The BBC's top radio man, James Purnell, is an atheist

The BBC's top radio man, James Purnell, is an atheist December 21, 2017

And for some this is a huge problem because religious programming forms part of his job of Radio and Education Director, and they are calling for his resignation.
Purnell, who was appointed to the job in 2016, is reportedly now at the centre of a row after he told listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme this week that he was not a religious man.
According to this report, the ex-Labour MP was speaking to presenter Nick Robinson about the BBC’s commitment to setting up a new unit for improving religious coverage, but “stunned” listeners when he declared his atheism.
Robinson asked him, “Are you a religious man?” to which a “flustered” Purnell replied:

I’m not. I’m an atheist but I think the issues around belief are incredibly important to how we live.

Robinson asked him:

Is that not a problem though? You are head of the BBC’s religious programming, you got the job because the BBC decided to abolish the post of head of religious programming as a separate post usually held by a Christian, recently held by a Muslim.

An “increasingly tetchy” Purnell, 47, replied:

The vast majority of people in this country have a range of views – some people have very strong religious views, some people have strong atheistic views. Actually, the people who work at the BBC have a wide range of views. We all have different views, we leave them at the door to make great programmes.

Among outraged listeners who now want him to resign from his role of scheduling religious output was Joan Winter, 50, of Warwick, who said:

How on earth can he devote any care or attention to religious content if he thinks it’s all nonsense? If Mr Purnell had an ounce of integrity he would resign and let someone more suited to the role take over.

The interview came as the BBC pledged to “raise our game” by increasing portrayal of all religions in mainstream shows. According to this report, it plans to increase prime-time coverage of non-Christian festivals including Rosh Hashanah and Passover as well as Eid and Diwali.
The corporation said the move was to address concerns that it does not reflect British society.
The plan includes proposals to inject more religious themes into mainstream TV and radio, with viewers seeing  protagonists of popular dramas grappling with dilemmas caused by their faiths.
In addition, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh holy days will be marked on popular, as opposed to specialist, programmes including The One Show and Chris Evans’s Radio 2 breakfast show.
The BBC report followed a year-long review that was told that people of all faiths were:

Often absent, poorly presented or satirised.

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  • AgentCormac

    Joan Winter, 50, of Warwick. If she isn’t an avid Daily Hate Mail reader, I’ll eat my hat.

  • cnocspeireag

    James Purnell, as an atheist, is much more representative of the UK population than any member of a religious group. Christians must know, from their religious book, that all other religions are not only wrong, but actively misleading. No Christian can represent members of other faiths as fairly as Mr Purnell can.

  • Frank

    Shock Horror … a rabid atheist … in charge of the BBC … this is so antichristian … its totally unacceptable …
    Well I say Joan Winter can FUCK OFF and suck it up. Purnell must have been judged the best PERSON for the job.
    Can you imagine the uproar if he allowed, even only once, someone like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty, Ricky Gervais or any other myriad atheists were allowed to use the TFTD microphone?
    Maybe the BBC had better put it out to a survey / petition. I bet every religious organisation in the land would lie and cheat and fix the outcome in an hysterical massed action to influence the result.

  • andym

    If they’d listened to the interview, they’d have found out that Purnell is as determined as any god-botherer to continue the BBC’s deference to religious belief.

  • L.Long

    They want him out for a very special reason….as an atheist he will tend to treat ALL BS equally, rather then treating xtians as something super-special. They state this because the religious person was – Horror of Horrors – a muslin!!!! So fire his ass by eliminating the job.

  • Broga

    The BBC, which is sickening under the burden of pretending we are a Christian country, needs to show some honesty. Difficult, I know, under the influence of its religious Mafia.

  • lucy1

    As a militant anti-theist,I taught RE for a couple of years. No problem at all for the school, the kids or me.

  • Brummie

    Perhaps someone religious could take over – from the Church of Scientology, to please Ms Winter?

