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?

bishops in the house of lords

A very early example of an Occupy movement


Every morning at 7:48, 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 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, familiar noise, not even as reassuring 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.

But it is a weird tradition. You’d have to admit, the nation that produced Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin still has an odd, clingy relationship with religion.

The UK is a monarchy, with gay rights. We feel pretty free and secular, but officially we are subjects. Our kings and queens – we still in theory maintain – are ordained by god. They are born higher than you and me, in the same way white supremacists are born higher than whoever they currently feel higher than.

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 full endorsement.

The jolly, down-to-earth vicars of Thought for the Day are part of, and apologists for, those same institutions.

Then and now. How Britain still sees Africa?

Our state bishops sit in parliament, on nice red cushions, un-elected. On our behalf, they get to vote on e.g. the Climate Change Bill, knowing their holy book predicts the world will be consumed by fire anyway, so why the big fuss about melting ice?

Their daily appearance 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. The Green Party, the RLNI, those Net Neutrality people, Prof. Brian Cox – no one else gets three uninterrupted minutes to talk to the nation every day.

Society should remind this vicary group that, even though lately they’ve changed their image because no one believes anymore, for centuries they wielded a ruthless power, here and around the world. The church was also the beard of capitalism, as Jonathan Meades once said.

Wherever they appear, but especially on a news programme, someone should be allowed to at the very least counter what they say. Might I suggest Doug Stanhope?

Wanna be lectured?

There’s 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. But our progressiveness is often double-edged. How long until we see the UK’s first Jedi Academy refuse its first Hindu kid?

Thought for the Day, like many 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 the vicar’s script in advance and decide it’s bollocks. “Call him and tell him, steel tariffs are not a bit like Jesus,’ said a Today editor never, ‘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 the morning.”

The vicar stays in the picture

When a magazine wants to distance itself from content it doesn’t officially endorse, they slap the word Advertorial across the top. More commonly, you 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 have some equivalent introduction.

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 strict theology. It’s as if they grasp how unwarranted their privilege is and demur from any doctrine of weight.

Mostly the message is so vague and watered-down, it fails even on it’s own terms. Bewildered, we’re often the ones having to come up with the titular thought.

Vicars of all religions long ago fell into a standard pattern – 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. It 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 burnt 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.

Slit up a treat

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 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 one of the regulars – 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.

It’s hard for even the religious to listen to, because it’s 98% 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. Or Parsons. Or even Rectors – no matter how piously 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.

Now enjoy this essay done as a podcast

Part one

Part two

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