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The BBC Trust's Thought for the Day ruling

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Mark Damazer Mark Damazer 10:46, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

religion books

The Thought for The Day ruling by the BBC Trust was never going to be greeted with universal applause - or anything like it.

In a nutshell the Trust says that restricting Thought for the Day to speakers who espouse a faith does not breach the BBC's obligation to impartiality - but the Trustees say that it is up to the management to decide whether to include non-believers.

As I have said before I think it's a very finely balanced argument. I know humanists, agnostics and atheists are frustrated. They tell me so - loudly. (And mostly politely). But the slot has its merits. It is distinctive and even if you sometimes scream at the radio when it's on - and I have done this myself - it nevertheless often gives a sharply different perspective on the news - and thus can be stimulating. Maybe infuriating - but different.

One more thing before I duck for cover. We do many programmes and items on religious and ethical issues. There are many perspectives on offer - and many of them are not rooted in faith at all.

I discussed the state of play on Thought for the Day on yesterday's PM. Here it is:

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Mark Damazer is Controller of BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    I guess there's no spotting people who believe in made up things having a sincere belief in them, by definition.

    But thinking that there a better viewpoint from a number of old made-up stories is plain silly.

    It's a shame that non-believers pay most of the BBC's money and yet we have to have this crud every morning.

    Perhaps when we don't have a religious DG the BBC will start acting rationally.

  • Comment number 2.

    This is a quality issue. The Today programme is important as an introduction at the start of the day to issues that matter and have a basis in fact. It's quality rests in the accuracy of its reporting and the integrity and relevance of its analysis. Amidst this come these few moments of sanctimonous claptrap for which it appears there is no quality control or editorial input. It appears that the contributors have comlete freedom to say whatever they like. All that is required is that they owe affinity to a power structure which is proud to be irrational. There are other problems with the Today programme but this slot really does it damage.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think the important question now facing BBC management is: Why should non-believers not be included? If no satisfactory answer to this question can be given, then non-believers should not be barred from appearing on the programme.

    Mr Damazer speaking on PM stated: "It's become better. It had a narrow range of speakers and we've broadened it."

    Broadening the range of contributors to the programme yet further to include non-believers would be a logical and just step. Non-believers also have insightful and challenging thoughts, and it is clear that many licence-fee payers would like to hear non-religious voices on Thought For The Day.

  • Comment number 4.

    Exactly what is it about religion that bestows upon its adherents, and nobody else, the ability to produce a worthy TFTD?

    Religious people are reluctant to think for themselves, otherwise they would not follow their parents' religion like sheep, and they are not fully rational because they hold supernatural beliefs. Their contributions may make "a sharply different perspective on the news", but I cannot remember the last TFTD which was interesting and reasonable, they are much more likely to be boring, unoriginal, and even stupid.

    What is wrong with having contributions from scientists, for example, who can provide a more rational and informative opinion on the news? It would surely be more distinctive and stimulating, partly because it is their own thinking and not based on some primitive and predictable mythology.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's a misnomer. I rarely, if ever come away from it any better informed or wiser and it never provides me with a "thought". Mostly I am irritated or annoyed by the sanctimonious tone, or the preachiness of it. I agree with Mr Clark, give us a scientist or other acedemic who can impart some knowledge, not this procession of fairy-tale believing propogandists.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think it's great that the BBC provides a broadcast forum with such a broad range of spoken-word content as Radio 4. It includes programming on news, current affairs, science, history, business, women's interests, drama, comedy, and faith. Among many other things.
    I'm not religious. I'd consider myself a non-practising athiest. I'm not sure why one 5-minute slot of religious content each morning should be so threatening to people. I find Thought for the Day often interesting. And if not, it's not because it's religious.
    If I want pop culture and music in the morning, maybe I'll not tune into the Today program. And if I want a daily dose of science, maybe I shouldn't look for it in Thought for the Day.

  • Comment number 7.

    The problem about TFTD is part of a greater editorial problem on Today - allowing contributors and reporters to trot out the accepted ideology without testing it or giving the other side the proper weight. Yes, I know, that two sides are regularly set up against each other (except on TFTD of course!) but that is more to obtain "good radio" than to explore the actual issues. Typical examples include the acceptance that salt is bad for people (only for some, actually), that global warming is man made (oops, let's not mention the 31,000 scientists who have signed the Oregon petition) and, of course, the presenters who start giggling when any mention of the true resentment felt by many people over Britain's undemocratic acceptance of the Lisbon treaty is mentioned. We are not giggling, presenters. (John Humphrey's grilling of David Cameron on this subject earlier today was an honourable exception). Sadly, it is all about not rocking the Establishment boat. So TFTD is with us for the forseeable future as is the passive acceptance of the Government's scientific hoodwinking of the nation.

