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Paul Vallely: Why Radio 4’s Today needs religion 

03 November 2017

Presenters were wrong to attack Thought for the Day, argues Paul Vallely


Derision: Today presenters Sarah Montague and John Humphrys broadcast the programme from Wigmore Hall in central London as the show celebrated its 60th anniversary last week

Derision: Today presenters Sarah Montague and John Humphrys broadcast the programme from Wigmore Hall in central London as the show celebrated i...

WHAT should happen to British people who return from fighting for Islamist groups in Syria or Iraq? The question was raised by a British university professor recently. His answer was that they should be killed, since they have been fighting for the enemy in a war against us.

On Thought for the Day shortly afterwards, Mona Siddiqui spelled out eloquently why such an idea had no place in a civilised society, quoting the Qur’an in support of this. This was Thought for the Day at its best, offering a measured reflection in contribution to our national civic debate

To mark the 60th anniversary of Radio 4’s Today programme — in which religion has a short dedicated slot, as do sport and business — its presenters gave an interview to the Radio Times in which they launched an extraordinary attack on Thought for the Day, pronouncing it “inappropriate” and “deeply, deeply boring”.

I usually refrain from commenting on the tediously commonplace criticisms of Thought for the Day, since it is edited by my wife. But the broadside by John Humphrys and Justin Webb crossed a line, not just in terms of their startling rudeness to invited BBC contributors. Their indignation went beyond routine resentment at the intrusion into their three-hour secular news agenda of three minutes of religious reflection.

Mr Humphrys’s attack seemed to be on religion in general, as he sneered: “Dear God, we’ve got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice. . .” It was interesting that he chose Jesus rather than the Prophet Muhammad.

What was just as shocking was the evident inability of Humphrys and co. to see the contradiction between their intolerance of religion and their boast of open-mindedness on everything else.

Challenged with having got it wrong on Brexit, Mr Humphreys accepted that “there’s a disconnect between the people who run the BBC and a large chunk of the population.” Mr Webb insisted that he was “passionate” about “allowing people to tell their own stories. That’s what the Today programme does at its best.” And Mishal Husain added: “even when we have certain views, I think all of us work really hard to find another point of view.”

Today, its top team asserts, strives to present “different styles and genders”, “different voices regionally”, and “different races and different classes”. But not, it seems, different religions.

So why should faith be exempted from this embrace of diversity to reflect our pluralist society? Because half the population are now not religious, Mr Humphrys asserts. Even if we accept his figures, what about the half that are religious? The BBC’s public-service remit ought clearly to extend to serving them — and it should see the value of explaining the nation’s varied religions to one another, and to citizens of no faith.

Just as importantly, it is essential that, in a programme in which presenters such as Mr Humphrys often coarsen the public debate with their adversarial approach and constant barrage of interruptions, an oasis of measured reflective civility should be maintained. Religion has a distinctive contribution to make to that. Indeed, it is now more important than ever.



‘Media elite turns on religious broadcasting’ - Andrew Brown

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