from where I stand

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The Independent Online
"You can't say that, because it's not true," said the producer briskly. Minutes were ticking by in the studio while Bosnia was coming up shortly on another line. It didn't seem the moment to discuss the precise nature of truth. How cowardly, I thought afterwards, but years of conditioning as a BBC employee meant it barely occurred to me to refuse to alter my script.

This was the last of seven weekly opinion slots I was asked to do for Radio 4's the Sunday programme, the religious version of the Today programme. Presumably, since they knew my atheistical beliefs, a measure of controversy was expected.

In the last week it was they who suggested I do a talk on the Pope's letter to women. Yes, I had strong views on it, I said. "Write what you like. We don't mind if you're critical," they said. As it was I was circumspect: there was no point in gratuitously shocking Roman Catholic listeners by engaging in vulgar abuse against the Pope.

But it was not my criticism of the Pope's views on contraception that caused the trouble. No, the problem came with what was a rather banal observation that the New Testament is notably short on useful role-models for women: Mary the Virgin, Mary Magdalen the harlot, or Martha the drudge in the kitchen.

Explosion down the line from Manchester! "That's unfair and untrue, and I know the Bible a great deal better than you!" said the producer, her religious feathers ruffled. I was cross, minutes were ticking by, and forbearing to imitate the bravery of Salman Rushdie, I angrily rewrote my script.

To non-believers, religious offence is a mystery. Somehow I seemed to have stepped over an invisible line between discussing a religious issue of the day and questioning the Bible. That made me think about the BBC's policy on religious broadcasting. What a peculiar animal it is, sitting uneasily beside the analytical news and current affairs coverage. When it comes to religion, suddenly a quite different and highly suspect notion of truth kicks in, contrary to all the BBC's own producer guidelines.

The BBC's devotion to religion is odd. Christian churches are empty and, despite the emphasis given to multicultural faiths, only 7 per cent of the population is non-Christian; of these, only half practise. But the BBC clings to its poll finding that half the population say vaguely they believe in "something" bigger than them. That hardly seems a good reason to inflict daily acts of worship on them, the spiritual equivalent of watching others take part in an aerobics class. Or Songs of Praise at peak time, described bizarrely in a BBC policy document as the "touchstone" of its commitment to religion. "There is no sign that the big issues to do with the meaning and purpose of life cease to fascinate," says the same document. Indeed not, but do the organised religions have a monopoly on the human condition?

This year the BBC reviewed Thought for the Day, under pressure to include non-religious thinkers. No, it decided. If the speaker were secular, it would just sound the same as the rest of the Today programme.

But the point of the slot must be the quality of the thought. Much of what passes for thought in that slot is woolly stuff, since these days the pulpit is rarely noted for sharp, original moral thinking. To be charitable, the BBC is trying to minimise offence by letting each major religion have its turn.

Only 20 per cent of listeners hate Thought for the Day enough to want to do away with it. But then Radio 4 listeners are by nature radio conservationists who never want a jot or slot of it changed. The BBC has an obligation to offer niches to minority interests, but not to propagandise religion, any old religion, in peak time. (Poor old Radio 2 gets Pause for Thought four times a day.) Belief is too important to be left to the small but noisily powerful sectional interests.

The BBC's Charter does not oblige it to cover any religion, let alone in peak time. So the cynical explanation is that because ITV has dropped God at peak time, it gives the BBC another unique selling point when it comes to justifying the licence fee to disgruntled politicians. It is, however, somewhat paradoxical to argue that imposing religion on an irreligious public at peak time is a good reason for the public to pay to be preached at.

Maybe the real reason for BBC religion is this: the BBC links itself to the established Church because it is itself an uneasy part of the establishment. But empty religious broadcasting, out of step with the times, offers no long-term security. In the end the BBC will survive and thrive on its quality, and by honestly reflecting the diversity of belief and non-belief. If that means giving a pulpit to white witches, druids and UFOlogists, along with humanists and atheists, so be it.