The Times reports that the BBC is considering whether it needs to diversify its religious coverage, fearing that it may be too Christian.
Lord Hall, the director-general, is considering findings that show there is a disproportionate amount of programming by the corporation on Christian matters compared with other faiths.
Disproportionate? Okay, let’s talk about proportions. Here is the breakdown of religions in the UK from the Census.
So, as far as named religions go, it’s Christian, Muslim, and ‘Other’. In case you’re interested in what the ‘Other’ consists of, we have this, also from the census:
In words, there are as many Muslims in the UK as there are Hindu, Sikh, Jew, Buddhist, and ‘Miscellaneous’ put together. Jews, in particular, make up only half of one percent of the population. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to assume that these proportions are broadly correct.
So what would a ‘proportionate’ approach do to a programme like Radio 4’s daily homily, ‘Thought for the Day’? Let’s stick, for the moment, with the Corporation’s long held view that ‘No religion’ isn’t a religion, and let’s bundle ‘unstated’ in there with them. If you won’t even name your religion on a census reply, it’s a fair guess that it doesn’t mean that much to you. No? Well, I’m going to do it anyway. So here’s the new pie chart, which I gone done myself, using that there Excel.
What this means, to those of you who not only don’t like numbers, but don’t like pie charts either, is as follows. Every day of the month, bar three, Thought for the Day would be Christian, of some denomination or other (I’m not going to delve into that particular question – for our purposes all Christians are the same, and those who disagree can issue a fatwa against me. Actually, I’m also considering all Muslims the same too, which might be more problematic, but the fact remains that Thought for the Day invariably steers clear of anything which might be considered divisive, so let’s leave it). On two of the other three days, a suitably conciliatory imam would give his thoughts from a Muslim perspective. On the other day of the month, the remaining faiths would rotate. On even months, say, it would be the Hindus turn. On the odd months, Jews, Buddhists and Sikhs would rotate the right to give their Thought.
Just think about that for a moment. Dr Jonathan Sacks would get the microphone for one day in January, and then wait until his turn came round again in July. Akhandhadi Das would get February and August, Lord Singh a day in March and one in September and so on. Twice a year. And that’s to say nothing of those ‘Others’ – the Zoroastrians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bah’ai, who currently don’t get a look in at all, but on a proportional treatment ought to get a go every few years.
What actually happens? Well, the BBC’s page of regular contributors, reveals 13 Christians, two Jews, one Sikh, one Hindu and one Buddhist. And no Muslims. Unless I’ve radically misread the affiliations of such people as Lord Singh, or Vishvapani, there isn’t a single representative of the UK’s second religion among the regular contributors, and those of the Jewish faith are singularly over-represented.[i]
That isn’t to say that we don’t hear from Muslims. A quick scan of who we have heard from in the last month shows the following:
No numbers on that one, (if you’re that bothered (C,M,H,S,J,B)=(60,3,1,2,4,2)) but just comparing the pie to the original one shows us that the BBC is making a fair fist of representing the Christian majority of the nation, and falling down a bit on giving us far too much Jewish, Buddhist and Sikh presence, and nowhere near enough Muslim to be ‘proportionate’. Given that this is the job of Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, and a Muslim himself, the only constituency he seems to be letting down, in the proportion stakes, is his own.
So no doubt this review of Lord Hall’s is addressing this question, beefing up the Muslim representation, and back-pedalling the others? Well, only sort of. The message emerging from reports on the review is that there is a fear that coverage is too Christian.
Now, doubtless Christians – particularly Christian broadcasters – feel threatened by this. The Church of England responded with “Any comprehensive review needs to move beyond arguments of mere proportionality to embrace the need not only for greater religious literacy but also increased resources to explore religious world views.”
This is an odd response, given that, as the numbers above show, proportionality is distinctly on the side of the Christians. It may well be that there are reasons why other faiths deserve more coverage which are not related to proportionality, but it is simply plain wrong to suggest that there is too much Christian programming compared to the populace. The overwhelming majority of religious people in the country are Christian. Even the millions of Muslims that cause so many column inches in the press are a tiny, tiny minority. There may indeed be good reasons why programming should be disproportionate, in order, say, to educate the less informed about precisely what it is that these minor minority faiths believe, but to suggest that they are proportionally larger than they are is in fact to stoke the fears of precisely those people that need to be better informed.
However, let’s go back a few paragraphs, because there’s a bigger elephant in the BBC’s room, and it can’t continue to ignore it. Look at that top pie-chart. One third of people (or if you won’t accept my conflation of ‘no answer’ with ‘no religion’, one quarter) profess to have no religion at all. It is a common slur against the religion-free that they must be immoral, rudderless, or at best have nothing useful or interesting to say about life, co-operation, and what may be loosely called ‘spirituality’: it is perfectly true that being of ‘no religion’ does not necessarily mean that you have no belief in the supernatural, but even those who don’t are likely to acknowledge a spiritual element to their lives – in music, perhaps, or art – even if they believe that there is an empirical basis for it.
It is surely time for the correct proportion of religious programming to be given over to those who have no religion at all. What next, some might say – a correct proportion of music programming to be given over to the tone deaf? A correct proportion of sport programming given over to overweight barflies who lift pints more than anything else (oh wait – we have Darts)? This is to miss the point. Though I will be the first to deny that having no religion is a religion, that lack of faith is a faith, it is certainly relevant to religious questions to know what it is that atheists, for example, believe, what gets them up in the morning, and what motivates them to achieve what they do, since compared to every faith, those things are the least understood.
Let’s start by getting an atheist speaker on Thought for the Day. And to make it proportionate, they must be on at least twice a week.
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[i] Post Naz/Livingstone, I’m very nervous about saying this. I want to make it clear that I only mean ‘over’ represented in the sense that the proportion of presenters is greater than the proportion of Jews in the country, and not at all in any sense that it is not deserved or warranted.