Wireless, but not yet faithless

03 October 2007

The BBC marked the 40th anniversary of the reorganisation of its radio network last week. David Hendy looks at Radio 4 and religion over the past four decades

Today’s influence: John Humphrys (left) and James Naughtie in the Radio 4 Today studio BBC

Today’s influence: John Humphrys (left) and James Naughtie in the Radio 4 Today studio BBC

RADIO 4 and the Church of England are words that sit rather nicely side-by-side. That is because these two institutions share an aura of Establishment respectability.

Both are seen — somewhat inaccurately — as organs of the state, influential in shaping cultural horizons and in providing a daily flow of comforting rituals. It could also be argued that both are held up as models of civility, mild eccentricity, understated intelligence, and fair-mindedness — emblematic, indeed, of an attitude to life, of a certain national character.

The fact that many BBC personnel — and not just those in the Corporation’s religious-broadcasting departments — have taken to the ministry at one stage or another speaks volumes about a shared desire somehow to “do good”. Then, of course, there are the programmes themselves: Thought for the Day, the Daily Service, Sunday, Something Understood. Together, they have ensured that Radio 4 has always had about it a vaguely moral, Christian aura.

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, the Corporation’s founding father, John Reith, believed unequivocally that for any nation to flourish politically it would first have to inculcate among its people the “proper” sort of spiritual disposition. He saw wireless — pervasive and cheap — as the perfect instrument for this noble project. There is a sense in which Radio 4 does indeed carry Reithianism into the modern era.

Why, then, does the station’s own 40-year history reveal a distinctly more fraught relationship behind the scenes? Search the BBC’s archives, and you find a steady stream of letters to and fro between assorted clerics and Radio 4 apparatchiks, constantly arguing over strong language or perceived blasphemies and moral transgressions in afternoon plays. There have also been agonised debates inside Broadcasting House about the whole place of religion on the airwaves.

Over the decades, the subject of disagreement has tended to fall into one of two categories: either morality in general, or the specific relationship between religion and politics. Some disputes fell into both categories. Most erupted from a fundamental misunderstanding of the BBC’s public purposes.

Questions of morality came into sharp focus in the early 1970s as part of a broader reaction against the “permissive society” — at a time when Radio 4 was undoubtedly becoming a little more open-necked and rebellious, and offering grittier (though hardly explicit) dramas and feature-programmes.

The Maoist wing in the backlash was led by the Festival of Light and Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Quite apart from reaching for the Basildon Bond whenever the word “abortion” passed the lips of Sue MacGregor or William Hardcastle, the two organisations sent a delegation to the BBC in 1971, arguing that broadcasting was “not the place” for reflecting changing standards in matters of language, taste, or lifestyle.

The Corporation, they argued, was giving “undue prominence to the abnormal, the deviant, the obscene” when it had “a clear duty to exercise leadership in certain fundamental moral issues”.

The moderate wing of the backlash was given voice two years later by Robert Runcie, then Bishop of St Albans. In a carefully worded document, he accused the BBC of having gradually abandoned its historic support of the Christian faith.

In both instances, the BBC’s responses were considered but firm. The Corporation accepted certain moral responsibilities: for instance, that it could not be neutral as between right and wrong, and that it could not be indifferent to public feeling — indeed, that it needed to avoid deliberate offence. On the other hand, it also argued that, within the “boundaries of the moral consensus”, its task was to encourage “the free passage of moral ideas”.

The Director-General, Charles Curran, replied to Bishop Runcie: “It does not seem to me to be an inherent duty of broadcasting to make people join the Christian faith.” His words, by the way, were entirely unoriginal: they came from a speech given by a previous Director-General back in 1948.

The post-war BBC could hardly be accused of inconsistency.

In the second, more overtly political category of dispute, one obvious lightning conductor has been Thought for the Day. The programme has changed enormously since 1970: by stages, it has become shorter, sharper, less male-dominated, and more ecumenical — though still curiously unwilling to offer any houseroom to humanism or atheism.

It has, however, always spelled political trouble for Radio 4. In 1971, the cause célèbre was the Revd Dr Colin Morris, a Methodist minister then freshly returned from Africa. Dr Morris used the programme to offer listeners a devastating critique of the Government’s Immigration Bill, which proposed denying entry to anyone without a father or grandfather born in Britain.

Under the Bill’s terms, he pointed out, the patron saints David, Andrew, and George would most definitely be excluded, as, indeed, would Jesus. Downing Street protested, and Dr Morris was unceremoniously dropped for several months. A decade or so later, the explosive issue was a widening divide between rich and poor. As one of the programme’s producers at the time, the now Canon David Winter recalls: Margaret Thatcher provoked the ire of the clerics “like no other”.

The late Bishop Jim Thompson and the current Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, were just two among those appearing regularly to describe the sliding quality of inner-city life under laissez-faire economics. From the BBC’s point of view, of course, this had to be managed carefully. As the 1987 General Election approached, a BBC executive told the programme team that he did not want “some lefty bishop on Thought for the Day queering our pitch”.

Censorship, though obviously not unknown, was rare. The real problem was in constantly negotiating the line between those who believed that Christianity impinged on every area of life, and those who would limit it to our relationship with God. In practice, BBC producers — desperate to avoid too many trite life-is-like-a-sardine-tin analogies — have leaned towards the life-embracing option.

Topicality, relevance, the practical application of theology — they are all meat and drink to them. Their job is to hunt down and taste ideas in the world around them, then to metabolise them and reflect them back to the nation. A pluralist world demands a pluralist broadcasting service; and sometimes it will be dissonant.

Radio 4 was — and remains — ecumenical in the broadest sense: a conduit of information, contemplation, surprise, familiarity, provocation, and escape. A producer recently described the mix of life there — “residually Christian”, yes, but also “something of the Navy, of the civil service, of showbiz, of variety, of the universities”.

It is not a bad mix. An essential purpose remains: a gently civilising mission, to show us the crooked timber of humanity — and that the world is broader than people sometimes think.

David Hendy is Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Westminster. His book Life on Air: A history of Radio 4 has just been published by Oxford University Press (hbk £25; 978-0-19-924881-0).

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