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 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 United Kingdom is just that, a kingdom, a monarchy. We have gay rights, we have a secular feel. But officially we are subjects not citizens. We have 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 we still constitutionally maintain are ordained by a Christian god and born higher than you and me.

That means born higher in the same way white supremacists are born higher than whoever they currently want to feel higher than. It’s a 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 full blessing and 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 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 – so why 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 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 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. But our progressiveness is often double-edged. How easy is it to imagine 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 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 the morning.”

When a magazine wants to distance itself from content 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 at the very least 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 of impact.

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 where and what the titular thought actually was.

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 something 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 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.

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

I imagine it’s hard for even the piously religious 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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Boris Johnson, King of the Cornflake People, Mayor of your City

The Tories don’t like nuance. For a start it’s too nuanced. They like to put a finger in the air and then let you have their certain conclusions. The mild mannered expert, the academic, emailing a hefty, nuanced report is just a wishy-washy bothersome waste of time.

And we know what time is.

It’s obvious to say, but the Tories do like money. They trust things that make money. Just as they are confused by and distrustful of things that don’t.

The NHS, old people, the unemployed, art galleries, forests, foreigners, spare bedrooms, academics writing hefty reports or trying to preserving wildlife, or cyclists – to people like Boris Johnson, these things are all deeply suspicious.

When Boris talked openly about lovely old greed, and the natural order, and the Good Samaritan being necessarily a wealthy man (ergo even Jesus Christ likes greed), and the tax-avoiding true-Brit Margret Thatcher  being an inspiration, and people with high IQ’s being the natural engine behind economic success in London, it’s difficult to know which of his dim-witted delusions to think about first.

Just equating money-making with high a IQ, brainy equals rich, is profoundly simplistic. As is equating people to cornflakes that rise or fall in the packet.

Boris overlooked all those clever cornflakes, the people with high IQs who are not interested in money or self aggrandisement. There are far more High IQ Cornflakes who object to greed and an idea of a happiness index linked to the economy, just as there are plenty of low IQ Conflakes who make piles of money. You only have to look at Michael O’Leary or Simon Cowell to know that.

Johnson’s ideas about people and cornflakes and IQ’s and greed are hopelessly deluded, and on so many levels, but the most unforgivable thing is that as the Mayor of a major city, he hasn’t looked at the plentiful and nuanced data readily available on how cities work best.

Cities that at least chase an idea of equality (rents, road usage, planning permission, shared spaces, sports and arts venues) are happiest.

The happiest cities in the world (they publish lists every year) are the ones that work well for all citizens. Not just the ones with high IQs or lots of money.

No British city ever get’s onto these lists, by the way. Not even at the bottom. If you think of these lists as a sort of ‘rich list’ (just to help the Tories grasp this concept) then London, and every other British city, is miserably poor.

Again, you see Boris’s confusion about things that don’t (at a glance) make money in his attitude to those terribly bothersome dead cyclists.

When a handful of cyclists are killed each month in his city, under his watch, it’s most commonly a lorry or construction vehicle that’s done the squashing.

Boris looks at this situation and thinks this: lorries are important, they are the machines of industry, busy making money. Cyclist should respect that and be more careful to make way.

The nuance any mayor could and should have picked up on by now is that cycling makes money for the city.

Besides all the benefits to health, and the consequent effect of individual productivity, there’s the huge reduction in wear and tear on city infrastructure. Cleverer Mayors than Boris (there are many) have engaged with this idea. Their cities are on that list I mentioned above.

When a lorry kills a cyclist, let’s say a doctor or a news reader, this is confusing to Boris too. Despite being a cyclist himself, he see’s cyclists mainly as poor people who can’t afford the train.

But lorries are no respecter of income. Doctors and News Readers and nice bright high IQ Cornflakes get squashed by lorries just as often as people in other social classes.

In the nuanced scheme of things, a smart mayor might have concluded that it might be more cost effective for the Lorry – let’s imagine it was off to deliver sugar sachets to a tax-avoiding coffee shop chain – to stay off the road and let the Doctor arrive safely at work to help keep hundreds of Londoners healthy.

Of course the biggest delusion of all that Boris is helping to perpetuate is this idea of clever people being rich, and vice versa.

fish

Let’s paint a picture. There’s a man living in a shack by the sea. He catches a fish each day and eats it while watching the sun go down. He’s fictional so we can describe him as being happy with his life. Far more content than say multimillionaire George Osborne.

His life may be simple but he’s not interested handouts. He’s against a ‘something for nothing’ culture. Not like people who inherit millions from their Dads. No, but he is interested in carefully judging the least amount of work-related stress he can put in for an acceptable, livable return.

For return, read life. He’s doing the intelligent thing of putting in just enough effort to be happy and free.

The Tory view of the world is that the poor and lower-middle income earners are all proto-rich. They could all be wealthy, they just haven’t applied themselves yet. If these people just pulled their fingers out and worked much, much harder, they’d have Air Miles and Range Rovers and be a huge help to the economy.

