Who shall speak?

George Austin and Radio 4

I never listen to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. At ten to eight in the morning it is now too early, since the first task I set myself when I retired three years ago was to learn to wake up at 8.15. And when I was on the Thought rota myself, I deliberately avoided listening to others since I wanted my style to be my own.

As a result, I cannot comment on whether or not it now consists, as columnist Stephen Glover suggested in the Daily Mail, ‘a succession of secular platitudes’ and ‘rarely involves any theology, Christian or otherwise.’ Nor if Bishop Nigel McCulloch is right in saying it ‘needs a fresh feel to it’ and sometimes ‘sounds as though it is being broadcast from inside a broom cupboard.’ Actually when I occasionally did my piece from the Radio York studio rather than in London, that was not much bigger than a broom cupboard, but I suspect Bishop McCulloch didn’t quite mean it like that.

But the recent complaint from a group of prominent atheists is nothing new. Paul Donovan in his book, All our Todays, reviewing the programme’s first forty years, writes that ‘it is hard to think of any three minutes in the whole of British Broadcasting which is more sensitive.’ As well as both Labour and Tory politicians complaining that it is too biased against their particular party and ‘religious absolutists’ objecting to what they see as its ‘soggy liberal propaganda’, humanists had been ‘waging a forty-year campaign’ because it is ‘reserved for believers in a deity.’

So what is it meant to be? I started contributing nearly twenty years ago and continued until I was ‘rested’ (BBC-speak for ‘sacked’) in 1996, and always understood the brief to be to make a theological comment on a current event, which I tried to do (and which might present some difficulties for an atheist). In fact by then I had completed 96 scripts and asked to give up once I had scored a century.

In addition, I had contributed for six years to a similar slot on the BBC World Service, and in such a long period the same ‘current events’ would recur. I felt I was becoming stale and the BBC Religious Department agreed, but followed the preferred option of ‘resting’ me.

It always seemed to me that the way to use the slot, given the requirement to make a ‘theological comment on a current event’, was to make it a ‘Yes, but’ piece. In other words, it was to make people think about the news that was breaking, in a way that maybe they hadn’t done before – a spiritual angle on the secular.

It certainly was not meant to be an opportunity for pushing hobbyhorses, though that is not to say that hobbyhorses were never driven through the rules. During the women priests controversy, one speaker compared the attitudes of opponents to those of Nazis towards the Jews, and since every script was minutely scrutinized by someone in the Religious Broadcasting Department before it could be broadcast, it meant that this unpleasant comment had been okayed as suitable.

It so happened that a phrase I had used, which had not been remotely as inappropriate, had been blue-pencilled only a week or so before, and I immediately telephoned the producer to ask him if he had broken his pencil. Certainly we all had battles with the Department, and on one occasion, after a prolonged and irritating discussion, a script of mine was completed and approved. ‘A good script,’ I was told. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but it’s your script and not mine.’ Having said that, I was immensely grateful in general for the help given by producers, and if the scripts were up to the standard required for what is after all the flagship news programme of the BBC, then it was they rather than I who were responsible.

But should it be open to atheists? Clearly they could not make a theological comment on a current event, since they would claim no theology. The argument would be that there are moral values to be set forward that do not need a belief in God, and there is no question that this is so. After all, the final six Commandments are important and valuable rules for a good and stable society, and can be promoted without any religious belief.

It might be more difficult for a member of the Religious Department who has a faith to question statements an atheist planned to make in a Thought, without attracting a criticism from the contributor that he or she was being censored. But whether or not an atheist contributor could do more than simply make a secular comment is the real question, straying as it might into becoming simply another political viewpoint, more appropriate to another slot, or indistinguishable from any other item in the Today programme.

And that really is at the heart of the problem. For the existence of a religious item of this kind, falling as it does in a high profile and prestigious news programme, can surely only be justified if it provides something extra.

Certainly it must, if it is a Thought for the Day, make listeners think, even if they disagree totally with its content, and a non-religious moral statement can surely fulfil that. The better writers in the secular press, who treat their readers as mature people with minds to make up or to change, have a similar technique, as John Humphrys himself does brilliantly in his weekly column in the Sunday Times.

But I believe that the present pattern is also an indication that there is something beyond the secular, beyond politics, beyond social concerns and the rest. After all, that is precisely the technique used by Jesus himself, when he states the popular view and then adds the punchline, ‘It was said by them of old time … but I say unto you …’

Of course, we have come to know – and orthodox Christians especially – the illiberalism of the liberal position, and it is not surprising that some see implications and hints that the desire to extend slot to atheists is once more a desire to marginalize and eventually exclude the views of those who hold to spiritual values.

And spiritual values are what it is all about. Stephen Glover summed it up in the Mail article when he defended a religious Thought for the Day as ‘an acknowledgement that science does not have all the answers, some sort of reflection of the aspirations of the majority who still believe in God and sometimes look to him.’ If that is what it still does, long may it continue.