Monday 4 May 2009

TftD Complaint - Appeal to BBC Trust

BBC Trust,

35 Marylebone High Street, 


W1U 4AA.

 3rd May 2009

Dear Sirs

“Thought for the Day”

I am writing to ask you hear on appeal my complaint about the programming of “Thought for the Day” (TftD); in particular the omission of the humanist or atheist voice from among its presenters.

I first complained to the BBC about the TftD slot by email on 1st January 09. I received a response from Mark Damazer (MD) on 8th January and I responded to this on the 9th January. I received a further reply from MD on 25th January in which he was unable to add anything  to his first and advised me to refer the matter to the BBC Trust. (I have since learnt that this was in fact the wrong advice.)

I wrote to the BBC Trust on 9th February and they referred my letter to Tim Davie (TD), Director of Audio and Music for a further response which I have now received. This is dated 21st April 09.  

Neither MD or TD have addressed my specific reasons for considering the views expressed in TftD lacking in balance. They  seem content to rely on mere assertion to the contrary.

Also I am surprised that I have had no response from the Religion & Ethics Department who produce TftD  and would seem to be in a unique position to throw some light on the matter. The web page of the Religion & Ethics Department provides a list of "featured religions & beliefs". This list is headed (alphabetically) with "Atheism" with a sub-category “humanism”. The R & E Department is evidently quite content to feature atheism elsewhere in its schedules but, in a strange lapse of impartiality, seems unable to include  a humanist speaker in the TftD slot.

However to return to the responses I have received, I understand from Mr Damazer that: TftD aims to offer a brief, uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection in the midst of the three hour Today programme; that the speakers are chosen from those religions having a “significant” membership in the UK; and that a “careful balance” is maintained between these different religions.

To anyone who considers humanism as valid as any religious creed this “careful balance” is self-evidently absent.   But even among the religions presently  represented in TftD I do not see evidence for this “careful balance”. Surely my complaint calls for the “balance” to  be quantified in some way. For example, in very round terms what is the threshold for a religion to be considered significant and how many TftD slots per annum would that give entitlement to? 

According to Tim Davie speakers are expected to make brief references to their faith & its scriptures but are not allowed to proselytise or to disparage other religions. 

The monologues are in fact very variable in quality. Some, by expressing humane and readily endorsed views can stand alone without reference to religion, which reference is sometimes brought in  like an afterthought.  The worst monologues are platitudinous or strain to answer moral or ethical questions in way that fits religious dogma. Yet the humanist viewpoint is never represented because, in the words of Mr Damazer, it would “detract from the distinctiveness of the slot”. It is impossible to see how this would be so. As religious proselytisation is not allowed the distinctiveness of TftD overwhelmingly  relies on its scheduling, brevity, and  meditative nature. Again Mr Damazer has not made any attempt to justify his assertion.

Even if the occasional humanist presenter would in a small way alter the character of the slot it is surely an insufficient reason for exclusion. According to the 2001 census 20% of the UK population stated that they had no religion or left the question blank. Many of these will switch off their minds if not their radios during TftD. Is it really the BBC’s position that this 20% have no interest in spiritual reflection or that only religious believers are fit to cater for it?

Both MD and TD give examples of other programmes in which religious & non religious voices are balanced such as Sunday, Beyond Belief, and The Moral Maze on Radio 4, Good Morning Sunday and World of Faith on Radio 2. 

I do not understand the relevance of this to TftD. In the examples given it is possible to provide balanced views within the scope of a single programme and, as far as I know the BBC generally succeeds in this. In the case of a 5 minute slot this is obviously not feasible but balance can still be demonstrated over a run of programmes  by regular inclusion of the humanist voice. 

Lastly, in support of their case, MD and TD both make reference to the non-religious voices that “are also heard extensively across the general output in news, current affairs, documentaries, talks, science, history”. 

Again this seems irrelevant to TftD.  MD has stressed the unique nature of TftD. This uniqueness sets it apart from the general run of programming, and its present lack of any humanist input cannot be notionally rectified by random non-religious voices elsewhere in the general programme output.

Yours faithfully

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