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When Religion Makes the News

wrmn-ekene-and-nage-2wrmn_aaqil-ahmedwrmn-rogerwrmn-handswrmn-laptopwrmn-kesavaniwrmn-patricia-williamswrmn-sitting   Images copyright of: Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos

Whether it’s understanding the difference between Sunni and Shia, the background to claims of anti-Semitism in UK politics, or the popularity of “hate” preachers in the US and how they contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, religion plays a key role in many of the biggest news stories of our times.  And so it goes without saying that modern journalists need to be religiously literate and aware.  

On November 8th, Sandford St Martin trustee Roger Bolton chaired an NUJ Training/ITV Wales workshop for journalists: ‘When Religion Makes the News‘.   This was a workshop and networking event for journalists and media representatives from various faith groups and the aim was to promote religious literacy by offering participants expertise, resources and the opportunity both to examine their own personal standpoints while honing their professional skills.   

Among those attending the event were three very up-and-coming journalists who worked behind the scenes to support the 2016 Sandford Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace.  We asked them to both report on what happened and to share their thoughts on the conference’s theme.  This is what they said:


Nana-Adwoa Mbeutcha:  Producer and Presenter for Premier Christian Communications 

“Religion is the single most important factor in our identity.” These were the bold words of Dr Jenny Taylor, CEO of Lapido Media, Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism. Whether you believe that to be true or not, you can’t argue with the fact that religion ultimately determines why people think and behave the way they do, even subconsciously. Broadcaster Roger Bolton, who chaired the event, made the clear statement that you can’t understand the UK without knowledge of Christianity in this country.

Prior to attending ‘When Religion Makes the News’, organised by NUJ Training Wales, I knew that it made sense to know a bit about the religion you were broadcasting about, but as the day went on, I quickly realised how ignorant and naive I was to not realise that to report accurately, “we need a much more sophisticated understanding of faith” (Roger Bolton).

As the day progressed, both journalists and faith representatives heard from Media Representatives from three Abrahamic faiths and we were educated about Muslim life and communities in the UK by Innes Bowen, author of ‘Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam’, and Hussein Kesvani, Head of Communications at Theos Think Tank. Who knew there were so many different branches of Islam present in the UK…? Such a simple, yet important, piece of unknown knowledge to many.

What was very enlightening was the “opportunity for self-scrutiny” that was given to the Journalists and Media Academics in an afternoon workshop. Regardless of religious beliefs, we all have a somewhat innate bias and a belief that can shape the way we report or perhaps what we even choose to report. “The Catholic Church is always so out of touch with reality…It’s not rocket science that condoms will stop the spread of AIDS in Africa” some may say. But research the communities a little deeper and remove your bias against the “out-of-date Catholic Church”, and you’ll realise that due to cultural practices and many other factors, not just the absence of condoms, AIDS is being spread. Not only do journalists show a lack of research when they fail to report accurately, we do injustice to those we are reporting to.

To round off the day, we heard from Aaqil Ahmed, Head of BBC Religion and Ethics, and Dr Michael Munnick, Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Dr Munnick covered areas such as Political Correctness, Religion in a Secular Society and Understanding what Motivates Religious People.

The event was such an eye opening experience about something that should be such a given. If you’re going to report accurately about a football team, its players and the way they are playing, you need to have real background knowledge about the history of the team and their players, to do a good and honest job. So why don’t we do the same when it comes to reporting about people and society? After all, you cannot separate belief from society.


Ekene Oboko, Researcher / Assistant Producer, CTVC 

Along with politics and money, religion has been deemed an unseemly conversation topic at the dinner table.  Within journalism, however, money and politics seem to be welcomed enthusiastically at different sort of tables.  These tables are the newsroom desks staffed with dedicated political and economic news editors.  Despite the inestimable value billions around the world place on their beliefs, and the role religion plays in shaping domestic and foreign affairs – constructive or otherwise – religion is treated, at times, like a distraction from the ‘real’ stories and is therefore downplayed or side-lined – denied a seat at the news desk.  This is not to say that news or current affairs does not – to cite a former political press officer – “do God”.  They do.  The BBC’s commitment to religious programming testifies to that.  But religion specialists argue that all journalists, where necessary, should have a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in global and domestic affairs, and also in individuals’ personal lives.

On Tuesday 8th November 2016, the National Union of Journalists in Wales and ITV Wales took on the challenge to promote religious understanding among journalists.  The media organisations hosted “When Religion Makes the News” – a one day event held in Cardiff bringing together journalists, representatives from faith communities and broadcast researchers, like my myself, to promote religious literacy.

