Ex BBC head: let atheists break in to religious slot

Lord Birt, a former Director General of the BBC, has said the broadcaster should let atheists muscle in on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

Critics say that a secular bias already dominates 177 minutes of the Today Programme which carries the three minute Thought for the Day slot.

But Lord Birt, who led the BBC in the 90s said: “The BBC must one day soon loosen the stranglehold of the established religious organisations and more fully embrace the humanist movement.”

The BBC Trust is expected to make a decision next week on whether to allow secularists and humanists on the three minute slot.

Lord Birt was speaking during a short debate on the issue in the House of Lords.

Lord Harrison, who also spoke in the debate, said: “we humanists are still denied even a walk-on part on Thought for the Day”.

And former Health Minister Lord Warner said humanism needed to be more prominent on the BBC.

He said: “This alternative viewpoint also needs to be heard regularly on prime time and prestige programmes, not just Thought for the Day but also TV programmes such as Question Time or Newsnight.”

But the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, said Thought for the Day is “a distinctive slot where faith perspectives can be given on the day’s news. Once that is lost, it loses its role.”

Secular and humanist groups have campaigned for the slot to be opened to those outside religious groups.

But in July a cross-party group of MPs said Thought for the Day should remain a religious slot.

Twelve MPs signed an Early Day Motion submitted by Iris Robinson.

The Strangford MP was joined by DUP party leader Peter Robinson, Labour MP Paul Murphy and Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton.

The motion argued that since “the United Kingdom is founded on Christian principles”, the BBC should maintain the tradition of religious speakers on Thought for the Day.

When the BBC Trust announced in July that it would review the slot and possibly allow secular and humanist speakers, current contributors were quick to reject the idea.

Regular Thought for the Day speaker Christina Rees said she thought the Today Programme is already secular enough.

She said: “Devoting 177 minutes to coverage of world events from a default secular position, it is entirely reasonable to devote three minutes to comments on news which reflect an understanding of humanity and life that includes the spiritual.”

“Over 80 per cent of people, if not more, have a faith and many more accept a spiritual dimension to life”, she added.

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