The poet Malcolm Guite was prompted by the latest spat about Thought for the Day to compose a light-hearted verse to mark the occasion. He called it The Ballade of the Bored Presenter, and it begins like this:
Thought for the Day! let it begin!
My new perspective on today Three minutes on the state we’re in
A breath of spirit through the clay
A chance for those to have their say
On whom such constant scorn is poured
We listen, lifted on our way,
Except John Humphrys who is bored
Every few years we all go around the houses about Thought for the Day. And the debate – which this time round began in these pages – never changes. It has become, to borrow a phrase, “deeply, deeply boring”.
- John Humphrys and Jeremy Vine among BBC male presenters to accept pay cuts
- Today host John Humphrys slammed for “base, smug and condescending” off-air jokes over gender pay gap
But the problem is not the debate itself – it is, of course, perfectly reasonable that every aspect of Today should be called upon to justify its place in the schedule.
The problem is that no other aspect of the programme is turned into the subject of such a continual cycle of debate. There is no permanent state of angst about the presence of football or science. Radio Times does not commission surveys of its readers about the very existence of Today’s arts coverage.
A more cynical mind than mine might even conclude that by this constant process of calling the God slot into question, the slot is being continually problematised and thus strategically undermined. But even this would be bearable were it not for the sneering.
And that was precisely the problem with John Humphrys’ “deeply, deeply boring” comment. It had an edge to it, a sense of assumed superiority. As if there is something about religious belief and religious believers that is not really worthy of his attention or interest.
And this chimes in with a widespread feeling amongst believers that metropolitan liberals in the media think religion is beneath them, that it is not to be taken seriously. Thus we are those “on whom such constant scorn is poured” as Guite puts it.
All of which is why the BBC’s recent report on religion is a welcome corrective. It denies there is a bias in the corporation against religion, of course it does. But nonetheless, it commits to a new approach, a renewed commitment to understanding the way religion functions in the 21st century.
For, as the report acknowledges, currently some 83 per cent of the world’s population has some sort of religious allegiance. And this is expected to rise to 90 per cent in the next decade. There is no way a news organisation can understand the world in which we live without appreciating what it is that motivates the vast majority of its global audience.
And that involves not just looking at religion from the outside, but getting a sense of how it operates from the inside too – how belief functions in the lives of believers and on its own terms. And that’s Thought for the Day.
Personally, I’d like the BBC to open the slot up to those whose belief offers a slightly more edgy critique of mainstream social mores and to those who are a little less house-trained by the establishment.
Then there would be a proper row, of course. Because I suspect that hearing what a great deal of the world actually believes might come as a bit of a shock to some people. But whatever else, it wouldn’t be boring.
Giles Fraser is a writer, broadcaster and priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London