What is wrong with BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day?

What is Thought for the Day? Or better still, why is Thought for the Day?

Archbishops prepare to enter parliament in 2017

A very early example of an Occupy movement

Every morning at 07:48, BBC Radio 4’s hard news show
the Today programme pauses for thought. It’s always a religious thought and usually thunk-up by a vicar. It lasts for three minutes.

Unlike every other item on the Today programme, the thought goes unchallenged. It’s expressed without a balancing counterview. Nobody, not Lord Beelzebub, not even Nigel Lawson, is allowed on to bark back.

As mentioned, it’s mostly vicars who get to express a thought. Sometimes it goes a bit Simon Israel, other mornings it’s quite Faisal Islam. But four days out of five it’s completely Terry Christian.

Today presenter John Humphrys said recently: “It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all.”

He went on, putting this open question to his Today colleagues: “When you’re presenting it, how many times have you said to yourself, ‘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, and the world could be a better place if…’.”

The biggest offence, as far as John ‘Good-Morning’ Humphrys is concerned, is that Thought for the Day is, “deeply, deeply boring.”

Truly, Madly, Vicarly

Being fair, you might admit roughly one in twenty of them are deeply, deeply interesting. Or a bit moving. Or nicely profound in some way that makes listeners think. But most are little more than a dull, anodyne drone and not even as cosily soporific as the shipping forecast.

Why put religion in a hard news programme? Would you interrupt a school nativity play to announce the FTSE 100 share index is currently down 0.1%? Bad example. That would be brilliant.

Religion, especially our State Religion, still seems to have a free pass into many of the nations institutions. The nation that produced Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin can’t quite transform into something truly secular.

The United Kingdom is just that, a kingdom, a monarchy. We have gay rights, we accept other faiths. We have a secular feel. But officially we are subjects not citizens. Kings and Queens don’t ordain themselves. God does that. And She does it through an official state religion.

Our parliament opens each day with Christian prayers.

We have Muslim, Jewish, Sikh MP’s who swear loyalty to the King or Queen – figures officially acting on behalf of a Christian god. Being King, as Monty Python knew all too well, means you are born higher than everyone else.

That means born higher in the same way white supremacists are born higher than whoever they currently want to feel higher than. It’s an odd belief both racist idiots and our our democratically elected leaders can uphold.

Our monarch is also our pope, being the head of the church. He or she wears a nice sparkly hat, full of gems taken from parts of the world we once brutalised and plundered, with our state church’s – and therefore God’s – full endorsement.

Those jolly, down-to-earth vicars of Thought for the Day are part of, and apologists for, all these dubious, conflicted institutions and all the many horrors they wrought.

Then and now. How Britain still sees Africa?

The pageantry might distract us, but the contradictions are ingrained. Our bishops sit in parliament, un-elected, and on our behalf they get to vote on e.g. the Climate Change Bill, knowing their holy book states that God will soon consume the world with fire.

If you believed that, would you bother pondering the melting ice?

The daily appearance of vicars on state-run news media may seem like an inoffensive charm offensive, but it’s a form of soft power more deserving groups don’t get to exert. The Green Party, the RLNI, those Net Neutrality people, Prof. Brian Cox – no other lobby group is gifted three uninterrupted minutes to talk to the nation every day.

Society should remind this vicary collective that, even though lately they’ve changed their image to one of mild Richard Coles-type innocence, for centuries they wielded a ruthless power here and around the world. The church was also the ‘beard of capitalism’, as Jonathan Meades once put it. It met ‘the natives’ with smiles and gifts, before later introducing everyone to the nice European prospector chaps.

Wherever they appear, but especially on a news programme, someone should be allowed to at the very least counter what they say, hold them to account. My personal vote would be for Doug Stanhope.

The vicar stays in the picture

There’s even more to this odd relationship.

The UK is the only country in the world, besides Iran, where schools can refuse to teach a child if his/her parents follow the wrong supreme being. Tolerance, supposedly, is what the UK is famous for. That and bad teeth. And diabetes. But our progressiveness is so often double-edged. How easy is it to imagine, say, the UK’s first Jedi Academy? And how much easier to imagine that new institution refuse its first Hindu kid?

