I’ll never forget the first ever conversation I had with the nervous man who would end up editing a series of documentaries about religion I was making.
“Nice to meet you”, he said before apologising, “I’m afraid I’m not very religious.”
“Not religious” I replied, “or not interested in religion.”
Because, while I can understand why people might make a connection, they’re not exactly the same thing are they?
And yet, years later, I still find myself having versions of the same conversation with colleagues. Which surprises me because how can a journalist, documentary or factual programme-maker NOT be interested in religion? What a person believes – or doesn’t believe – so often directly informs the decisions they make, the places they live, the people they know, who they vote for, what they’re willing to fight for, how they identify their sense of ‘self’ even, sometimes, the football team they support.
Open any newspaper and whether it’s a story about how evangelical churches and the right-to-life movement helped secure the presidency for Trump, fears of how anti-Semitism has infected UK party-politics, a story about why ISIS have been targeting Yazidis or why so many North Nigerian schoolgirls remain in captivity, religion matters. And these stories cannot be properly told or understood unless the people who are reporting on them properly consider religion.
There were programmes about the big stories like the war in Syria or the European refugee crisis, but smaller, more personal stories, too, about coming out or the death of a loved one. What all these programme had in common was that none of them shied away from the fundamental journalistic questions: Who are we? How do we identify our place in the world? What do I believe or choose not to believe? And how has this informed the life I live? Questions bound up with religion, ethics, morality, spirituality, call it what you will – they’re all interesting.
Fortunately for me (not to mention the broadcaster we were working for), it turned out that nervous editor was, in fact, very interested in religion. And, if I dare say so myself, we made some good, thought-provoking, timely programmes together.
So… What about you?
Have you made a great programme that explores some of those fundamental questions? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you should probably enter for an Award.
And: are you interested in religion?
If so, then you’ve probably got what it takes to win one.
Sandford St Martin Award shortlisters and judges are chosen for their wide experience of both religion and the media. They include experienced producers, programme-makers, directors, journalists and critics from a variety of faith backgrounds. In 2016 the comedian and Radio TV critic, Penelope Solomon, was one of the those who was given the daunting task of shortlisting our radio entries. Over the past few years, radio has been the Awards most competitive category. This year more than 90 radio programmes were in the running for prizes. In her blog, Penelope reveals more about the process and some of the highlights for her.
I WAS A SANFORD ST MARTIN AWARD SHORTLISTER
As a television critic, I like to select and compare programmes across different genres covering a range of topics. This helps to keep the viewing varied and interesting both for me and, hopefully, for my audience when I come to discuss the programmes live on air. For example I might watch a stand-up show like ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ and then contrast this with a documentary programme such as ‘Bedlam’ about mental illness in a psychiatric hospital in South London. (Some might argue that these two programmes are very closely linked, but that’s a subject for another blog!)
When I was invited to be on the shortlisting panel for the Sandford St Martin Awards, I was slightly daunted at first by the fact that I would be required to listen to a fair share of the almost eighty different radio programmes entered in the category and united by a common theme: religion, ethics and spirituality. Whilst I am interested in programmes which have a religious content, I thought the process might be a bit repetitive and dull. In truth, I didn’t really know what to expect. How delightfully surprised I was by the sheer range on offer from drama to documentary to live performances and church services. There was even a small selection of live Nativities!
Such was the diversity of voices, that contributions ranged from young Muslim women from Birmingham talking about wearing the hijab and fashion, to Jewish people ‘making Aliyah’ (i.e. emigrating to live in Israel) to an analysis of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s turbulent childhood. Questions around identity were a common theme in many programmes with different religious practices presented and issues affecting people from all walks of life, some who had faith and some with no faith. Some of the stories told were so gripping and evocative they brought tears to the eyes.
When a programme really works you can’t or indeed don’t want to stop listening. Strong resonant voices draw you into a carefully crafted story and somehow a connection is made which makes you want to keep on listening. During my listening I’d often find myself drawn in by programmes about topics I knew nothing about. When these stories were told well – through engaging contributors, a fresh approach and seamless editing – the result was extremely effective. I gained knowledge about different cultures and different ways of life and felt enriched and broadened by this new learning experience.
Music was a powerful and effective device used creatively in many of the programmes. Sometimes it was woven into the piece to break up or punctuate the narrative. At other times it was used to enhance meaning and emphasis within a story, to build up suspense and increase the tension. Stirring soundscapes were used to accompany chilling and harrowing stories. Occasionally music was over-used and became intrusive and distracted from the rest of the content, but this was rare. In some programmes the music and songs were so bold and stirring that I wanted to go out and buy the CD – if there had been one!) And then, there were other programmes which did not have any accompanying sound-track at all. It was interesting to note that some of these were equally as effective if not even more effective in engaging the listener. In these programmes it was the solitary voice and the spoken word which resonated and created an impact.