Roger Bolton chaired the event and in his opening commented that religion was often viewed as an “embarrassment” in society.  He suggested that maybe this modern-day puzzlement over religion and those who hold religious beliefs had filtered into news reports, with some mainstream media stories bordering on ignorance when tackling religious issues.  Following Roger’s thought-provoking remarks were a series of sessions jam-packed with engaging and informative advice, including a Q & A with the former BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. The day also featured valuable networking breaks.

Highlights of the day included a session delivered by Dr Jenny Taylor, previously CEO of religious literacy organisation Lapido Media. She stressed that when journalists engage with stories of a religious nature, they need to be on guard to avoid feeding into the “dominant discourse” and perpetuating religious stereotypes.  It’s imperative, she said, for news stories to reflect religion with all its “complexities”.

Press officers from Christian and Jewish faith groups revealed the challenges they have faced when attempting to engage journalists in stories related to their respective communities with reporters appearing to show interest only when the story might impact negatively on the faiths’ adherents.  However, Maggie Doherty spoke on the positive media coverage she’d received for The Catholic church in England and Wales’ “The Art of Dying Well” campaign, a digital revamp of the fifteenth century manuscript, Ars Moriendi.

Attendees were treated to a fascinating talk by Innes Bowen, Current Affairs Editor for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service, on the Muslim communities residing in Wales.  Former Buzzfeed journalist Hussein Kesvani, now communications consultant at religious think-tank Theos, delivered a detailed and fantastic talk on his experience covering religious affairs, particularly within Muslim communities.  He urged journalists to look beyond reporting clichéd stories on Islam, not in aid of some kind of re-balancing exercise, but because they’d find powerful stories within Muslim communities.

The last session of the day was led by Dr Michael Munnik, a former religious correspondent on Canada’s public radio.  His talk was targeted at journalists hoping to, or, currently covering religious affairs.  For faith communities to trust and support news stories on religion, he said, journalists need to gain the trust of faith communities and “become a safe pair of hands”.

Not being a reporter myself, the most revealing contributions derived from journalists who were not religious correspondents.  What came across loud and clear was their willingness to fully engage with the religious dimensions of their stories – unfortunately practical factors, such as deadlines and limited resources, sometimes mean it’s a challenge to explore those stories’ religious elements extensively.  Rather than denying religion a seat at the table, it seems journalists, despite wanting to, don’t always even have the time to look for a chair.


You can find out more about When Religion Makes the News by reading blogs from organisers Angela Graham and Anna Wynn Roberts.

And our thanks to Natasha Hirst @HirstPhotos who took the photographs of the event attached to this blog.  You can find out more about her work here.

 

Is Religious Broadcasting Fit for Purpose?

It’s been a tumultuous year for the BBC.  What with BBC Charter renewal and the government’s proposed “major overhaul” of how the nation’s broadcaster is run and regulated, rumours about the future of in-house production, digital platforms and fears over the practicality of the BBC licence fee – the BBC’s is being forced to articulate it’s vision for the future.  So where does religious broadcasting fit in?  And how seriously do BBC managers take religious literacy?  Roger Bolton is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “Feedback” programme and a Sandford St Martin trustee.  In his blog, below, a version of which was first published on the Royal Television Society’s website, he argues that if the BBC and other broadcasters don’t improve their coverage of religion, they’ll be missing out on modernity.


ON AIR

“My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong”.   Simon Schama, historian.

In this, if in little else, Mr Schama and I have something in common. Born in the same year, I was also carried along on the wave of 60’s optimism which assumed everyone was basically good, life was getting better for all, and reason would triumph.  As an historian, and a Jew, Simon Schama of course knew this was an illusion, yet even he misread the importance of faith in the modern world.

When I became a BBC journalist I was encouraged to read books about subjects like Ireland and the trade unions and learn about the City. No one ever mentioned the Shia/Sunni split. Indeed in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after exile, I did not know which branch of Islam he belonged to or why it mattered so much. (Shia, since you ask, and what followed his return was the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and just about everything that has happened in the Middle East since.).

Today religious literacy is vital for everyone involved in broadcasting.

ABROAD

Lyse Doucet BBC News’ chief international correspondent says this. “Sadly, distortions of religious belief and texts are used as political weapons in many conflicts as well as clashes over traditional beliefs and practices. That requires us to know more about the tenets of major religions and systems of belief, to be able to assess and analysis different interpretations”.

In the Sunday Times the journalist A A Gill wrote, “Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life. Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity”.

