Radio 4's Thought for the Day has for four decades infuriated humanists with its daily dose of religious platitudes. But, argues David Hendy, it could be a force for freedom
Do the BBC’s religious programmes serve any purpose, beyond bringing ritual comfort to the hardcore of Britain’s believers? The self-professed aims of the Corporation in this area have usually been clear, noble even. Its founding father John Reith wanted the Corporation to exude an optimistic, manly Christianity. “The preservation of a high moral standard”, he wrote in 1924, “is obviously of paramount importance.” This Presbyterian son of the manse thus stood in a line of thought, from Schiller through to Matthew Arnold, which asserted that for any nation to flourish politically it would first have to inculcate among its people the “proper” sort of spiritual disposition. Reith saw this as the perfect task for broadcasting: through the pervasive power of wireless, politics would come to move within a deeper ethical dimension; individuals would gradually be formed into well-tempered citizens. That this required applicants for posts at the BBC to be harangued over their religious beliefs and millions of listeners to be fed a gruelling diet of improving fare, particularly on Sundays, was beside the point.
Historically, much of the burden of implementing this religious mission has fallen most heavily on Radio Four – the direct descendant of the old Home Service. Not only does Radio Four represent the strongest through-line to the Corporation’s formative years; it also reaches its fortieth birthday shot through with threads of worship, in the form of programmes such as Daily Service and Thought for the Day. Consequently, the station has never quite dispelled – nor wished to dispel – what one of its producers described as a “vague moral Christian aura”. Yet, as the BBC’s main outlet for reportage, contemporary drama and topical debate, Radio Four has been required to reflect society as it is as well as society as some might wish it to be. Indeed, the job of programme-makers has always been to restlessly turn over social issues, spot trends, nurture ideas. Hence Radio Four’s enduring struggle: to offer a nostalgia-trip and be relentlessly up-to-date.
Enormous cultural change since Radio Four’s birth in 1967 has conspired to make this balancing act more precarious. It is, for instance, no longer possible to match assumptions made in the 1920s about there being a consensus on values. Apart from anything else, the centrality of individual consent has taken over from the older imperatives of public morality, so that the BBC’s Director-General Mark Thompson can now talk unequivocally of the BBC broadcasting in an “age of moral ambiguity”. But religious broadcasting’s difficulties go beyond facing up to a market place of ideas more diverse than of old. It also has to deal with a marketplace that is more strident. The past 40 years have seen a broad-fronted move in broadcasting to sharpen the tone of public debate, to move away from deference and the reliance on “experts” and towards a tone of scepticism and the plain-speaking voice of common experience. John Humphrys’ dogged maulings of politicians on Today are iconic, but hardly unique.
Glance at the history of a programme such as Thought for the Day, and we mostly see the BBC’s religious broadcasters responding to all this diversifying and toughening-up with surprising sure-footedness. The programme emerged in 1970 as a slot where speakers were asked to “reflect on the events of the day from the perspective of religious faith”. But those behind it have generally sought to avoid creating a wayside pulpit. Its earliest producers were explicitly charged with responding to “changing times” and discussing the “practical application” of theology in matters such as homosexuality, abortion, poverty and race. This degree of licence allowed for sharper programmes, but spelled political trouble.
One controversy erupted as early as 1971, when Colin Morris, then a Methodist minister freshly returned from Africa, provided a devastating critique of the Heath government’s draft Immigration Bill, which proposed denying entry to anyone without a father or grandfather born in Britain. Morris, in skittish mood, pointed out that under the Bill’s terms the patron saints David, Andrew and George, having their roots in France, Palestine and Libya, would most definitely be excluded. As, indeed, would Jesus. The government, he concluded, should think again. After inevitable protests from Downing Street Morris was unceremoniously dropped for several months.
A decade or so later, the most explosive issue was not immigration but a widening divide between rich and poor. And, by now, it was Margaret Thatcher who provoked the ire of the clerics like no other. Countless speakers pleaded for the opportunity to attack her with the weapons at their disposal: theology, morality and compassion. Jim Thompson and Tom Butler were two inner-city bishops who appeared regularly and, as Butler later explained, felt they “had a duty to describe what we saw”. From the BBC’s point of view, of course, the politics of religion had to be managed carefully. As the 1987 General Election approached, and the Corporation sought to fend off Conservative accusations of bias, an extraordinarily tetchy vigilance was palpable. “I don’t want some lefty bishop on Thought for the Day queering our pitch,” the BBC’s Managing Director of Radio, David Hatch, told one group of producers.
The urge for outright censorship was usually restrained, however, if only because few in Broadcasting House wanted a prime slot on Today to be anything less than rigorously topical. One less politically sensitive way of capturing public attention was simply to shave gradually Thought for the Day’s allotted duration – from five minutes to just under three. Another approach was to widen its appeal ecumenically. In 1996 seven regulars were “rested” – and it did not go unnoticed that all were male, white, ordained Christian ministers. Jewish speakers, like Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Lionel Blue, had already appeared; they were subsequently joined by Indarjit Singh, the editor of the Sikh Messenger, and the first regular Muslim speaker, Umar Hegedus. Other faiths remained more elusive. There were a handful of Buddhist talks as early as 1975, but 20 years later the producer of Thought for the Day was evidently struggling to find any adherents who could supply the “hard-nosed” scripts required: “the way they think about things tends to be rather soft and gentle,” he complained.
As for humanists and atheists, they appear to be the only group to whom the increasingly ecumenical spirit still does not apply. Their case was examined formally by the BBC’s Head of Religious Broadcasting in 1994, when even the Church Times argued that “Believers have no monopoly of the illumination needed on dark mornings.” The BBC decided, against this advice, that a monopoly should be retained for the foreseeable future: “Allowing atheists to present it would turn it into an exercise in God-bashing,” the Head of Religious Broadcasting declared.
This was – and still is – at odds with the BBC’s general ethos. Reith himself counselled facing up to disagreeable ideas: “it benefits us – makes us more charitable – to know and understand that others have different tastes and ideas,” he wrote. Reflecting disagreement, even unpleasant disagreement, is the driving force behind the BBC’s public service. It is part, too, of the Corporation’s commitment to the Enlightenment Project, a desire to help us make ourselves more “rounded” citizens. Thought for the Day, meanwhile, remains indefensibly partial and two-dimensional, allowing faith-speakers to engage regularly in atheism-bashing – habitually equating secularism with commercialism, so as to deny it its ethical content – while rigorously withholding anything approaching a right of reply.
Believers no doubt tremble at the prospect of an austere Dawkinsian assault over breakfast. But, even if it hurts a little, so what? As the Corporation’s current Director-General points out, “the world’s media is at its least convincing and its least valuable when it is bland and reassuring.” The conclusion is obvious: the BBC should mark the anniversary of Radio Four by throwing Thought for the Day open, regularly, to secularists. It would not make the BBC a missionary for evil or even for unbelief. It would merely make it become what it has always claimed to be: Puritan in its commitment to a Miltonic freedom of opinion and its expression. ■