Thought for the Day, like many of our quaint, familiar state traditions, is equally dark and unnerving up close. It’s sinister because it’s a fixture. It’s in the charter. It is decreed that thou shalt listen to vicars. The editor of Today can’t read a copy of the vicar’s script in advance and decide it’s bollocks.

“Call him and tell him; say Chinese steel tariffs are not a bit like Jesus,’ said no Today editor ever, ‘tell him we’ll fill his three minutes with the Ski Sunday theme music, cos frankly that’s exactly what people need at that time of a morning.”

When a magazine wants to distance itself from content that it doesn’t officially endorse, they slap the word Advertorial or Paid Content across the top. More commonly, you might see the disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect etc…”

If Today is going to cut away from an item about, say, the James Webb Space Telescope for three minutes of unchallenged Jesus, at the very least they should preface it with some equivalent dissociation.

Old Man Humphrys should be compelled to say, ‘…And now, from the organisation that for 1800 plus years suppressed the use of scientific method, evidence-based observation and year-round access to pancakes, it’s Thought for the Day…

Thinky vicars, stinky knickers

It’s not even the case that most vicars use the time to expound any thought-provoking theology. It’s as if they grasp how unwarranted their privilege is and demur from any doctrine.

Mostly the message is so vague and watered-down, it fails even on it’s own weak terms. Bewildered, we’re often the ones having to work out where and what the titular thought actually was.

Weak Tea

Vicars of all religions long ago fell into a standard pattern – and isn’t that the definition of religion? – of comparing yesterday’s main news item with some analogous passage from their holy book. They think this is a special trick only they can do.

With about 5000 years’ worth of domestic drama and detailed state history to pick from, finding a bit of the bible that’s vaguely like the PM’s visit to a war zone is not hard. Finding parallels shows no great gift. You could easily do the same thing using Lord of the Rings as your text, or Coronation Street.

“..In this war-torn part of the world, people must come together in love and unity, just as they did in Weatherfield, after The Rovers burned down.”

On top of all that there’s the sheer banality and fragility of those analogies. The fact that Jesus had nothing practical to say specifically about TATA Steel won’t stop a vicar doggedly teasing something out.

Say something useful or keep quiet

One vicar recently launched into a thought seemingly about knife crime – there had been a spate of stabbings in London – only to fill the remaining two and a half minutes with a report on attending a knife-use evening class, one involving the slicing of vegetables, presented by a chef. (Apparently, it’s down and forward, not back and forth.)

Vicars do not need or deserve airtime

A week earlier, a vicar raved about upcoming Commonwealth Day celebrations. He announced that, though Britain had a ‘painful past’ and had ill-treated lots of faraway people and places, the UK had forgiven itself. Like the abuser speaking on behalf of his victim, he thought all those African nations should just cheer up now and enjoy the idea of our friendship.

The same vicar – he’s a regular – came back on to tell us he’d watched the entire Mad Men boxset on DVD. He claimed to be fascinated by the Don Draper character. He then tried to make an irony-free point about how advertising presents a nice, happy world which is essentially a big lie created by devious men.

This mess of watery pottage – or pot of watery message – needs a counterview to get it out of its lazy rut.

Even the piously religious must find it dull to listen to it because it’s 98% anaemic drivel. The UK Humanist movement had an idea for a secular replacement called Thought for the Commute. It’s a nice idea but then, why not just let the news be news?

Can I get an Amen?

Let’s not hate Vicars unduly. Or Parsons. Or even Rectors – no matter how devoutly they might go about their rectal duties. Vicars do have a role to play in society and it’s mostly this: to be a friend to everyone. No matter how low and alone you feel, you should be able to count on the idea that the vicar will talk nicely to you.

They should be a buffer against individual despair. They should not be given airtime.

Thus ends the sermon.

P.S. after publishing this article, I realised the National Secular Society totally own this campaign and have been in constant contact with the BBC Trust for the past ten years.

P.P.S. You can now enjoy this essay done as a podcast

Part one

Part two


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