The politics of Thought for the Day

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
11 Jan 2009

Thought for the Day isn’t a political slot, but a space for reflection. Its producers on BBC Radio 4 try to emphasise this as often as they can - particularly as controversy surrounding its role and status continue. And since it is one of a few areas of public broadcasting where there is no right of reply, the appearance of balance is crucial in maintaining its legitimacy.

What is not known by many outside the BBC is the internal politics that lies behind it. But it is only by understanding this political dimension, that anyone can really make sense of the ongoing debates about who should deliver it, why, and even whether the slot should exist at all.

For those not familiar with it, the set up is a fairly unique one. ‘Thought’ as it is affectionately known by some in the Beeb, is produced independently of Today, by BBC Religion and Ethics based in Manchester. They select the presenter, and work with him or her the day before it is broadcast, to produce a script. The editorial control is theirs. The two and a half minute slot is then dropped into the BBC’s flagship news programme, whose other content is produced and edited separately by the Today team at Television Centre.

And this gives rise to an interesting relationship. With ongoing fears about the marginalisation of religious broadcasting, some in BBC Religion and Ethics are nervous about losing their own flagship production. Some in the department are convinced that there is a conspiracy by Today to get rid of the slot altogether. They believe that if it is expanded to include others who come from anything other than the five or six major world religions, this will be the beginning of the end. ‘Thought’ will lose its distinctiveness and give Today the rationale to eliminate it altogether - backed by a campaign run by ardent secularists.

There is a commonly accepted skill to producing a script amongst Thought presenters. Some say the trick is to know what you can get away with. Since there is no right of reply, there is a requirement to balance what you say by also mentioning opposing viewpoints in your script. And it is the producer’s job to make sure that happens. But every now and again, a producer will let something slip through (often through no fault of their own) that causes an unanticipated public outcry.

One such controversy was the context of my own awakening to the politics of Thought. During one of her contributions in April 2007, Ann Atkins said something about abortion that produced a flurry of emails to Today. The programme responded, by seeking to have a discussion about the slot, and called me to ask my views. I told them that I was a supporter of Thought, but that I felt it should be expanded to include those of no belief, those who were unsure, as well as minor religious traditions. Spiritual, moral, ethical and for that matter, religious, reflection is not the exclusive preserve of those who were members of one of the big world religions. They asked me to come on the programme and say this.

As a courtesy I also called BBC Religion and Ethics in Manchester to let them know what I was intending to do. But the conversation that ensued took me by surprise. There a great deal of rhetoric about ‘sadness’ and ‘regret’. It would be such a shame if I did the interview, I was told. It was best not to raise the issues, but avoid them altogether. And if I didn’t, I was just being naive. I would be playing into the hands of those who wanted to get rid of Thought altogether. Didn’t I understand that I was just being used by Today for the purposes of a wider agenda?

In response I suggested that even if there was a conspiracy to get rid of Thought, broadening the slot could work in its favour. It would strengthen its position, not weaken it. It would certainly give its enemies far fewer excuses to criticise it or call for its abolition. But even if I was wrong about that, this didn’t detract from my personal conviction that this was the right thing to do.

And whilst on the subject of agendas, there were clearly others at work. Maintaining Thought for the Day as a slot which gives special privilege to those speaking from the perspective of just a handful of religions, ghettoises religion and plays into the hands of those who wish to maintain tight control of religion’s public expression. It also discriminates against others – religious and non-religious - whilst perpetuating the myth that those with no religion have no ethics or values, and nothing reflective to say of any value. Furthermore it reinforces ideas of religious privilege – that people should be heard simply because they have a religious viewpoint. There are clearly many who stand to benefit from its current format.

But I wanted to be sure, so I also canvassed the views of some of the other presenters, and found quite a diversity of views. Some shared my opinion. Others clearly didn’t. What was clear was that those who did were reticent about speaking up. They either didn’t feel it was an important issue, or believed they risked losing their prime time platform. The stakes were too high to cause a fuss. I confided in one presenter that I thought this would be the end of my short Thought career. They said I shouldn’t worry. It would cause way too much controversy if I was dropped. BBC Religion and Ethics would want to avoid that at all costs. I wasn’t convinced.

It seems in hindsight that I was not the naïve one. After the interview, I was given two slots at the end of the dead month of August, then nothing. It wasn’t till March last year, almost a year after my Today interview, that I received the confirmation and explanation. There was “a conflict of interest” I was told, in having me as a Thought for the Day presenter. It wouldn’t be “fair on you or the team to put ourselves in that position”.

I had to chuckle. And all the time, I had thought they weren't interested in issues of fairness...

You can hear Jonathan Bartley's interview with the Today Programme in April 2007 here

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