  • Comment number 8.

    Given the ruling, could the title of the slot be changed to "Religious Talk for the Day"?

    Better still, keep "Thought for the Day" but restrict it to thinking only. For three minutes the Today programme could just broadcast the sound of a religious person thinking. I would have no problem with that.

  • Comment number 9.

    "it nevertheless often gives a sharply different perspective on the news - and thus can be stimulating. Maybe infuriating - but different" - surely you're not suggesting that an aetheist, agnostic or humanist couldn't provide the same? In fact, given the prevalance of Judeo-Christian mythology even in modern life, isn't it necessary to achieve balance?

    One of the postive aspects of TFTD is that it allows the speaker to make a point unchallenged - the listener is given time to reflect on the points made, rather than immediately being presented with a potted refutation. It would be refreshing if an aetheist were allowed the same - we never seem be given a voice unless there's a believer around to 'provide balance'.

  • Comment number 10.

    One thing contributors to TFTD do not do, that is denigrate other beliefs. If only the real world was like that. To describe somebody´s beliefs as ´crud´ belittles one´s own understanding. It´s a bit like the hecklers who just shout ´rubbish,´at any argument they disagree with. Some TsFTD are uplifting, interesting, puzzling or ingenuous, but never ´crud.´ Some have me thinking for hours afterwards whilst others are almost immediately forgotten. Each contributor obviously spends a long time constructing the individual TFTD, which is more than can be said for some bloggers.
    Incidentally, the recent success of the individual who had his belief in climate change treated as a faith may give rise to some serious debate as to who else should be let onto TFTD.

  • Comment number 11.

    It's obviously an unfair decision that discriminates against the millions of people who are atheists, humanists or whatever. The claim that these get their views in during other programmes and that is good enough ignores the fact that religious people ALSO get their views across in other programmes. The least Radio 4 can now do is to rename TftD as Religious Thought for the Day and add the strapline "Broadcasting Arm of the Church of England" to their house style.

  • Comment number 12.

    Everyone’s point of view should be listened to, please give a Unitarian minister a chance to put an alternative explanation of religion.
    Below is an excerpt from my Chapels notice board, to offer an insight of what we are about.
    Welcome to Chowbent chapel
    We are a religious community rooted in the Judaeo-Christian heritage, open to all who wish to explore the spiritual dimension of their lives in an atmosphere of freedom, reason, and tolerance. The congregation, established in 1645, is a warm, friendly fellowship.
    Best wishes to all. David

  • Comment number 13.

    Surely the whole point of TFTD is that it is non-secular? A refreshing change in this too material world. By all means diversify from 'mainstream' religion. How about introducing a bit of liberal thinking? Try a speaker from the Unitarian Church for a wider perspective on faith issues.

  • Comment number 14.

    I really don't see why one should object to having a 'faith spot' as long as it's clearly defined as such and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Perhaps one should just change the name.

  • Comment number 15.

    TFTD is splendid. It comes on at ten to eight just when I need to be rounding my offspring up to get out the door for school. It thus acts as a perfect signal for turning the radio off. By the time we are in the car, it's over and I can listen again without being troubled by the 'thoughts'. My only worry is that there might be something of interest broadcast between the end of TFTD and the 8.00 pips which I will miss.

    Maybe the BBC could guarantee not to include any important/interesting news or interviews in that period so I can rest easy?

  • Comment number 16.

    Great idea BBC Trust. I hope we are going to hear lots of interesting new and intersting speakers. May I suggest that you have a Unitarian speaker on Thought for the Day every once in a while, it would provide a refeshing breath of fresh air.

  • Comment number 17.

    Several reactions here show that, as usual, fanatics of all kinds are more similar to each other (whatever their actual beliefs happen to be) than to those who prefer to be a bit more reflective.

    So, as one would expect, we have several ‘enlightened’ posters simply dismissing thousands of years of human religious tradition off-hand, as fairy tales or “silly made-up stories” and characterising all religious people as unable to think for themselves.

    Not hugely balanced I’d say, or evidence of informed subtle thinking. Instead its uncompromising, simplistic, and abusive – does that description remind you of any other people?

