COMMENT: PLATFORM; How the BBC made the clergy hot under the collar

The BBC’s handling of the Thought for the Day fiasco means that the controversy is unlikely to die down, says Rev. Richard Thomas.

The BBC’s handling of the Thought for the Day fiasco means that the

controversy is unlikely to die down, says Rev. Richard Thomas.

The recent public relations fiasco surrounding the ‘rested’ contributors

to BBC Radio Four’s Thought for the Day raises some interesting

questions, not least about how one organisation’s mishandling of its PR

can damage the reputation of others.

The facts, as far as they can be ascertained, are that David Coombes,

BBC producer in charge of Thought for the Day, took a decision to

‘refresh’ the list of contributors to the nation’s much-loved daily

spiritual provocation. Nothing wrong with that, provided such

‘refreshment’ can be justified. The problem was that he did so in a way

guaranteed to cause the maximum anger and embarrassment all round.

One of the prime rules of personal relationships, let alone PR, is that

if you have difficult news to convey it is best to convey it

confidentially and personally. Letters are probably the worst tools,

open to maximum misunderstanding when emotions are aroused. By all means

follow up a difficult conversation with a written clarification. But the

personal touch is vital.

In this case, not only was a letter sent, but it used language which

made some of the nation’s senior religious leaders feel like third-rate

actors past their sell-by date. To be ‘rested’ is not a term that highly

respected national figures take kindly to. Not surprisingly, three of

them bit back.

The controversy aroused by the three could have been ended by a clear

statement from the BBC. However, Paul Donovan of the Sunday Times got

wind that the Bishop of Oxford might also be among the casualties, and

it appears that ‘someone’ in the BBC confirmed this without consultation

or any apparent regard to the damage that further revelations might

cause its contributors. The Bishop of Oxford found his name dragged

across the papers on Bank Holiday Monday, the BBC was freshly embroiled

in controversy, and headlines such as ‘Why the Bishop got the Boot’

caused maximum embarrassment and not a little anger.

Ernest Rea, head of the BBC’s Religious Department then took the

correct, but belated step of facing John Humphrys on the Today

programme. A rough ride was inevitable, but instead of sorting out the

problem, he named a fifth contributor being ‘rested’, this time a much

respected Catholic priest, and rather disingenuously said that there

were ‘one or two’ other contributors who were suffering the same fate,

but would not name them because ‘these are people who don’t want their

names mentioned across the papers because they understand the reasons

for being rested’. So much for the poor Bishop of Oxford. Any self-

respecting journalist, given such an unambiguous scent, is bound to keep

sniffing, and the BBC, the Church, and the long-suffering public can

expect the story to run on, thanks almost entirely to the BBC’s

brilliant handling of the story.

The conspiracy theorists have had a field day. My own view is that the

BBC, recently more and more uncomfortable with those who have a definite

Christian viewpoint, has taken one more step towards a sponge-rubber

view of religion that sees all faiths as essentially the same, cannot

abide strong Christian convictions, and wants to reduce the access of

traditional Christianity across all areas of its output. The BBC has

both identified and sharpened the direction of future controversy.

Rev. Richard Thomas is communications director for the Bishop and

Diocese of Oxford

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