Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2020 - 2028)


Mr Michael Grade CBE and Mr Mark Thompson

  Q2020  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I have a couple of points about religious broadcasting particularly for Mr Thompson. You are on record as saying that you do not have a closed mind about Thought for the Day and the possibility, as already happens in the BBC Northern Ireland, for those who have heartfelt belief systems other than religious systems speaking on it. I wondered whether there were any actual plans to bring anyone into Thought for the Day. My second point, which I raised with the Minister yesterday and quite rightly he said that it was your decision rather than the Government's, is about the importance of religion in world affairs which I think we would accept has increased. Should the BBC be given a specific public service duty to educate and inform the public about the role of the major religions?

  Mr Thompson: What I said about Thought for the Day was as follows. It is rather equivocal. "On the one hand he" that is me "considers Thought successful so not needing to be changed". Then he says, with a deftness of which a politician would be proud "You can make a case for opening it up to people with other heartfelt belief systems; I would not close my mind to it". The situation is that as recently as 2004 the BBC looked quite closely, after representations from a number of groups, at this question and decided on balance to keep Thought for the Day as it currently is, in other words an opportunity in the schedule for people with a specifically religious perspective, different religions but a religious perspective, to comment on some aspects of contemporary events or contemporary life. It is something we can look at from time to time; it is not something I should want to reject out of hand for ever. It was very thoroughly debated inside the BBC and indeed outside in 2004. I do not think it is the right moment to come back and review it again at the moment. I am very content to remain with the recommendations which came out of the review in 2004.

  Q2021  Chairman: Just before you leave that point, you do not actually follow the same policy in Northern Ireland. When we went to Northern Ireland we were told that in the equivalent of Thought for the Day four contributors a year, who are non-believers and who are chosen because it is considered they have something useful and important to say, are able to do Thought for the Day.

  Mr Thompson: Let us just be clear about this. Across our coverage as a whole there are many opportunities for people, both with a religious perspective and a non-religious perspective to make contributions, to make documentaries, to take part in debates and so on. What happened in 2004 was that the BBC looked at the particular circumstances of Thought for the Day in the middle of the Today programme, weighed it up and on balance—there was some conversation with the governors as well—decided to leave it in this case as a window for people from a particular perspective. We try not to deal with every editorial question on an absolute, one-size-fits-all basis; this was in the context of looking at the Today programme. I take a very high level of humility about editorial questions. It was looked at thoroughly, I do not believe there is a strong argument for a review today but we shall look at it again and when we do in due course look at it we shall certainly see whether we have anything to learn from the way we broadcast in Northern Ireland.

  Q2022  Lord Maxton: In Scotland, where 27 per cent of the population in the last census said they had no religious views whatsoever, can I assume, in view of what you have just said about other people getting their point of view across, that 27 per cent of broadcasts relating to religion is done by people who do not believe at all?

  Mr Thompson: I do not think that follows at all.

  Q2023  Lord Maxton: Why not?

  Mr Thompson: Thought for the Day was set up specifically with the purpose of enabling a window for a religious perspective on events. That was the original point. It began predominantly as a Christian religious perspective from the different churches and has been broadened in recent years to include perspectives from other religions. That is the point of that.

  Q2024  Lord Maxton: That was at a time when, if you go back to Thought for the Day, if you looked at the censuses then you would find that a very, very small percentage of the population said they had no religion. Now that is a larger and growing proportion of the population which is not ever represented on Thought for the Day.

  Mr Thompson: I should say that Thought for the Day is not a piece of radio which we are trying to handle in the way we might handle a party-political broadcast on the basis of a precise allocation.

  Q2025  Lord Maxton: That is what it sounds like morning after morning.

  Mr Thompson: If you want to ask whether the BBC, across its output, reflects sufficiently the diversity of belief and non-belief, that is a reasonable question to ask. I have to say that I think we do not do a bad job. I should say that is a broader question. We would have the same debate about Prayer for the Day. I think that most people would accept that you would probably only want to have people on Prayer for the Day who thought prayer had some point to it. A broader point is whether the BBC has a duty to reflect the diversity of belief in the UK and also to educate and inform its audience about the diversity and significance of different religious and non-religious beliefs around the world. Absolutely; yes. I am not sure it needs to be written into a particular public purpose: it is there and we take it very seriously. Particularly since 9/11 I should say that the prominence of religious questions more broadly in all media in news and current affairs has been very prominent.

  Q2026  Lord Peston: Declaring an interest as an atheist, my only question is on the diversity of view. I am worried as a former educationist that one might include the setting out of nonsense, because a lot of people believe a lot of nonsense, that you should portray that. We can discuss that on another occasion. The problem for those of us outside the BBC is that you have a specific religious group within the BBC, which I referred to as a religious pressure group when we saw them, but you do not seem to have any equivalent groups for any other philosophies. There is no philosophy department, to take an obvious thing, sitting there saying there is a need to create a set of philosophy programmes. What is there about religion that makes you feel you have to have this very special committed group of people doing it?

  Mr Thompson: Let us not over-simplify what is going on here. We certainly feel as an organisation that we should reflect the religious life of this country and the world.

  Q2027  Lord Peston: There is nothing between us on that.

  Mr Thompson: There is an interesting signal in the fact that we now call the department which makes many of these programmes the Religion and Ethics Department. There are certainly some programmes which that department has produced and indeed other programmes as well—The Moral Maze would be a good example—which do take philosophy and ethics seriously. You cannot listen, for example to Melvyn Bragg's programme on Radio 4 In Our Time and not think the BBC is interested in exploring the world of ideas, absolutely touching on religion and issues like intelligent design, but ranging far beyond that to other broad issues of both philosophy and other ideas and belief systems. We are rather good at that and I certainly should want to encourage our Religion and Ethics Department to take the ethics half of their title seriously as well as religion, whilst recognising that the central part of their mission is around reflecting the specifically religious aspect of British national life.

  Q2028  Bishop of Manchester: In a country where 72 per cent, according to the census, say that they are Christian and another ten per cent belong to other faiths, with that substantial majority I suppose that it is understandable that the 5,000 members of the British Humanist Society and 3,000 members of the National Secular Society occasionally feel marginalised. I also think that one has to take into account the fact, as I understand it, that all the audience research which has been done on Thought for the Day indicates that, as it is at the moment, there is very, very substantial backing and I think that I am right in saying that Thought for the Day is regarded by audience research as one of the most popular bits of the whole programme.

  Mr Thompson: Yes.

  Chairman: We might draw a line here. I should like to thank you very, very much indeed for coming today. What I should also like to do is thank the BBC and its staff for all their helpfulness and kindness over the last months. We could not have done this inquiry without that help; they have gone to every length to answer our questions and we are very, very grateful for that. I hope you will pass that on. Thank you very much.

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