It’s hard to see the world through someone else’s eyes, but most of us – let’s stick a Tory-like finger in the air and say categorically it’s 60% of us – have no desire to spend a single moment working any harder than we absolutely have to in order to be happy.

And it’s not because we’re feckless. It’s not because we hate the idea of owning a yacht. It’s because we want to have a good life.

We want time with friends and family. We want to sleep in. We want simple things that take time, like reading books, redecorating the spare bedroom, listening to music, walking in nature, kicking a ball around the park and unhurriedly eating a bowl of cornflakes.

Spokes Persons at Quiet Protest – Published 26 Jul 2008

critical mass

I went on my first ever Critial Mass bicycle ride through London yesterday and felt quietly proud and very positive to have been part of the protest.

Critical Mass London is a very loose organisation. They have no real manifesto other than bikes are positive and why, in London, is there so little provision for them? Any other political message you bring along yourself.

The bicycle in front of me had a sticker on the back that read: It doesn’t take a war to power my bike.

The Mass meet at 6.00pm on the last Friday of every month on the South Bank under Waterloo Bridge, by the National Film Theatre.

They set off on a slow bike ride through London, delaying motorists by taking up the whole road. There is no planned route.

The Police – generally very supportive of the event – are on bikes too and stop the traffic at junctions. Pedestrians often cheer and snap pictures with their phones. 

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Comments

Christian‘ left this comment on 3 Aug 08
Saw this on your Facebook page. Well done in taking part and nice photo!

Ideas to Help the Rich – Published: 9 Nov 2006

An interesting problem I think a lot of rich people face these days is how to show-off their wealth whilst still appearing ethical and environmentally sound.

Take cars. Rich people around town tend drive those extremely unethical luxury SUVs. At least some of them must know that makes them look dim, but what can they do? What is there on the market that say’s ‘I’m very rich, but not stupid; I care about the planet but more about my appearance‘?

If they buy a small, economical car, and take their one child to school in it, other rich parents will look down from their four-tonne Range Rovers and assume some hardship, some stock price collapse is to blame.

What car manufacturers need to do is wake up to this obvious new market: very expensive small cars.

electric three wheeled carSmall cars, perhaps plated with gold leaf, that are economical on fuel, low on emissions, but out of the price range of most people.

You could have diamond-studded bumpers but then you have to ask would they be fair-trade diamonds? This is no joke, most of our diamonds come from extremely unethical companies.

You could, for example, have a Citroen Xsara Picasso with a real Picasso stuck on bonnet. You could have a simple Toyota Yaris but with a luxury yacht being towed behind – all the time.

Or you could even just leave a box of Ferrero rochers on the dashboard.

The important thing is not that the car is any good (if that was important why would so many rich people buy Range Rovers?) No, the important thing is it needs to be obvious it cost a lot. And that’s all.

Peace Tax Seven

A small ad in the back of Private Eye, for an outfit called The Peace Tax Seven, caught my attention the other day. I looked them up on the web.

Apparently they are trying to raise money to mount a legal challenge against the government for using their taxes to pay for war. They reckon they can set a legal precedent using the new European Convention on Human Rights.

They are happy to pay tax, they claim, they just don’t want it used to build bombs and make bullets. UK law, apparently, recognises ‘freedom of conscience’ as a human right, meaning they could refuse to part with the money simply because they feel it is wrong to buy weapons.

UK tax law, however, does not recognise ‘freedom of conscience’. What a surprise.

So these guys want to put it to the test… is tax law a higher law than laws to do with human rights.

I do hope they get their day in court but my guess is tax law trumps all other laws in the world. Even Boyles law (pV=k).

Quatermass

This week Nigel Kneale, the guy who created the Quatermass TV serials, died aged of 84. I was just thinking Children of Men, a rather good, eerie  British Sci-fi flick, felt like something he might have written. 

Liverpool – introducing its all new private police force and gated city centre – Published: 28 Sep 2006

Butt-raped by the Tories, now ‘stolen’ and sold off by Labour, Liverpool is being used in yet another of John Precott’s piss-poor PFI experiments.

If you think any of that stuff I spew about Tesco and ‘High Street Anywhere’ is appalling, you’ll die a little inside when you consider what they are currently doing to city centre Liverpool. 

43 acres at the heart of this city has been demolished to build shit like this… (See picture of shitty thing below.) Gosh how happy we’ll all be. People from all over Europe will flock to Liverpool because it has the newest, sparkliest versions of all the same chainstores you can find everywhere else.

And they’ve called it The Paradise Project

The faded splendour of Liverpool’s past is not to be restored, cherished and passed on to other generations. It is to be flattened so that Specsavers can expand. Now that’s short-sighted.

It is also – horror of horrors – privatized! Liverpool sold the whole area, public rights of way and everything, on a 250 year lease to a private company (Grosvenor). So, thanks to John Prescott, Liverpool city centre will have it’s own gated rules, it’s own privately run police force, you’ll have to conform to how the Grosvenor greedsters want you to behave when you cross into their domain… 

And so Liverpool becomes a Philip K Dick novel.

