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In defence of Thought for the Day

2017 November 3
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by Paul Vallely

What should happen to Britons who return from fighting for Islamist groups in Syria or Iraq? The question was raised by a British university professor recently. His answer was that they should be killed since they’ve been fighting for the enemy in a war against us. On Thought for the Day shortly afterwards Mona Siddiqui spelled out eloquently why such an idea has no place in a civilised society, quoting the Qur’an in support of this. I usually refrain from commenting on Thought for the Day, since it is edited by my wife, but this was BBC Religion at its best, offering a measured reflection in contribution to our national civic debate.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Today programme – in which religion has a short dedicated slot, as does sport and business – its presenters gave an interview in which they launched “an extraordinary attack” on Thought for the Day, pronouncing it “inappropriate” and “deeply, deeply boring”.

Criticism of Thought for the Day is tediously commonplace but the broadside by John Humphrys and Justin Webb crossed a line, not just in terms of their startling rudeness to invited BBC contributors. Their indignation went beyond routine resentment at the intrusion into their three-hour secular news agenda of three minutes of religious reflection. Mr Humphrys’ attack seemed to be on religion in general, as he sneered: “Dear God, we’ve got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice…” Interesting that he chose Jesus rather than the Prophet Mohammed.

What was just as shocking was the evident inability of Humphrys & Co to see the contradiction between their intolerance of religion and their boast of open-mindedness on everything else. Challenged with having got it wrong on Brexit Mr Humphreys accepted “there’s a disconnect between the people who run the BBC and a large chunk of the population.” Justin Webb insisted he is “passionate” about “allowing people to tell their own stories. That’s what the Today programme does at its best”. And Mishal Husain added “even when we have certain views, I think all of us work really hard to find another point of view”. Today, its top team asserts, strives to present “different styles and genders”, “different voices regionally” and “different races and different classes”. But not, it seems, different religions.

So why should faith be exempted from this embrace of diversity to reflect our pluralist society. Because half the population is now not religious, asserts Mr Humphrys. Even if we accept his figures, what about the half which is religious? The BBC’s public service remit ought clearly extend to serving them – and it should see the value of explaining the nation’s varied religions to one another and to citizens of no faith.

Just as importantly it is essential that in a programme where presenters like John Humphrys often coarsen the public debate with their adversarial approach, and constant barrage of interruptions, an oasis of measured reflective civility should be maintained. Religion has a distinctive contribution to make to that. Indeed it is now more important than ever before.

  • Interestingly the majority of the population disagree with the illiberalism of the metropolitan atheist elite. See this Radio Times pollScreen Shot 2017-11-03 at 10.16.42

from The Church Times

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