In June this year, in a keynote speech at the 2016 Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called on the BBC to treat religion “with the same seriousness as other genres like sport, politics, economics or drama”. He went on, “The promotion of religious literacy should be a specific duty for the BBC across its broadcasting services”.

The BBC has six public purposes set out by Royal Charter. For some of us the promotion of religious literacy ought to be a seventh such purpose.

HOME

Such literacy is not only necessary to understand the world beyond our shores.

Christianity made this country. It is impossible to understand fully our politics and our culture, painting, sculpture, poetry and drama, indeed our new Prime Minister, without understanding the Christian faith.

And it impossible to understand the country we are becoming without understanding the beliefs of those who have immigrated here. The 2011 census recorded that there were 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, or 4.4% of the population. (Those figures will have increased in the last 5 years.) For many, perhaps most Muslims, their faith is the most important thing in their lives. How must they regard journalists who know little of their most cherished beliefs and who do not have the knowledge to challenge those who distort their faith?

So, how well are we broadcasters doing?

THE RECORD

The picture is decidedly mixed. There are some cracking programmes being made, as the shortlist for this year’s Sandford St Martin Awards showed, but fewer of them.  Entries were welcome from news, current affairs, factual, arts, music, drama, children’s and comedy genres – as well as from teams producing specifically “religious” commissions.  This year’s TV winner was “My Son the Jihadi” made by True Vision Productions for Channel 4 . In 2011 Sally Evans made a devastating discovery: her son Thomas had left their home in a Buckinghamshire village and travelled to Somalia to join a deadly Islamist terrorist group. The film charted, with immense sensitivity, her subsequent attempts to understand what had happened to her son and to come to terms with his death. Had it been better if he had never been born?

The Radio Times Readers’ award went to a very different sort of programme, BBC1’s “Call the Midwife”, and the Trustees award to Joan Bakewell for her lifelong commitment to ethical enquiry in programmes like “Heart of the Matter” and “The Ethics Committee” which enabled her to explore, with judicious impartiality, the most interesting ethical dilemmas of our age.

But if the quality is high the volume is getting lower.

Take Channel 4. According to OFCOM, its spending on religious broadcasting dropped from £49 million in 2008 to £20 million in 2013 (the latest figures we have). This period coincided with Channel 4’s decision to dispense with the role of Commissioning Editor for Religion and the elimination of any religious programming quota.

At ITV the position is even worse. Spending on religious programme commissions dropped from £40 million in 2008 to £2 million in 2013. (Yes £2 million.)

So much therefore depends on our main public service broadcaster, the BBC. How well is it doing?

THE BBC

It makes some good programmes, and has outstandingly well informed journalists like Lyse Doucet and Ed Stourton, but it seems to have little or no strategy, is in an organisational muddle, and seems to place religious broadcasting well down its list of priorities.

This may be a harsh judgement, and it would be wonderful if the BBC would produce the facts to contradict it, but consider the following, worrying, evidence.

(a) OFCOM described religious programming as one of several “immediate issues” of concern in its July 2015 report “Public Service in the Internet Age”. The reference was highlighted in the BBC’s own Charter Review report of September 2015, “British Bold Creative: the BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter”. But the 99 page Corporation document made no further reference to religion – the only programme genre of “immediate issues” which got no mention in its proposals for the next Charter period.

(b) Aaqil Ahmed. officially the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, has had his commissioning power taken away from him. TV religious programmes are now commissioned by a non specialist responsible for several other genres, science, business and history.

(c) In BBC News there are Editors for a vast range of areas including consumer affairs, the arts, and sport as well as politics and economics and a host of others. Religion does not have such a senior figure able to influence editorial policy, and its correspondent has to make do with a part time producer, though that may change.

 

QUESTIONS FOR THE BBC

In the light of this apparent vacuum, the Sandford St Martin trust has been trying to get  answers from the BBC  to three key questions.

  1. Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quality, and quantity of religious coverage?
  2. Are BBC commissioners and programme makers issued with specific objectives or goals aimed at helping ensure informed coverage of the range of religious beliefs and practices in the UK?
  3. Regarding BBC news, does the BBC agree that in order for good journalism to flourish in this sensitive but crucial area, the same resources and expertise are necessary as in other areas? If so why is there no Religion Editor?

Perhaps the BBC has detailed answers to these questions. If so, could they let us know?

 

All party parliamentary group on religious literacy in the media

In early May, an All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Literacy in the Media was launched at Westminster with a round-table discussion moderated by the Sandford St Martin Trust Chair, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, Lord Bishop of Leeds.  Among those also participating in the event was Iftikhar Khan one of the founders, a CTO and futurist at Alchemiya Media.  What follows is his report for MuslimView and was first published on their website.

