BBC 'Today' programme presenters in extraordinary attack on religious slot

John HumphrysBBC

John Humphrys, the presenter of BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, has launched an extraordinary attack on the 'inappropriate' religious slot 'Thought for the Day' (TFTD) in a joint interview with fellow presenters revealing a deep hostility to religion.

The comments come after Christian Today revealed an internal BBC row earlier this year following remarks by the new 'Today' editor, Sarah Sands, who singled out TFTD for criticism.

Back then, a BBC Radio 4 spokesperson told Christian Today: 'Thought for the Day is editorially looked after by the BBC's Religion and Ethics team in radio and features speakers from the world's major faith traditions. There are no plans to make changes to it.'

But in a roundtable discussion in the Radio Times to mark 60 years of the 'Today' programme, Humphrys is asked: 'How does it feel when at ten to eight every morning you suddenly have to stop for a sermon in Thought for the Day?'

He replies: 'Deeply, deeply boring, often. Sometimes not. Sometimes it's good and the guy or woman is delivering an interesting thought in a provocative way. Usually not. It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all. Certainly very few of them are practising Christians... we have Hindus of course, and we have the occasional Muslim, the occasional Jew, but by and large it's Christian. Why?'

Another presenter, Justin Webb, chimes in: 'They're all roughly the same... "If everyone was nicer to everyone else, it would be fine." But from my cursory glance around the world, I think a lot of religious people don't want to be nice to each other...It really annoys me.'

Fellow presenters Mishal Husain and Nick Robinson attempt to defend the slot. Husain says: 'I think it's a bit of punctuation in the programme, but actually because you're going helter-skelter through so many things and it's actually two minutes where you...'

But she is characteristically interrupted by Humphrys, who steps in: 'Yes, but wouldn't you like to be able to choose where you put that punctuation?'

He continues: '...But when you're presenting it, how many times have you said to yourself, "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, and the world could be a better place if we all..." You know... Oh God.'

Robinson singles out the former Chief Rabbi, saying: 'Do you know what, when Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, does it, I listen. There are a few people who are just profound. Profound.'

Webb then says: 'But also, they're not reflecting on current issues?'

Humphrys replies: 'Precisely, if it were secular Thought for the Day, I'd have less of a problem with it. Why can't you have an atheist? Or an agnostic?'

The BBC clarification in February to Christian Today came after Sands, the former editor of the London Evening Standard who was then taking over at the Today programme, wrote in the Financial Times (FT) that humanists should be included in the traditionally religious slot and implied that she would change its name. 'I admire religion and believe it is robust enough to have challengers,' she added.

However, BBC sources pointed out that Thought for the Day is part of BBC's religious programming and not part of the editorial remit of the Today programme.

Sands wrote in the FT: 'Given there are some who say I must change nothing, I was amused to chat to an old Today hand, Robert Fox, who pointed out how much the programme had developed over the years. In his day it was much more informal and had an engaging air of jeopardy about it. So I will try not to be overwhelmed by the institution. And if we are to start in deep waters, what about Thought For The Day? This slot, it seems to me, is about the meaning of life, so the title hardly does it justice. It is much, much more than platitudes about Jesus and Brexit, balanced now and then with a view from another faith. And if this is about profound faith, surely we should also include humanists? I admire religion and believe it is robust enough to have challengers. I wonder what the listeners think of this . . .'

Responding to the new comments in the Radio Times, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell said: 'Millions of people in the UK understand and inhabit the world, through the lens of faith. Thought for the Day is the one slot in BBC Radio 4's schedule where this way of seeing the world is given expression. It only works because it is specifically religious. As such it is highly valued by people of all faiths and, if diluted, would have become nothing more than just another comment from those whose voices already command the airwaves.'