Belfast Telegraph

Would ditching Thought for the Day really be such an unthinkable thing to do?

Most of us tune in to current affairs shows for news and analysis, not a bite-sized sermon

By Fionola Meredith

Deeply, deeply boring - that's how John Humphrys, veteran presenter of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, has described Thought for the Day. Humphrys also resents the traditional God-slot edging out other, more deserving items: "When you're presenting Today, 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 yes, John, I do know, and I agree. We're all familiar with the folksy anecdotes, the tortuously twee scenarios that work their predictable way around to Jesus, some with a degree of subtlety, others with what amounts to a screeching handbrake turn, but they (almost) all get there in the end.

The bell is definitely tolling for this tired and tedious broadcasting anachronism. It simply has no place in a modern, jam-packed and fast-moving current affairs show where airtime is at a premium.

We have our own version of Thought for the Day on Good Morning Ulster, of course, which pops up before the eight o'clock news. Occasionally there are contributors representing other religions, and sometimes the odd secular voice, but mostly we hear from the full panoply of the Christian faith.

I mean, honestly - when is the last time you heard a Thought for the Day that actually made you stop and think? That is its declared purpose, after all. Like Humphrys, what I often hear are vague, woolly platitudes, urging us towards greater kindness and a better understanding of each other.

Be nicer, in other words. All very well-meaning but entirely useless.

Or maybe, like many people, you tune out completely, finding that the two minutes and 45 seconds slot is the ideal signal to do your teeth, let the dog out, or make a piece of toast, then get back in time for the eight o'clock headlines.

Humphrys' fellow Today presenter Mishal Husain admits that in her home - presumably when she's not on duty at Today - it functions as a sort of alarm clock: "For me it's the time I need to be out of the house, when I'm late."

Now, before any outraged holy-rollers start sharpening their quills, let me be clear - my problem is not primarily with the religious content, Christian or otherwise.

If Thought for the Day was entirely secular, I'd be saying exactly the same thing. Lord knows, there are humanists out there who are just as dull and dour and self-righteous as the most repressive religious conservative.

No, I'm arguing that the slot should no longer exist at all. There's no place for it any more, its time has been and gone.

We turn the radio on in the morning to hear what's going on in the world, not to be preached at, or patronised, or enjoined to change our behaviour for the better.

To be fair to TFD contributors and producers, I know from experience how hard it is to get it right. I've done the slot myself in the past, and it's almost impossible not to sound like you're trying to dispense wisdom, from a great height, to the benighted masses.

The other trap, which trendy vicar types frequently fall into, is coming across as overly matey and false, like those rictus-grin chuggers who accost you on the street, pretending to be your friend, and then try to sign you up for direct debits to charity.

Giles Fraser, former canon-chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, and something of a trendy vicar himself, has been defending Thought for the Day.

He thinks there's nothing wrong with having a slot ring-fenced for a particular subject such as religion, pointing out that many listeners will have faith of one kind or another, and that "you cannot understand the world unless you understand something about the way that faith functions in the lives of its adherents".

I must say I enjoyed Fraser's sly kick under the cassock at John Humphrys, whom he accused of speaking "with all the critical sophistication of a slovenly adolescent squirming his way through morning prayer". Touche, Rev.

And it's perfectly true that faith matters to a great many people, especially here in Northern Ireland. But a glib and frequently trite bite-sized sermon, shoe-horned in before the eight o'clock news, is no substitute for engaged religious or ethical commentary and debate.

Believe me, we wouldn't miss Thought for the Day if it was gone. Except as a handy reminder to put the kettle on.

Belfast Telegraph

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