells them as a public authority not to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief. The Communications Act does something very similar. They persistently refuse to answer our very strong case that they are in fact so discriminating. The case is almost open and shut and if they provide three and a half hours on Radio Four every week for religious people to talk to religious people and never a minute for humanists to talk about humanism to humanist people, then whatever the numbers are, that is discrimination.

  Q77  Chairman: So you want not necessarily equality, but some kind of balance.

  Mr Pollock: Yes; we would agree with Alan Bookbinder, the head of religion and ethics, when he said that all the licence payers are entitled to see their belief reflected back to them.

  Q78  Bishop of Manchester: If I may say so, if you are quoting him, he also went on to say the 30 per cent who do not believe in god and lead effectively humanist lives have acres of TV and radio time devoted to secular concerns.

  Mr Pollock: To game shows, to makeovers, to sport. Where? Where else?

  Q79  Lord Peston: Is one of the problems not that the religious side has an internal pressure group in the BBC working away to fill up slots and the non-religious side does not have the equivalent in terms of internal pressure?

  Ms Stinson: And is not represented.

  Lord Peston: I have always felt that one of the real problems for the BBC is that if it wants to have this internal religious department, then it really ought to have some balance from others saying they want a programme, say, on the great philosopher Spinoza who became non-religious as a result of being excommunicated, but whose views clearly came in a sense from the same set of problems as those who excommunicated him.


 
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