  • H3r3tic

    Given that the majority of atheists with which I am acquainted have a much broader knowledge of a wide range of religions than their adherents I suspect that he is the ideal man for the job.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    @Brummie; Nah, I think a Raelien would do a much better job. Or how about getting god, in his incarnation of David Icke, to do the job?

  • AgentCormac

    One slight thing that troubles me about this report – why did admitting his non-religious status cause James Purnell to become ‘flustered’ and ‘tetchy’? Perhaps he suspected it might cause a backlash from some sections, but surely coming out as a non-believer in this day and age really should be no big deal. In fact in my experience, when you do tell others you’re an atheist it’s astonishing just how many of them respond by saying, ‘Yeah, me too’.

  • Tom80

    If the board who appoints him think he’s the best person for the job-then he gets it. By the same criteria if someone applying for a position is a Catholic and the best person for the job, then they should get it.

  • Club Secretary

    @cnocspeireag says:
    Thu 21 Dec 2017 at 11:50 am
    “No Christian can represent members of other faiths as fairly as Mr Purnell can.”
    And what if they had appointed the wrong type of Christian?

  • Broga

    What a scandalous situation we still have to endure in 2017. A man who admits that he prefers reason and common sense to superstition and phantasy becomes “flustered” when is asked about what he believes.
    Meanwhile, a priest who will happily say that he believes that a virgin is impregnated by a God and that the God’s flesh is regularly eaten need not have to justify his beliefs.

  • 1859

    I hope this means that the dreadful TFTD slot will now and again have a ‘non-religious’ contributor? It is, after all, just a ‘thought’ for the day, not a ‘god’ for the day. If it’s true that more than half (I forget the actual figures) of the UK population identify as non-religious, then the BBC need to be ruled by the principles of fair play and have the morning TFTD reflect the audience that listens to them – otherwise their audience might just bugger off elsewhere. Then why are they such cowards at the BBC? Don’t they realise that good old controversy, conflict,debate, argument , generates avid interest and so vastly increases the numbers listening to their programmes? What are they so frightened of?

  • StephenJP

    @1859: TftD is both indefensible and, in an odd way, indispensable. Its speakers know that they have an unchallenged three minutes to spout whatever they want. Most of them are so embroiled in their peculiar faith that they are eager to do just that, no matter how absurd they may appear to even the minimally open-minded listener.
    The result is that most of them make utter fools of themselves, and by extension of their faith. If TftD has to continue, I would almost prefer it to remain a vehicle for the god-botherers, given the lack of clarity about what might replace it.
    Still,whatever happens,there should be plenty for the contributors to “Platitudes of the Day” ( to continue to get their teeth into.

  • Stuart H.

    My local radio station version of TFTD has now been making the Beeb version sound like a sad hospital radio show run by amateurs for some 15 years – as I take great delight in telling the Beeb every time they run a fake survey.
    Three reasons why …
    (1) the speakers are ordinary members of the public who don’t have to be religious, not professional religiots.
    (2) the slot is 2 mins ,not 3, including a standard 20 second intro, which makes for a much more focussed “thought”.
    (3) no speaker gets paid, so folk do it out of community spirit and enthusiasm for the subject.
    I even managed to use a TFTD slot here to raise the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, ages before the mainstream media picked it up. When you can match that one, BBC, I might think about paying my licence fee.

  • Broga

    Well done, Stuart H.

  • barriejohn

    If more of the contributors were of the calibre of, say, the late Bishop David Jenkins,rather than the appalling Anne Atkins,then one might be tempted to tune in, and, as @1859 says, some interest might be generated. But one also wonders just how many of the contributors – and others who profess to have deeply held beliefs – are actually atheists at heart. Sometimes they do just “protest too much”.

