Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2020
WEDNESDAY 18 JANUARY 2006
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.
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 balancethere was some conversation with the governors
as welldecided 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
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
Q2023 Lord Maxton:
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
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
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 wellThe Moral Maze would
be a good examplewhich 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
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.