Religion is a thorn in the BBC’s flesh, to use an Easter metaphor. It is in the charter of the corporation that it should cover religion and it has a constitutional significance, although nobody can quite remember what it is. In the Reithian days, Thought for the Day, on Radio 4’s Today programme, had to be signed off by the director general.
These days it sits, uncherished, in strange isolation at 7.47. It has no relationship with the rest of the programme. Indeed, when I began editing the Today programme three years ago, and tried to show an interest in the cast and subject, I was warned off. Thought for the Day (TFTD) was wholly the responsibility of the Religion department. In which case, I replied huffily, why could it not be transferred to Newsnight?
The reason that it belongs to the Today programme rather than any other news programme is historical, and history is character. It sent a signal. I took it to mean that religion was something to be discussed on the programme, along with politics and social affairs and science. But it was harder than I thought to ease it into the rhythm of news. There is something inflexible about news: it defines a story and sticks to it. And what makes a story is usually conflict or grievance. Muslims rightly tire of being written about in relation to terrorism. For Catholics, the news story is child abuse; for the Church of England, it is schisms over women and gays.
I remember how we covered last year the canonisation of Cardinal Newman, the first English non-martyr saint since the Reformation. The news line was whether – given that he had deep male friendships – he was gay. Was there really nothing more important about Newman to discuss?
TFTD is the space where doctrine or belief should be covered, but it also has to go through the wringer of BBC compliance. For some reason, it needs to be topical and in the spirit of the BBC it has to be socially cohesive. This is not the slot for division or damnation.
The former Telegraph editor Charles Moore is a critic of the BBC licence and its ideology, which are related. I asked him to guest-edit a Christmas week edition of Today last year and his eyes glinted: “So I can choose Thought for the Day?”
His first request was for John Humphrys to do the slot, on the grounds that he was an atheist critic of TFTD. Charles is a political warrior so he knows that creative destruction can come from different sides of the debate. An atheist TFTD turned out to be against the rules. It would have to go elsewhere in the programme and be called the Alternative TFTD. That was too milksop for Charles. Instead, he managed to sneak an anti-abortion message into the slot, by marking Holy Innocents Day. It was wildly subversive.
From another political wing, Giles Fraser has also sneaked in some bracing Christian messages.
During the early days of Covid there was a licence to discuss mortality and meaning, which started to break down barriers between TFTD and the rest of the programme. One TFTD contributor, Anne Atkins, spoke of the death of her father and the strangeness of a Zoom funeral. Some listeners wrote in that they were affected by this and surprised that the presenters did not acknowledge the profound sentiments which had preceded the time check. I raised it with the presenters: should they sometimes refer to the content of TFTD? There was a terse response. BBC guidelines actively forbade them to do so. TFTD had nothing to do with the Today programme.
I remember one rare occasion when TFTD took a leading role in the national conversation. The BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner, had gone to Cairo to interview Coptic Christians. It was the anniversary of a church massacre and we recorded their determined response: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. On the back of this colourful report, Lucy Winkett preached the command of forgiveness for TFTD.
I wrote to the director of BBC Radio, James Purnell, to say that I thought I had cracked it. But we did not manage it again. TFTD insulated itself once more, and we did not have the resources to do religious reports from the Middle East.
In the last year, the BBC’s excellent religion editor Martin Bashir and his producer have added some serious religion to the programme, for instance on church music. An item I particularly liked was how lockdown was good for celibacy; but the Today producers mutinied, and it never got on. I shall take the theme elsewhere.
I leave the programme to write a short book on the wisdom of the monasteries. I have given up trying to integrate religion into news and have decided to make it the antidote instead.
Sarah Sands was editor of the Today programme from 2017 until last month