I’m admittedly a bit biased when I say this, but I genuinely think that one of the greatest exports from the UK is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a.k.a. The Beeb. The BBC is the largest broadcaster in the world, employing a staff of 23,000 across all of its various divisions. In its early years it formed the blueprint for other public broadcasters around the world.
Now, one of its longest running institutions, Radio 4, has been caught up in a tit-for-tat with the National Secular Society surrounding the future of a five-minute segment called “Thought For the Day.” In the U.S., where there is seemingly infinite numbers of TV stations, you can just accept the fact that you don’t like The 700 Club and change the channel. In the UK, the way the BBC is funded allows arguments like this to bubble up all too often.
As a quick overview, the BBC is funded through an assortment of sources: government subsidies, the sale of content to foreign media companies and some commercial enterprises. The biggest revenue stream by far — a whooping 75% in fact — is generated from the TV license. Now, to a non-UK audience, what I’m about to explain may sound very weird. (Probably because it is.)
Basically if you own a TV
or radio in the UK, you must have a license to do so. (Think gun license, expect less harmful. Although that is open to question given some of the content on TV these days.) Currently this costs £145.50 ($232.42) for color and £49.00 ($78.27) for black & white. (Who the hell still has a black and white TV?!)
As a result the BBC is ultimately responsible to government and, therefore, to the British taxpayers. However, we are treated to programming without advertising, high quality shows that get sold around the world (including my favorite, Top Gear), and, most crucially of all, truly impartial reporting and political neutrality. The BBC News website, TV channel and radio reporting is an international bastion of quality and trust.
So what does any of this have to do with atheism?
Well, on this little five-minute segment, “Thought For the Day,” various religious leaders or theologians deliver a short sermon on something in the news that week. Basically it is a chance to wedge God into current events.
After a recent review, the Commissioning Editor for Religion and Head of Religion & Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed, decided that, despite numerous complaints about the lack of a humanist or non-religious perspective, no changes would be made to the current format of the segment.
The BBC released its own figures showing that the number of people in Britain who affiliate with a religion has dropped from 68% in 1983 to 53% in 2011. Those figures are even more encouraging when split into demographics. 77% of people over the age of 66 say they are religious compared to just 35% of people aged between 18 and 25.
The BBC is notorious in its pursuit of balance. For example, last week the “Thought for the Day” slot was occupied by religious leaders including the Rev. Giles Fraser (the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral), Akhandadhi Das (a Hindu theologian), and Prof. Mona Siddiqui (a Muslim academic). This pursuit of balance can sometimes land program makers in trouble since not all arguments are 50-50 splits. You only need think of the “Evolution vs. Creationism” debate to recognize that. Just because Creationism can be thought of as the opposite view point does not make it equally likely.
My own thought on this is that it is a storm in a tea cup, one that has been stirred up by the National Secular Society to beat down the BBC for showing too much deference to religion in the media.
This just isn’t the same as the fights in the U.S. to remove official prayer from schools and public meetings. Like it or not, the UK is a religious country and the Church of England is the official state Church. Excluding groups for a chance to speak on a radio program is not illegal.
Would I like us to become a legally secular state? Absolutely. At the moment, however, that just isn’t the case. It is a classic case of learning to pick your battles. In my opinion, the National Secular Society should continue to put amazing effort into the great things it does in other areas instead of pointlessly fighting over a five minute radio program that nobody pays any attention to.