In a significant development and welcome break with past policy, humanists are to be represented alongside religions in a new body liaising with the BBC – the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief. The Standing Conference on Religion and Belief succeeds the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC), but independent from the BBC, and will liaise with the BBC on matters of common concern to the BBC and religious groups and, now, humanists.
British Humanist Association (BHA) Chief Executive Hanne Stinson welcomed the inclusion of humanist involvement in the new body. She said, ‘This is a really welcome recognition of the fact that humanists have a legitimate interest in the output of the BBC in relation to religions, philosophy and ethics just as religious people do. Until now humanists have been excluded from any role in relation to the BBC on a level with religious groups and representatives. In an open society, those of religious and non-religious beliefs should have a fair input on matters that concern them and the inclusion of humanist representation in the Standing Conference is a great step towards this.’
Prominent humanists have welcomed this new development. Author Philip Pullman said he was ‘delighted’ to see this development, because ‘the wider the range of voices and opinions represented in the conference, the better it will be. At a time when ‘faith’ seems to have become an all-purpose adjective of vague commendation (faith communities, faith schools, faith groups, and so on) it’s important to help people understand that morality, ethics, concern for the poor and so on are not the sole property of those who believe in a God.’ Philosopher A C Grayling welcomed the development as ‘incredible’, saying, ‘At long last, here is one token of acceptance that the traditional way of thinking about matters of the spirit and matters of the mind needs to be rethought.‘
The first humanist representative invited to join the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief is Andrew Copson, who is director of education and public affairs at the BHA. Mr Copson said, ‘In today’s large and complex society, public service broadcasting is not only one of the main sources of information for large numbers of people, but one of the main ways in which citizens and communities can learn about and from each other, communicate with each other and jointly address the challenges that face them. Religions and beliefs are part of the mix and Humanists, as people with a positive and meaningful philosophy of life – and one that is shared by many people in modern Britain – have a lot to contribute in this area.’
For further comment or information, contact Andrew Copson at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 020 7079 3584 or 07534 248596.
In 1959 a Humanist Broadcasting Council was set up in consultation with the BBC whose members included A J Ayer, Cyril Bibby, Lord Chorley, Lionel Elvin, E M Forster, Morris Ginsberg, Sir Julian Huxley, Margaret Knight, Bertrand Russell, Lord Francis-Williams and others. The Council operated for a number of years and was thought to be of value. In more recent years, the attention of the BHA has been focussed on making the case for humanists to be included alongside religious representatives in liaising with the BBC on relevant matters, including through representations at the time of the Communications Bill’s passage through Parliament and during the renewal of the BBC Charter in 2006.
For the last six years the Communications Act 2003 has been in force which, at section 264(6)(f) defines public service broadcasting as requiring ‘a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with each of the following, science, religion and other beliefs…’ and at section 264(13) defines ‘belief’ as ‘a collective belief in…a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles…’ During the passage of the Act, the responsible minister (Lord McIntosh) made it clear that this included Humanism. Nonetheless, the BBC never extended the remit or membership of its Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC) to recognise the BBC’s new remit of ‘religion and other beliefs’, even though that remit was reconfirmed in the Charter renewal of 2006. The Standing Conference on Religion and Belief will always include a humanist representative.