Several of the programmes explored current issues and contemporary themes such as same-sex marriages, religious fundamentalism, the radicalisation of young Muslims, freedom of speech or interfaith marriages and the fusion of eclectic family traditions. And the more I listened to these, the more I was surprised by how they stimulated my desire to discover more about other cultures, communities and religions and by how fascinating this learning was. I came away from the experience with a sense that I had touched upon some of the key issues that affect the lives of others and how important it is that this knowledge and information is shared.
In the end, my fellow shortlisters and I ended up with a long-list of fourteen excellent programmes which we then had to narrow down too a short-list of eight. We all had our favourites but after much analysis and discussion managed to agree in the end.
What strikes me on reflection is that there were hardly any comedy entries. Why is that? Is religion not funny? Are writers, producers or commissioners afraid to make jokes about Faith? Perhaps this is something for programme-makers and potential entrants to think about for next year.
You can read a full list of the programmes shortlisted for a 2016 Sandford St Martin Radio Award here.
Penelope is a Comedian and TV Critic for BBC Radio 4 (‘World Tonight’, ‘Today Programme’) and BBC Radio London.
As a performer credits include ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (BBC), ‘Fist of Fun’ (BBC), Sony Nominated ‘King of the Road’ (BBC Radio 2) and ‘Redeeming Brian’ by legendary sitcom writer David Nobbs (BBC Radio 2). She created and co-wrote ‘Tower of Bagel’ (Soho Theatre, Royal Festival Hall). Penelope has also performed live at: Theatre Royal Winchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, Salisbury Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and The Hackney Empire.
before heading to THE STAND COMEDY CLUB part of the EDINBURGH FRINGE 2016
You can find out more about Penelope and her work on her website: www.penelopesolomon.com
or by following her on Twitter: @aHackneyMum
“May you live in interesting times!” are the words ancient Chinese sages apparently used to curse their enemies. Somewhat inauspicious then, perhaps, that they’re also the words that sprung most readily to mind when I reviewed the results of the Sandford St Martin Trust’s first public survey on the state of religious, ethical and spiritual broadcasting today. “Interesting times”, after all, are rarely peaceful or settled times. Rather, they are periods prone to insecurity, instability, confusion and change – which pretty much sums up the dilemmas facing contemporary broadcasting – not least, those facing what’s identified as “religious” broadcasting.
Recent years have seen religious coverage and programming evolve radically both in form and content. Propelled in part by a rash of geo-political conflict where religion and religious issues are being used around the world as rallying calls for violence, the average citizen is probably exposed to more news broadcasting and media about religion and religious identity now than ever before. Consider this alongside the revolution in broadcasting technology which means that “traditional” media now competes for audiences with rapidly growing satellite, cable, online, user-generated, user-propagated, non-regulated, 24/7, niche broadcasting services – among others – and it becomes clear that the familiar and comforting broadcasting “auntie” of old has got some very young and noisy upstart nephews and nieces.
“Interesting” times, indeed.
Will the current climate form the basis for a renaissance in religious broadcasting? If the response to our recent “Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?” session at Sheffield Doc/Fest is any indication, then there are some programme-makers, producers and commissioners who think so. Others are more cynical and believe that their practice is being steadily undermined by both an increasingly competitive broadcasting ecology and a culture that denigrates the spiritual. Listen to the vox pop recorded by the student-journalist Lucy Wilson at Sheffield and you’ll get a sense of the mix of opinion out there.
Which brings us back to our survey. Response percentages have been published here in our Briefings section, and, while the survey sample was small and can only begin to tell part of a story, I think what appeared under the “any other comments” section was particularly telling. These comments, I believe, raise some very pertinent issues – issues that should be at the heart of any discussion about whether or not the UK needs more or less religious broadcasting. Many respondents wanted to talk about the mixed quality of religious broadcasting as well as about quantity. Some lamented what they identify as a general decline in religious “literacy”. And there was a call for religious programme-makers to “drag religion up to date using new media”. “Grey hair can mean grey opinion”, one respondent wrote.
Another comment in response to the question “Should religious, ethical and spiritual programming be ring-fenced within public sector broadcasting?” echoed a chord. It went: “My answer… depends on how you define a religious programme as compared with a programme that has religion in it. For example, is it more powerful to have a Christian boy band win Britain’s Got Talent (watched by millions) than to have a programme about the Bible/Torah/Koran? Or have Corrie deal with religious discrimination rather than a programme about religious discrimination?”
When Ralph Lee, Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer, was asked to name a good example of religious broadcasting at the Trust’s Edinburgh TV Festival debate last year, he chose Gogglebox. Gogglebox regularly features the bubbly and loquacious Rev Kate Bottley on one of its sofas and Ralph’s point was that programmes like this give a new, different, colloquial or even mundane perspective on the Church and/or someone living a life of faith that is often missing from loftier-themed religious programming. Polly Toynbee, who was speaking at the same event, claimed calling something like Gogglebox “religious” was cheating.
