Thought for the Day must reform or die

Thought for the Day must reform or die

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
5 Nov 2009

As the BBC Trust meets to consider whether Humanists, those of minority faiths and agnostics or atheists should be allowed to contribute to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot, few will give a thought to the battle for religious control which underlay the events of 5th November 1605.

If the gunpowder laid under Parliament had been ignited, both Anglicans and Catholics would have been caught in the blast. But just a few decades later, the Test Acts would make the holding of public office in Britain conditional on being a practising member of the Church of England. It was not until the 1820s that other Christians were allowed into Parliament. The Jews had to wait a further 40 years, with atheists bringing up the rear 30 years after that

The injustice of such religious exclusion from public space is now self-evident. But the tendency of some religious people to maintain a voice for themselves whilst effectively silencing others, still remains.

Perhaps the clearest example is in the field of broadcasting – and specifically the flagship Thought for the Day monologue on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The history of ‘Thought', as it is fondly known by those involved (I should declare an interest as I was a TFTD cntributor) bears a remarkable resemblance to the struggle to extend Parliamentary access.

The origins of the slot lie in a context of religious broadcasting which was viewed as ‘evangelistic and missionary’ by Dr James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting in the 1940s. The original contributors were almost entirely Anglican.

It evolved from the BBC Home Service’s early morning prayer and praise broadcast, Lift Up Your Hearts, which was part of the BBC’s wartime religious programming. In 1965, it was rebranded Ten to Eight, and in 1970 finally became Thought for the Day, with the range of contributors steadily widening to allow the participation Catholics, non-conformists, and those of the other major world religions.

As with the opening up of Parliament, many fought hard against the changes. Such a position is now indefensible, but the slot has only reached something akin to the Parliamentary situation of the 1870s. The debate continues as to whether agnostics, humanists, atheists, or for that matter, those of minor religions can be trusted to offer their opinions on God, politics, ethics and current affairs.

Like those who stood in the way of political reform, those who take a conservative stance and reject an inclusive model, do so out of fear. They argue that the overwhelming majority of the BBC's output is secular and hostile, and so they need their own special space from which to make their voice heard. But this is poor theological dualism which divides the world into sacred and secular. It also betrays a lack of confidence. It implies that those who come from a faith position will not be able to hold their own in public debate – something which is clearly untrue given the many religious people, including Thought contributors, often heard right across the BBC’s wider programming.

Another argument mounted in defence of the status quo is that to broaden the slot would be to lose its distinctiveness. Some within BBC Religion and Ethics are even convinced that this would be a fast-track to doing away with the slot altogether. But it is far more likely that a failure to change will lead to its demise.

They need not be anxious. One important difference between the Nineteenth and the Twenty-first centuries, is the existence of devolved models where inclusion is already working. Today, in the BBC’s regional output there are a number of slots modelled on Thought of the Day which operate happily and with the kind of diversity and richness still lacking at the centre - from Ulster to Scotland and Wales and in the smaller local stations such as Leicester and Suffolk. There, Jains mix with humanists, pagans with Baptists, Anglicans with Catholics and Buddhists with Muslims. And the delivery is richer for it.

The revolution is coming from the margins toward the centre. And those responsible for Thought of the Day should learn a lesson from history. When an institution fails to reform, it loses its authority and credibility. It would be a shame if the slot which provides such an important space in the hectic news cycle, were to be axed. Better to acknowledge and engage with the need for reform, than run the risk of a blast which could bring down the whole institution.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. He is also a former contributor to Thought for the Day.

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