Thought for the Day

Thought for the Day is the ‘pause’ in BBC Radio 4’s prime-time flagship morning news and current affairs programme Today when invited guests reflect on a topical issue from a religious standpoint. The feature is forty years old this year. With each reflection just three minutes in length, few radio broadcasts have acquired such disproportionate significance during recent decades.

Long regarded as a de facto part of the ‘God Slot’, or religious programming, the series has attracted increasing controversy for its persistent exclusion of members of non-religious communities and for being tantamount to a ‘religious monopoly’. The dispute is symptomatic of wider questions surrounding the place of religious broadcasting and of religious speech in an increasingly pluralist and multicultural society.

As a contribution to this ongoing debate about Thought for the Day, the think-tank Ekklesia has commissioned Lizzie Clifford to research a new paper entitled ‘Thought for the Day: Beyond the God-of-the-Slots’. This is substantially based on a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of a representative sample of 72 Thought for the Day scripts from twelve different weeks in 2007-09.

Through this analysis Clifford casts doubt on many of the claims made by defenders and opponents of the current format of Thought for the Day. In particular, ‘What some regard as the feature’s weakness, its attenuated theological content, can in other respects assist with bridge-building and conversation between people of different belief commitments.’

‘On the other hand, the restriction of presenters to those who represent groups with a long-established liturgical and doctrinal base seems unnecessary, given that the actual content of their scripts does not always make such a requirement. Humanists and those from “alternative” religious backgrounds also deserve to be heard.’

The paper further provides evidence about the presenters of the more than 900 Thought for the Day broadcasts during the past three years.

In terms of faith background, 78% of presenters were Christians, 8% Jews, 4% Muslims, 4% Sikhs, 3% Hindus and 2% Buddhists. Relative to the 2001 census of population of the UK, and excluding those with no religious affiliation or none stated, Christians were under-represented as presenters (93% being their expected share, given Thought for the Day’s current brief).

By contrast, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists were over-represented in leading Thought for the Day, with the representation of Muslims nearly right in terms of the census (although their numbers have increased considerably since that time).

As regards gender, 79% of presenters were male and 21% female. This distribution perhaps reflects the gender balance in the media overall, and in the composition of various ecclesiastical hierarchies, but it clearly under-represents the contribution which women make to faith overall. On nearly all indicators of belief and most measures of practice, they are consistently shown as being more religious or spiritual than men. 

Clifford’s report can be downloaded from:

http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/thought_for_the_day/main_report


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2 Responses to Thought for the Day

  1. It is probably worth noting that Ekklesia is not a dispassionate observer of this scene. They campaign for the inclusion of non-religious voices in TFTD. In fact, co-director Jonathan Bartley made this point during a TFTD slot and has not been invited back since – he blames this stance for the reason he has not been invited back.

  2. Simon Barrow says:

    Regarding the anonymous comments above, can I offer some factual clarifications: 1. The researcher involved was not directed in her findings; and indeed there was a lengthy discussion about how Ekklesia would present them in order to make sure that any subsequent views we expressed were distinguished, as appropriate, from her independent work. 2. Ekklesia does not ‘campaign’ for the inclusion of non-religious voices on TfTD. As part of an ongoing debate we have, however, set out why, on both broadcasting and theological grounds, we think there is no need to exclude them. 3. Jonathan Bartley did not make this point during a TfTD slot (though he was a regular contributor in 2007). He did, however, answer questions on the issue on the Today programme and in a subsequent R4 discussion with a BBC executive. 4. No-one is ‘blaming’ anyone for anything. The facts are that, in a subsequent exchange, BBC Religion and Ethics made it clear that as a result of his views about opening up the slot, Jonathan would not be invited back as a contributor. His ‘Thoughts’ had previously been commended by the Corporation. We (deliberately) chose not to make an issue of this at the time, or even to publicise it. It has subsequently come onto the public record, but it is not a factor either in this report, or in the previous preliminary one – which sets out the background to the debate (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/thought_for_the_day). We hope these documents will be appraised and responded to on the basis of their content, and that they will enrich a debate which has seemed high in opinion and octane, but low on data and analysis.

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