    Certainly these are not the words of people that think “rationally” or the words of truly critical thinkers: The simple contrast that as often been made here between science as ‘rational’ and religion as false, suggests some serous confusion over what these concepts mean (did anyone suggest these two institutions were somehow opposed to each other here? or that the opposite of rationality was falsity?). Notions of truth, falsity, and value in these matters are simply not that clear cut – If they were, we’d already all know for sure what the answers to the big questions are.

    I very much agree with what many sensible people of all non-faith/faith viewpoints have already said: No one is forcing anyone to listen to this very short slot.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is no law which states the Today programme must be listened to in its entirety – or for that matter - that the ‘thought’ being put is one that we are under any compulsion to agree with.

    It is a however programme that makes for stimulating, enjoyable listening for many, and its existence is not exclusive of non-religious content elsewhere. But just as many ‘Strictly’ fans would be rightly disappointed if the BBC suddenly decided to make the show into a long winded multi-part documentary on philosophy, so many religious people would be disappointed if in the usual TFTD slot, the ‘thought’ was a non-religious one.

    And the issue of license fee paying? - Well that’s no argument at all. I actually don’t like Strictly. I personally think it's a waste of license fee and valuable evening broadcasting time - and its costs are many orders of magnitude greater than the cost of producing TFTD on weekday mornings. But if you’re going to have a license fee system at all, it’s simply the case that there is going to be content you don’t like – it might be even be most of it.

    And we have to remember that there are plenty of other people who really like the programmes you don’t – and think what you listen or watch is rubbish.
    In fact, these programmes might really make their day – morning or evening. Who’s to say they’re wrong or that you know better? Where is your right to take that from them?

    So good on you Mark Damazer, for a point well made.

  • Comment number 18.

    Leaving aside for a moment the argument regarding the title (TFTD) – which admittedly does not tell the full story – I wonder whether some of those opposers in principle in fact switch off – whether mentally or actually - rather than listen to the liberal, succinct and often challenging wisdom that is generally applicable and perhaps reflective of the world view – whether religious or not – of many of the Today programme’s listeners. It is often not easy to tell if the introduction (by the anchor person) is missed what religious or other label the speaker wears.

    I write from the standpoint of a Unitarian (by conscious choice not parentage or tradition) – a group not represented in the “pool” – and would welcome the inclusion of honest and liberal thinkers from more traditions and viewpoints – religious and secular - thus becoming more honest to the title of the slot. Better this than to lose 5 minutes a day of balance and reflection.

    Regarding the “Today programme should be factual” argument – I also enjoy the arts items in the Today programme…and the party politics!

  • Comment number 19.

    I always press the snooze button. I hate that delusional beliefs get beamed straight into my ears as soon as I wake up. It's totally irrelevant to a current affairs program. And why does it get such a prime slot?

    TFTD needs to be dealt with in one of the following ways:

    1) Removed altogether and slotted to a religious program which the civilised amongst us and easily avoid (my preference); or
    2) if it must stay because of the christian mafia, it MUST be equally balanced with atheist and humanist views.

  • Comment number 20.

    "Christian Mafia"? An oxymoron if I ever saw one.

  • Comment number 21.

    lighten up bbc- open up - you have nothing to lose and much to gain

  • Comment number 22.

    My parents always had the radio tuned to Radio 4 at breakfast time. I was therefore effectively forced to listen to TFTD every weekday morning until I left home to go to university.

    This deeply uncomfortable experience completely coloured my opinion of what Radio 4 was about and, after leaving home, I never even considered listening to Radio 4.

    It wasn't until many years later, when I started going out with my (now) husband, that I realised what I'd been missing.

    I wonder how many other children are being potentially lost to Radio 4 as adult listeners because of a similar experience.

  • Comment number 23.

    One of the things that worries me is the title, 'thought for the day'. Are you saying that this should be the only thought that I have today? Well frankly I have lots of thoughts and if you are telling me that I should have only one is a bit much. In fact, a lot of my thoughts are quite interesting and would be quite good for broadcast, but quite a few of them would in fact be quite inappropriate. When I think about it they would be very inappropriate for broadcast on Radio4 at 8 in the morning.
    Are these people (your contributors) claiming that these are the only thoughts they are having....ALL DAY? Because I know one of your regular guys and I reckon he sometimes has other thoughts just like me.In fact I had an interesting conversation with him the other day about Bob Dylan. I reckon Rabbi Blue has a few interesting thoughts ....especially if his biography is taken as evidence. But you don't broadcast them do you. Still, when all the pro and cons are weighed up...the show does seem to wind up some quite pompous , humorless atheists who take themselves and life very seriously and I think any show that does that is definately worth broadcasting.

