Bad Thought: The development of a poor analogy

By Jonathan Bartley
November 29, 2009

There’s an analogy that’s been doing the rounds for a few years now with regard to religious broadcasting. Of late however, in the context of a renewed interest in expanding the BBC's Radio 4 Thought for Day slot, it has popped up rather a lot. It even made it to Parliament last week.

The analogy goes something like this:

“Expanding Thought for the Day would be like including (insert random name of sport that isn't football) on Match of The Day.”

There is a level at which the analogy holds up. MOTD only shows Premier League games, and Thought for the Day similarly only features the main Christian denominations and other 'representatives' from the six major world religions. There is certainly a tiered system on which the programme is based. Those considered 'Championship' or 'Division One' religions don't get a look in - and that includes some Christian denominations who aren't considered important enough to contribute.

But this is an apartheid of the programme's own making. It's the broadcaster, not an external body, that has set up the artifical league tables. And unlike football, there is no chance of promotion. You might be an excellent, skilful and humorous orator, with thought provoking insights and imaginative delivery. You might have a tradition of training stretching back hundreds, if not thousands of years, on which to draw. But if your team isn't considered by the BBC to be in the top flight, then tough. You don't get to play. And not suprisingly, it's a system which the 'big boys' (and they are overwhelmingly boys) are all too happy to collude in.

But that's about as far as the analogy holds up. Under further scrutinty, it gets a lot weaker. It soon becomes clear that TFTD isn’t really like one ‘sport’ at all. Actually its about a whole range which are vying for airtime - some successfully and some not. In addition to the many ‘minor’ religions and Christian denominations who are excluded, there are now also agnostics, humanists and atheists. This is despite the fact that in many of the BBC’s regional Thought-for-the-Day-equivalents, such people are often successfully, and routinely included.

Such broadcasting slots as TFTD are more accurately compared to general sports programmes. And in that context TFTD is one of the poorest in the variety that it offers. It is like a rather selective World of Sport or Grandstand - and I use outdated examples deliberately. It is the quality of broadcasting that suffers as a result.

But the weakness of the analogy has perhaps been best highlighted by the proposers themselves, in their confusion about exactly what expanding Thought for the Day would be like… A bit mischievously, here are my top 5 (and amongst them are people I respect greatly, so no personal criticism intended!).

1. It wouldn't be cricket

A very English example to start with. “Calls for secularists to be included on the slot was akin to putting cricket on Match of the Day” – Giles Fraser

2. Jolly hockey sticks?

Apparently having second thoughts about the chosen sport (perhaps cricket it is too important or respectable to be compared with humanism or atheism?) Giles also used a sport that was a little less popular. It would in fact be like showing hockey on Match of the Day...

(NB I should mention that I am somewhat relieved he didn't mention golf. I have played a couple of rounds with Giles and he soundly beats me every time!)

3. Bowling for Parliament

So widely used did the analogy become that it was raised in the House of Lords. Bishop of Manchester Nigel McCulloch asked the Secretary of State for his opinion last week. Introducing a rather more sedate and fitting sport for the Second Chamber:

“Frankly, complaining about the BBC not featuring non-religious perspectives in a slot that is wholly reserved for religious commentary is akin to complaining that 'Match of the Day' gives no space to the game of bowls” he suggested.

4. Boxing, and er… Modern Art

Almost the best was Nick Spencer, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Not only does he introduce yet another sport which hints at the frequent punch ups between religionists and secularists, but adds something else that many conservatives love to bash. Broadening Thought for the Day would be like “opening it up to features on boxing or modern art”.

5. Absolutely everyone who hates football

But the best was in a catch-all Church Times leader. (NB I should declare an interest as I have for quite a few years now written a regular column for the paper). The CT seemed to believe that because someone is an atheist or humanist they will automatically hate all things religious. They also went as far as to imagine a timetable.

For the CT expanding Thought for the Day would be like giving Match of the Day “over once a month to those who hate football”.

I’m off to watch the Merseyside Derby…

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