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:

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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