BBC ‘Thought for the Day’ row misses the point, says new report

London, UK - JULY 26, 2010 In a unique contribution to the debate about religion and ethics broadcasting, a new report, published by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, challenges the terms of the current controversy over BBC Radio 4’s flagship ‘God slot’ by actually analysing its content – with some surprising results.

For example, despite the BBC’s claims of ‘religious distinctiveness’ for the feature, which appears daily as part of the high profile ‘Today’ news programme, the report finds that Thought for the Day is not aggressively theological and draws extensively on non-religious sources.

It therefore questions both those who believe that non-religious voices would be out of place on Thought for the Day, and those who say it is purely religious propaganda.

The new research, entitled 'Thought for the Day: Beyond the god-of-the-slots', has been carried out by academic Lizzie Clifford, who has a specialist interest in religious language.

In her report, she examines the way that words and sources are used in the slot, as well as their structure and delivery.

The controversy surrounding the Thought for the Day feature has been dominated by a sometimes angry stand-off between those who seek to maintain its current predominantly Christian and faith-oriented form, those who want to broaden it to include alternative and non-religious voices, and those who want to do away with it altogether.

This dispute is a significant one, the report suggests, because it is symptomatic of wider questions surrounding the more general place of religious broadcasting and of religious speech in an increasingly plural society.

Author Lizzie Clifford comments: “Those who speak the loudest on all sides often fail to pause and consider what kind of religious speech they are actually seeking to safeguard, change or dismantle.

“Listening with a theological ear to how Thought for the Day actually works as speech, and what kind of religion it puts forward, can help us to reconsider thoughtfully the potential that speakers from alternative traditions, not currently represented, might offer.”

The report finds that:

* The majority of contributors at present are male Christians, and a significant number Oxbridge educated.

* 22% of Thoughts from theistic believers do not mention God in any form.

* Secular ideas are treated respectfully, but non-religious voices are puzzlingly excluded from Thought for the Day.

* Explicit theological content is often absent, attenuated or consciously pragmatic.

* The concluding ‘message’ is invariably couched in terms that can be put into practice by the listener regardless of their creed, or lack of one.

* The potential for ethical and cultural bridge-building between belief communities is ingrained within many Thought for the Day scripts and could be developed further.

The report concludes: “The restriction of presenters to those who represent groups with a long-established liturgical and doctrinal base seems unnecessary, given that the actual content of their scripts does not always make such a requirement.”

It says that Thought for the Day can play an important role in encouraging ethical and spiritual reflection in society, and that minority religions and secular humanists could make a positive contribution – the key for all concerned is quality and effective communication.

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow commented: “Those who either defend or attack this prime time radio feature by saying that it cannot change are seriously missing the point. In a hectic, money-based, celebrity-driven culture, we struggle to find time for wider and deeper thinking. A three-minute space to reflect on life’s meaning and purpose may not be sufficient to fill this gap, but for many it can be a good start or encouragement. Broadening and improving Thought for the Day to include a wider range of voices would be a positive example of the public benefit the BBC is being asked to offer. We hope this report will challenge lazy thinking and get people talking rather than arguing.”

Ekklesia will be sending the report to a range of Thought for the Day broadcasters, protagonists and critics as part of the continuing debate.

ENDS

Notes to Editors

1. Founded in 2001, Ekklesia examines politics, values and beliefs in a changing world. It has been listed by The Independent newspaper among 20 influential UK think-tanks. According to Alexa/Amazon, it has one of the most-visited religion and politics / current affairs websites in Britain. More: http://ekklesia.co.uk/content/about/about.shtml

2. The full report can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/thought_for_the_day/main_report

3. This report follows a background paper by the same author, introducing the debate around Thought for the Day, published in November 2009, which can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/thought_for_the_day

4. Lizzie Clifford has a first class degree in English and a postgraduate degree in Theology from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include theo-linguistics and the relationship between theology and the arts.

5. Interviews about the report are available from the author, Lizzie Clifford, from Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow (simon.barrow@ekklesia.co.uk - 07850 120413) and/or from associate director Symon Hill (symon.hill@ekklesia.co.uk - 07920 037719)