Liverpool One

From johndavies.org

Anna Minton’s work is concerned with other zones of conflict, subtler or more hidden, and worryingly closer to home. In her illustrations about how space is being privatised a shocking first emerged about Liverpool.

This is the first British city to agree to privatise part of its centre. The Grosvenor Paradise Project, covering 42 acres in the heart of the city, due for completion in time for 2008, is to be privately managed. Traditional rights of way will be replaced by ‘public realm arrangements’ policed by Grosvenor’s own ‘quartermasters’ or ‘sheriffs’, in which beggars, skateboarders and protesters will be outlawed.

Grosvenor will buy-in facilities like security and waste management, usurping the local authority’s role in its own city centre. “We are now seeing a real urban renaissance. A new Agenda – A new urbanism,” says John Prescott on the Paradise Project website.

The full, alarming article on the same subject… http://www.buildingtalk.com/news/tch/tch388.html gives you an insight into the tiny PFI-addled mind of John Prescott.

Shopping for tat is what out economy is now based on. That’s the great, great sadness here I feel.

Also it is sad that, to the current generation of politicians, the success of a town or city is measured entirely on whether people shop there.

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Comments

A visitor‘ left this comment on 17 Oct 06
How will anyone tell the difference from normal though?
Dogs Must Be Carried‘ left this comment on 14 Oct 06
So that’ll be riots in Liverpool in the spring of 2009, then. Excellent.

 

Apollo Greed – Published: 15 Sep 2006

1. One for your web-heads to kick off…
http://emptybottle.org/bullshit/

2. We all know Tesco is an evil monopolistic greed machine, but after reading this news about them taking on Argos, I did feel just a slight sympathy for them.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/supermarkets/story/0,,1861699,00.html

Basically they’ll move into someone else’s patch (as they do, relentlessly) by launching Tesco Direct, a home shopping service which will have (slightly) better home delivery options (i.e. they’ll deliver when you are actually at home – who knew anyone wanted that?) than Argos – thus beating them!

If it were anyone other than Argos you might care. But, frankly, Argos deserve to be wiped of the face of the shoddily inferior self-assembly home furnishings planet. http://www.tescopoly.org/

3. On the subject of rampant greed… Anyone seen what they are doing to the Brunswick Centre? I went there recently to visit SKOOB – a good secondhand bookshop – only to find the urban planners were re-modelling the place. SKOOB is no more.
http://www.thebrunswickproject.co.uk/

This is what the planners say they have done: They have created “…a fresh dialogue between the architecture of The Brunswick Centre, the local community and the general public.” Presumably that ‘fresh dialogue’ involves people spending all their money in bunch of chain stores.

Look. If you are an urban planner, why don’t you just kill yourself now? We need a cull. Then we need to start again. Everything you stand for is wrong. 

If you don know this area, it’s another quirky corner of London that’s about to have all the living quirk kicked out of it. The quirk (second hand bookshops, camera shops, independent restaurants etc.) is being be replaced by cleaned up ‘space’ home to a giant Waitrose, Starbucks, Specsavers and on and on.

It’s being turned into yet another High Street Anywhere.

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Worth Waiting For

The definition of democracy is, or should be, this: the choice between two middle-aged, middleclass white men with similar views.

Democracy is worth fighting for, we are reminded quite often. We have one. And we must preserve it!

We seemingly bombed Iraq into being a democracy. They can now vote. The choice will now be two or three similar men in suits, they get to put one of them in charge.

Of course the word democratic should imply a representation of what most of us want, at any given moment.

I live in a democracy, yet I don’t see the majority of people getting their way on anything.

We got Jedi registered as a official religion, thanks to some curious census data. That seems pretty democratic. Trying to be devil’s advocate here, but can’t think of another example.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon

The Tories admit they made some bad decisions when they privatised the rail network, way back when. Public transport in this country is broken. And forever. Most of us, presumably, voted for them. But did we vote for them to do that? Who can we vote for to undo it? Michael Palin? (if only). 

They made changes that no one voted for. Now the choo-choos are broken. Mmmm, democracy. I’d vote for it to be mended.

I didn’t vote for the Post Office to be privatised. I was happy with it the way it was. I suspect 56 million other people felt roughly the same in the UK. Yet, for the benefit of a few share holders, they privatised it and now it’s broken.

You now have a 60-40 chance of your letter actually arriving. The kind of odds you can reasonably work with?

It’s the same with gas, with electricity, with telephones, with water, our town centres, with traffic calming, our roads, our buses, our airports, cameras watching us (we’re the most watched-by-cameras nation in the whole world).

Did any of you vote fot that?

They keep selling bits of things to private greedsters, for some short term win. I’d vote against that, if they’d let me.

It’s easier than it ever was to be democratic in the digital age. You could send a democratic text. Send ‘build no’ or ‘build yes’ to the Can Tesco Build Another Hypermarket in the middle of your Town and Restructure Your Road Network Vote. Calls cost nothing because it’s democratic.

Just an example.

We should vote on more things, since we can. Anyway. here’s something…

http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Democratic_20dictionary