  • Comment number 24.

    On RHJMB's view that "this is a quality issue," I would rather the Today programme started addressing this aspect by editing out items on concrete cows and winners of the Eurovision Song Contest than by cutting TFTD. On the use of the snooze button, that's the one I always use for the sports report, but I wouldn't try to impose my sports censorship on everyone else. And as for offering slots to atheists, if "atheists" actually stood for anything positive that would be fine, but the fact is that they don't have a coherent and unified theory of ethics, aesthetics, politics, metaphysics and other Aristotelian categories the way that the major religions do, which makes them less representative and therefore less interesting

  • Comment number 25.

    I don't think that the BBC Trust has sufficient teeth, Mark, which is one good reason why you should overrule its decisions.

    'Thought for the Day' is distinctive, although its contributors should, in my view, face more scrutiny.

    Why not make them contribute their thought to the Radio 4 Blog, for example, so that we can comment on their analysis.

  • Comment number 26.

    Briantist complains that most who pay the license fee do not believe. And so, the less than five minutes out of every twenty four that contains a religious comment should be scrapped or turned over to those who share a humanist faith. I should point out that as a Christian I find a lot of what is said on TFTD is unbiblical and even offensive to me personally.
    But come on, we have to put up with hours of atheistic/humanist brainwashing, so stop complaining about a few minutes a day. After all, you don't have to listen to it.

  • Comment number 27.

    I would be happy if TFTD EITHER had no primary religious or spiritual focus but merely presented thoughtful and speculative insights from a wide variety of appropriate individuals of any faith or none, OR if it included atheists, humanists and others amongst those of various faiths presenting their views explicitly from their own theistic or non-theistic perspective. The current situation, which is farcically unacceptable, follows the latter model but specifically excludes non-theists. If religious contributors are permitted to foist their uncensored views on us in this slot, then so should atheists be, i.e. they should be encouraged to make comments that specifically illustrate how an atheist stance can enlighten current events. When I have complained to the BBC in the past about TFTD I have been told that the BBC provides many other slots for secular viewpoints (in the sense of being not concerned with religion) but where are the slots for atheist propagandists? I would rather not see any propaganda slots on the BBC outside of official party political broadcasts, but TFTD is clearly a slot for theistic propagandists.

  • Comment number 28.

    I should perhaps confess, Mark, that I rarely listen to Thought For The Day (or Today) live, although if there is an item on Radio 4 that is recommended or does particularly interest me, I shall listen again. I was thinking about the TFTD inspired Free Thoughts on Radio 3's Breakfast Programme, associated with its Free Thinking Festival, and whether this could offer you a way forward on Radio 4.


    I should perhaps note that the reaction on the Radio 3 message boards to the spoken word, rather than classical music, over breakfast, was unenthusiastic. Nevertheless, I do not feel that Radio 3 should surrender the intellectual high ground, completely, to Radio 4, and a free thought, with its non-religious connotations, could provide an inspiration for Thought for the Day.

    You could consider offering a 'Free' Thought for the Day as a contrast to a 'Religious' Thought for the Day, although there is not necessarily any difference between the two. Nevertheless, you could consider some kind of dialectic between religious and secular approaches.


  • Comment number 29.

    Is this religious enough to get on thought for the day? Imagine that you are on the top of a cliff over-looking a vast desert. All across the horizon and at least a mile high is a blur of colour. Suddenly you have left the cliff top and you are standing in front of this mass of colour which turns out to be an immensly detailed tapestry, stretching as far as you can see. All around you are people, in the clothes of their various ministries, catholic, protestant, sikh, shia, orthodox jew and so on, with the white coats of scientists interspersed, all with an A4 sized wire rectangle they have pinned to the tapestry, intently studying the pattern inside, oblivious to all the rest.

  • Comment number 30.

    Captain Cynic - you didn't tell us what the assorted priests were doing. Probably coming to blows over whose god was responsible for the tapestry if history is anything to go by. Or maybe telling their disciples that despite its great mystery and beauty, the tapestry is evil and that it is a sin to look at it. Or did you mean that the priests were using the quadrats too? A strict interpretation of your grammar would contradict what I intuit your intended meaning to be.


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