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Lords call for humanist broadcasting at the BBC

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has echoed the Government’s response to a debate in the House of Lords last night on the BBC, Humanism, and Thought for the Day, saying that it ‘hopes the BBC has been listening’. The debate, called by Lord Harrison, and in which a number of peers declared their interest as ‘Happy Humanists’, took place on the eve of the BBC Trust’s deliberations on whether to allow non-religious contributors to the Today programme’s Thought for the Day.

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education and Public Affairs, said, ‘In a welcome break with past policy, humanists are now represented alongside religions in the new body liaising with the BBC on matters of common concern – the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief. While this change is significant in principle, in practice the BBC continues to discriminate against humanists and Humanism in its broadcasting. In speeches in last night’s debate, the extent to which humanism is ignored by the BBC was laid out – not one programme by humanists for humanists, not a single humanist contributor to Thought for the Day.’

Mr Copson continued, ‘As the BBC Trustees deliberate today on these matters, I hope they have been listening not only to the serious arguments put forward in the debate, but also to the thousands of people who have contacted them calling for inclusion of humanists and Humanism in BBC broadcasting.’

Opening last night’s debate, Lord Harrison, argued ‘that the BBC has failed the humanist community in Britain both in the spirit and in the letter of the Communications Act 2003, which requires the BBC to schedule programmes on religion and other beliefs, including humanism…The truth is that religious public broadcasting is growing while Anglicanism contracts.’

Lord Birt, former Director-General of the BBC, spoke from his personal experiences with Thought for the Day at the BBC, saying, ‘The BBC must one day soon loosen the stranglehold of the established religious organisations and more fully embrace the humanist movement.’ He then described the humanist tradition as ‘a loose network of individuals broadly exercised by questions of the spirit, concerned to optimise the sum total of human happiness here on earth; individuals naturally respectful of others, wedded to rationalism and to scientific rigour, revering all life, unafraid to proclaim and to celebrate the joy of existence and the richness of human expression.’

Former Health Minister Lord Warner, said that ‘I think it is important that public service broadcasters such as the BBC provide a proper opportunity for the alternative to the faith-based viewpoint to be heard regularly. That is the importance of the 2006 agreement. 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”.’

Former Cabinet Minister and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston CBE, spoke as ‘a non-believer who was responsible as executive producer for factual programming, including religious output, at both Granada and Scottish Television.’ He welcomed BBC Trust Chair Sir Michael Lyon’s commitment to look at the way the BBC serves the interests of citizens who are humanists and hoped that ‘seven years on from the Communications Act, we can now anticipate that proper coverage of those “other beliefs” will be consolidated on BBC screens in 2010.’

Baroness Massey of Darwen, said that ‘Humanism is growing in strength. It has growing public recognition in non-religious ceremonies such as marriages, funerals and baptisms. This has made significant contributions to public policy. The moral values held by humanists are weighed and considered. Humanism is a philosophy in its own right and is not a negative response to religion. The BBC needs in its programmes to give a perspective from the non-religious viewpoint.’


For further comment or information, contact Andrew Copson on 07534 248596, or Naomi Phillips on 020 7079 3585 or 07540 257101.

Speakers included: Lord Harrison, Baroness Massey of Darwen, Baroness Young of Hornsey, Lord Birt, Lord Warner, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, Lord Joffe, Lord Taverne.

Read the full text of the debate:

If you want to watch/listen…
From about 3 hours 9 minutes.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious, campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief.

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