'Breakthrough' in religious broadcasting as humanist appointed to consultative committee

By staff writers
April 20, 2009

In what is being heralded as a breakthrough, an important new committee at the BBC which will consult on religious broadcasting is to include a humanist.

It follows campaigning by humanists and some Christians, although many religious groups have also tried to keep humanism out of religious broadcasting.

The move, which could lead to a widening of the basis of such slots such as Thought for the Day, will see groups representing secular beliefs offering advice and suggestions to the broadcaster.

This has previously been controversial. Co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia Jonathan Bartley was dropped from the Thought for the day slot after he called for humanists to be included. He had previously been warned not to make the call, which he felt was a matter of equality.

As well as upholding the principle of equality, those campaigning for a widening of the range of contributors to such slots have warned that without change, matters of faith and belief will be further marginalised and placed in a narrow religious broadcasting ghetto.

Opponents say that the change would dilute religious broadcasting and threaten the religious slots which they have strongly defended.

Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs for the British Humanist Association, has been appointed to the BBC's Standing Conference on Religion and Belief, a new body which replaces the Central Religious Advisory Committee (Crac), which advised on "religion-related policy and coverage".

Mr Copson told the Independent on Sunday that his appointment could give him the chance to challenge the long fought over Radio 4 religious slot, Thought for the Day. "We need to see an increased contribution from humanists in slots run by the religion and ethics department that are presently confined only to religions," he said.

The new body, which will meet with senior BBC officials several times a year, gathers for the first time on Wednesday. Unlike Crac, which was closed by the BBC Trust at the end of 2007, the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief will be independent from the broadcaster, but it will continue to have the same chairman, Bishop Graham James, at its head.

The Independent says that the BBC played down the significance of the inclusion, concerned that it would alarm religious groups. Despite this, Hanne Stinson , the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, heralded Mr Copson's appointment as a "great step". "Until now humanists have been excluded from any consultative or advisory role in relation to the BBC on a level with religious groups and representatives," Ms Stinson said. "In an open society, those of religious and non-religious beliefs should have a fair input on matters that concern them and the inclusion of humanist representation is a great step towards this."

The philosopher A C Grayling said the news was "incredible", and signified the culmination of a series of successes for secularists. "I would say in recent months we've seen a real change. There have been cracks in the ice over the last few years, but bits of Antarctica are finally floating free now. When you think of the great institution of the BBC finally conceding that a whole viewpoint needs to be heard, that's pretty incredible.

"At long last, here is one token of acceptance that the traditional way of thinking about matters of the spirit and matters of the mind needs to be rethought."

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