Thought For The Day's unholy rows

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

Image caption,
Secularists have accused the slot of "discriminating against the non-religious"

Pope Benedict's Christmas message for the BBC's Thought For The Day has invoked the ire of secularists - but the slot is no stranger to controversy.

It is billed as an oasis of calm amid the arguments and interrogations of Radio 4's Today programme.

But Thought For The Day - the two-and-a-half minute segment offering "reflections from a faith perspective" - has invariably found itself the focus of as much heated debate as any forensic grilling conducted by John Humphrys.

Condemned by critics as anodyne and anachronistic, it has nonetheless acted as the focus of furious rows about homosexuality, immigration, the Middle East conflict and T-bone steaks.

Now the National Secular Society has accused the BBC of handing the pope "an unquestioned slot to continue whitewashing his Church's disgraceful record on covering up child abuse" and failing to interrogate him as they would any other world leader.

It is a development which mirrors the rise in secularism and increased levels of debate about the role of religion in British society that has, perhaps inevitably, resulted in the strand becoming ever more contested in recent years.

Here are some of Thought for the Day's most controversial moments.

Middle East conflict

When: 2005

Who was speaking: The Rev John Bell of the Iona Community.

What was said: Dr Bell spoke of meeting an Arab man conscripted into the Israeli army, and told listeners the 19-year-old corporal had been jailed for refusing to shoot Palestinian schoolchildren.

Reaction: The BBC received dozens of complaints from members of the public who pointed out that the story could not be true: Israeli Arabs were exempt from conscription into the army and it would be impossible for a 19-year-old to rise to the rank of corporal. The corporation apologised and said it should have fact checked the script prior to broadcast. Dr Bell admitted he had made "factual errors" and offered his own apology.


When: 2002

Who was speaking: More than 100 public figures including Harold Pinter, broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy, novelist John Fowles and former Labour leader Michael Foot.

What was said: The group wrote to BBC governors demanding that Thought for the Day be opened up to secular and atheist thinkers, accusing the corporation of "discriminating against the non-religious".

Reaction: The BBC granted Oxford professor and evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins two-and-a-half minutes in a different time slot to broadcast an "alternative Thought For The Day". In it, he argued the belief that God is an "infantile regression." He added: "Humanity can now leave the cry-baby phase and finally come of age. That is a thought for more than one day."

Beef ban

When: 1998

Who was speaking: The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Thomas Butler.

What was said: Dr Butler spoke out against the ban on selling beef on the bone over BSE fears, warning that the British "don't like laws which they feel make little sense". He added: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if the people could get back to enjoying their T-bone steaks without becoming criminals?"

Reaction: Tony Blair, the then-prime minister, insisted in the House of Commons that the ban was necessary. Rt Rev Michael Marshall, assistant bishop of London, hit out at his ecclesiastical colleague, sniffing: "Beef on the bone does not fall within the realms of applied theology." But Dr Butler said he had not been making a political point.


When: 1996

Who was speaking: Anne Atkins, an actress, writer, evangelical Christian and vicar's wife.

What was said: Atkins attacked the Church of England for "celebrating 20 years of gay sex" after a service was planned at Southwark Cathedral to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. She urged Church to condemn the "sin" of homosexuality.

Reaction: The broadcast resulted in the curious spectacle of the Church of England complaining to the BBC about Thought For The Day and demanding an apology. In turn, supporters of Mrs Atkins lambasted the Church's director of communications, the Rev Eric Shegog, at the General Synod over his protests. For her part, Mrs Atkins was soon appointed by the Daily Telegraph as the paper's first-ever agony aunt.


When: 1971

Who was speaking: Dr Colin Morris, Methodist minister.

What was said: On the eve of the Conservative government's immigration bill debate, Dr Morris attacked the proposed legislation as un-Christian.

Reaction: The Tory chief whip sent for a copy of the script and passed on complaints from Tory supporters that the slot had displayed political bias. In response, Dr Morris "voluntarily but reluctantly" withdrew from two planned broadcasts, although he subsequently returned to the Thought For The Day panel and went on to become the BBC's head of religious broadcasting.

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