BBC Controller indicates Thought for the Day could be opened up

By staff writers
November 18, 2009

The BBC Radio 4 Controller, Mark Damazer, last night gave the strongest indication yet that the BBC may eventually open up the Thought for the day slot to a wider range of contributors.

It came after the BBC Trust published a 64 page report, rejecting 12 complaints, mainly from the National Secular Society, which claimed the two and a half minute slot on BBC’s Radio 4 flagship Today Programme was discriminatory.

The BBC Trust ruled that the slot, which limits contributions to some representatives of the six major world religions, was not in breach of its rules with regard to ‘due impartiality’.

“The requirement of 'due' impartiality means that the approach required depends on the content and audience expectations for that content” the BBC Trust report stated (para 3.4). Since the audience expected a certain range of contributors, then the status quo was acceptable in the Trust's opinion.

But in a debate last night on BBC Radio 4’s PM Programme, the Controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, indicated that the slot might be yet be broadened if the right contributors could be found.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia and a former Thought of the Day contributor, appeared on the PM Programme with Damazer. Bartley pointed out that the BBC Trust’s ruling took no account of the historical development of Thought for the Day. The slot had broadened and changed significantly since it began as part of the BBC’s World War 2 programming, and was seen by the BBC as "evangelistic and missionary", he said.

In response Damazer told the BBC’s PM programme. “It has become better because it had a narrower range of speakers and we broadened it out.”

Whilst he said the BBC had no immediate plans to broaden the slot, he added: “This is by no means a straightforward question. I don’t think the world would fall apart if we changed the remit of Thought for the Day.

“I just think in this particular instance an editorial definition of TFTD which has faith at its centre works well enough for enough of the audience. But I don’t think it is beyond peradventure and internal verity that it has to be faith based.”

Jonathan Bartley pointed out that similar slots to Thought for the Day in the BBC’s regional programming, include contributors from minor religions as well as some humanists and atheists.

Damazer responded: “The BBC is a broad church. I am in no way critical of what the others are doing, I just think because of the way the Today programme works - and Radio 4 as a works well enough as it is. But I don’t feel that is decisively the case.”

His comments came as a Today Programme presenter, John Humphrys told The Times he thought that atheists should be included.

“As a non-believer, I’ve always thought there’s an argument for a secular Thought for the Day — but not because of discrimination. I think we’d get some interesting views” he said.

Last week, Lord Birt, the former Director General of the BBC, also called for atheists and others to contribute to Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

Ekklesia's co-director, Jonathan Bartley, said: “The BBC Trust’s report is, predictably, an attempt to defend itself against charges of discrimination. It has hidden behind a rather flimsy justification of ‘due partiality’ which argues that BBC listeners don’t expect anything else from Thought for the Day, so it isn’t discriminatory to continue to exclude those from minor religions, humanists, atheists, agnostics and secularists. As such it is rather defeatist, and shows that the argument against broadening the slot has effectively fallen apart.

"The Trust's judgement takes no account that throughout the BBC’s regional programming similar slots have been widened. Neither does it acknowledge that Thought for the Day has been continually broadened and widened over the years.

“Mark Damazer’s comments reveal a growing realisation at the BBC that hiding behind a contentious argument about ‘listener expectations’ leaves the Thought for the Day slot impoverished. The BBC’s main concern is to produce quality programming, and whilst it is following one creative and progressive model in its regional output, and another sub-standard and narrower one on Thought for the Day, it is clearly doing a disservice to the output of its flagship news programme. It now a question of 'when', not 'if' the slot will be broadened.”

You can read Ekklesia's research report on the development of Thought for the Day here:

You can listen to the debate between Jonathan Bartley and Mark Damazer here (at 5.24pm):

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.