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WEDNESDAY, MAY 11TH, 2016

Yasmin Qureshi MP for Bolton South East launched the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media with a round table session held at the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday 4th May 2016.

The stated aims of the APPG are to work for greater religious literacy in the media and political spheres, to foster a better understanding and representation of religion in coverage of news and culture, recognizing the priority of religion as a prime motivator for individuals and communities in the country. The APPG aims to encourage more diversity in media representation of religion. Also, under the public service broadcasting remit of the BBC and Channel 4, it will advocate the inclusion of a commitment to promote religious literacy.

Lord Baines (the Bishop of Leeds, and Chair of the Sandford St Martin’s Trust) very ably and engagingly moderated a panel discussion between several high profile speakers. Aaqil Ahmed, the Head of BBC Religion and Ethics spoke of the changing demographics within certain parts of the UK that, tied to underrepresentation and a lack of media understanding have led to troublesome coverage, for example the Trojan Horse issue in schools in Birmingham. An ignorance of the nature of more conservative views as in this instance will only lead to more entrenchment of withdrawal and isolation from society, rather than fostering understanding. Aaqil estimated that there is a 5-10 year window of opportunity to ameliorate this before the issue becomes of greater concern with the current status quo of mutual suspicions is unacceptable.

Roger Bolton, the former BBC Editor and Presenter (‘Sunday’ on Radio 4) noted that the default stance and credo in most mainstream journalism in the UK is of liberal secularism. He also provided figures showing that the budget for religious programming on ITV declined from £40M to £2M in the five years to 2013, and likewise from £40M to £20M on Channel 4; Channel 4 no longer has a Commissioning Editor for Religion.

Academic Dr Abby Day, the Research Director of the Religion Media Centre at Goldsmiths College opined that every newsroom should have at least one religion expert, and that a core element of all media studies courses should cover religion. There should be exchanges between religious media outlets and the mainstream media. Dr Day gave the regretful example of the Sun ‘newspaper’ carrying out a scientifically unrigorous survey that led to the front page headlines of ‘1 in 5 Muslims support terrorism’ and the subsequent tiny apology buried and hidden deep within the paper after censure by IPSO.

Dr Jenny Taylor of Lapido Media gained her doctorate studying the sociology of religion and in particular the migration of Muslims. She declared that the world is full of religion and that the religiously unaffiliated in the world population will decline from 16% to a projected 13% by 2050. Misrepresentation and bias in the western media does not reflect the way that religion shapes allegiances in the rest of the world. Dr Taylor also quoted Bernard Levin who observed that in the British language, “vicars” rhymes with “knickers” and that this (unconscious) word association leads to ambivalence in attitudes to organized religion in this country.

Sir Alan Moses, the Chairman of IPSO, and a lively orator, regretted the “unattended ignorant depiction of what communities in this country believe”, and that while the BBC and Channel 4 have a statutory obligation of public service broadcasting, the policies and regulation of the press is determined by a set of standards set by the editors themselves, and that this may not always coincide with the public interest. He also stated that he wished there was much more “intelligent and compassionate” discussion of faith in the media.

Finally, the historian and author Tom Holland mused that the broad consensus in the media reflects the automatic assumption that ignorance about religion is a source of pride. This narrow viewpoint ignores the fact that religion is a vast spectrum of opinion. Holland also noted that secularism is not religiously neutral, but is rather a Christian concept, mediated through Christian theologians and Popes, and hence we refer specifically to a separation of Church and State rather than as a general synecdochical term.

There followed a brief and spirited question and answer session from the floor, including opinions from various journalists and broadcast professionals and from Baroness Elizabeth Berridge and Martin Vickers MP who both sit on related committees, and Baron Idarjit Singh of Wimbledon (and regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day) decrying the lack of representation on the panel of anyone from the non-Abrahamic faiths. Yasmin Qureishi MP did counter this point by pointing out that this was not by design, and that as a kick-off meeting, there was limited time in this session, and that in future there would be fairer representation to those of all major faiths.

It is to be hoped that the APPG builds on the objectives and aims declared in this inaugural session with the same unified approach to foster better representation and understanding of religious life within society through more accurate representation, and wider coverage.


Both MuslimView and Alchemiya welcome and are supportive of these developments as this is also one of the aims of both organisations to be a source and a resource for religious literacy concerning Islam and Muslims in political circles as well as in the media.