  • Broga

    barriejohn: I’m convinced that for many it is a game they think they have to play. A curate told me – a long time ago – that “if I preached what we studied in theological college I would be hauled from the pulpit.” I

  • barriejohn

    Broga: You know how much I love our local “parish priest”, and can imagine my unalloyed pleasure at learning of a “Christmas Tree Festival”, lasting several days, at the church. There was a Rock Choir one afternoon, and a Ukulele Group on another! What the fuck has this to do with the birth of their precious “Saviour”, which they claim that Christmas is all about? And they’ll all be crowing about the millions who flock to churches for Midnight Mass, etc., over the holiday period, and claiming that reports of the death of the church are premature, but what proportion of those who attend church even on “normal” occasions really believe all the twaddle spouted? The kids who are forced to attend by “faith school” headteachers and kiddy-fiddling scoutmasters certainly don’t!

  • andym

    I wonder if pointing at Parnell’s atheism is just a smokescreen to cover up just how disgraceful his interview was. The BBC seem to be basing their new policy on two dubious stats that were wheeled out repeatedly as a justification. i/ that the number of people belonging to a religion worldwide is projected to rise from 84% to 90% ii/ that nearly half of the UK population believes in the resurrection and life after death. Nowhere did I hear either sourced, and certainly not challenged.The first can only at best be a considered guess, the second suspiciously out of line with other surveys.
    I think this is a welcome distraction for the BBC from their pandering further to religion.

  • Broga

    The BBC are so confident that they dare not stage a debate between and atheist and a Christian.

  • Angela_K

    @Broga. Imagine Richard Dawkins versus Justin Welby, Richard would tear Welby’s mumbo-jumbo apart. Although I suspect Welby wouldn’t risk such a drubbing.

  • John G

    Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention but I don’t recall Purnell coming across as “flustered”. Considering the potentialities for prat-falls, I thought that the interview by Robinson was reasonably sane and explanatory, if probing. Hyping up the “atmosphere” serves no useful purpose. Incidentally, when a few of your correspondents record their views using vulgar language, this prevents me circulating my (respectable) friends with this material.

  • Tony

    I have just sent a religious bias complaint to the BBC as follows:
    Dear BBC, In an increasingly secular, non-religious society your “Thought for the Day” slot, closed as it is to non-religious contributors, is nothing short of a disgrace. Positioned as an integral part of a prestigious and popular current affairs programme it benefits from a trapped audience because of the inconvenience of switching on and off. Apart from its constituent inclusion in the ‘Today’ programme its title is grossly misleading, leaving the impression that the listeners are being treated to general thoughtful observations when in fact they are presented with religious propaganda. If you feel that religious sentiments must be doled out to a needy audience then at least have the courage and honesty to call it what it plainly is: “Religious Thought for the Day”. The fact that you don’t, suggest to me that you know full well that mentioning the ‘R’ word would serve as a strong turnoff to most of the listeners. I am aware that your usual justification for maintaining this incongruous slot is that it is balanced by the generality of the surrounding ‘Today’ programme but true balance would only be achieved if in your other content room would be given to views countering religion without opportunity for rebuttal. Instead of removing the anomaly of TFTD I now understand that there are plans for increasing and strengthening your religious output. In the current climate of religious decline this strikes me as highly inappropriate and I can only hope that because of the aversion that most people feel towards having religion pushed down their throat it will turn out to be counter productive. Yours sincerely,
    Perhaps others can do something similar?
    (For stupidity to succeed all that is required is for rationalists to do nothing)

  • Sim

    The UK is a majority non-believing nation. Christians know their faith is dying. They should be thankful the Beeb’s management are still sycophants. If it were up to me there’d be no mention of religion on TV at all.

  • andym

    Tony. Complaining generally about the presence of TftD tends to lead to the brick wall of standard letter brush-offs.
    But you can be more of a pain in the arse by complaining about aspects of individual ones,e.g. the credentials of the speaker( a while ago they used to have on a muslim convert who it turned out held, he thought ,a liberal view that gays should be imprisoned , not executed), the claim that the slot is”rigourously edited,”the failure to meet its remit of commenting on a major news stories etc. These specific criticisms require more manpower to deal with. If enough people did it regularly, BBC management might start wondering if the slot is worth the trouble.