What do you think? How broad a church (if you’ll forgive the obvious metaphor) should what we call religious or spiritual or ethical broadcasting be? In these “interesting” times, which for broadcasters and programme-makers are full of instability, insecurity, confusion and change, we’d like to hear your opinion. Drop us a line by commenting here or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
On March 18th, Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah gathered to discuss one of the hottest issues in journalism today in front of a sold-out audience at London’s Groucho Club. Edward Stourton, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, chaired the lively debate in which the panelists argued over the importance of religious understanding in reporting world affairs, and, fielded questions from the audience. The event – co-organised by the Sandford St Martin Trust and the Media Society – was described by Roy Greenslade in his Media Guardian blog as “one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended”. The BBC journalist Cathy Loughran was there and wrote about it the following day.
This blog originally appeared on the BBC College of Journalism Blog.
Increased religious ‘literacy’ among predominantly liberal, secular media types would be a good thing. Agreed?
Well, yes, but from then on the panel at Wednesday night’s Media Society/Sandford St Martin Trust debate about journalists and religion largely parted company.
Hosted by the Groucho Club in London’s Soho and titled Damned if You Don’t? Why Journalists Can’t Afford to Ignore Religion, this was a packed and pretty feisty affair with an enticing line-up.
On the panel were veteran Daily Mail foreign correspondent Dame Ann Leslie, writer, broadcaster and academic Myriam Francois-Cerrah, BBC Radio 4 Feedback presenter and former Panorama editor Roger Bolton, and the author of the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism, Professor Steve Barnett. Ringmaster for the night was BBC broadcaster Ed Stourton, host of Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Here is a flavour of the battle lines:
Religion is understated
For Ann Leslie (pictured above), a failure by journalists (and governments come to that) to grasp the “centrality” of religion to millions of people’s lives had led to serious misrepresentation of world-shaking events like ‘the Arab Spring’. “We have an allergy to religion in this country… and we misreport,” she said.
That had happened first in Tunisia, where the catalyst to ‘the Arab Spring’ had been viewed by the press as religiously motivated when it had really been a protest against corruption – and then again in coverage of the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising when the UK media had been blind-sided, she said, by the election of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Speaking specifically about Islam in the region, she argued: “We have constantly ignored how important religion is to a lot of ordinary people. When they believe that corruption is such that they’ll never get justice, they turn to a fundamental and purer god.”
Religion is overstated
Myriam Francois-Cerrah’s pitch also called for more clarity: it was as important to r ecognise what isn’t about religion as what is. And in the Arab world, for instance, where there were many socio-economic motivating factors, religion was often “by the by”, she said, or else used as “a rallying cry for people power”.
There was a tendency for journalists to look at religion “through a reductive lens”, resulting in some “facile explanations… that avoid picking apart the roots of conflicts”.
Suicide bombing was a case in point, the New Statesman columnist argued: wrongly conflated in the media with religion when it was more likely to be about territorial protest.
She was critical of a “binary” focus that over-simplified a lot of reporting. It was simplistic, she said, to represent the Charlie Hebdo attack as either just about religion or just an assault on free speech – tantamount to saying 9/11 was an attack on US banking, ignoring the much wider context.
And she took issue with what she saw as an outbreak of media breast-beating about young people running away to join Islamic State: “When we discuss theology we miss more substantive points. What [persuades] young people to join IS? What about gangs? What about cults?” There was an assumption there about “Islamic exceptionalism”, she believed, and that was “problematic”.
UK broadcast journalism is “not fit for purpose”
A direct quote from a passionate Roger Bolton who hit out at the “inadequacy” of “a liberal, secular, metropolitan group” of journalists who “don’t understand what motivates great sections of the population”. The unnamed broadcaster who described FGM as “a Muslim practice” was especially shaming, he said.
Understanding the role of Christianity in the history and culture of Britain was critical to understanding the country we live in, and so explaining some of that, with authority, should be “at the heart of what we do” as journalists, Bolton argued. Separating religion from politics and history was “ridiculous”.
He saw the main broadcasters as “under-powered”, taking aim at BBC News for not having an editor for religion who could be its centre of expertise, comparable to the BBC editors for science, arts, politics, sport and more. “We can’t do our jobs unless we tool up,” he said.
And he warned that lack of understanding about religion would lead to loss of credibility in other reporting: “You know when you read a news story on something you know about and you think, hold on [that’s not right]… If we can’t be bothered to find out what a significant section of the population believe, why should they take us seriously on other issues?”
But other things are more relevant to people’s lives
A quick about-turn from Steve Barnett. He certainly wasn’t against greater understanding of anything, including religion – “it’s knowledge”. But journalism was “a zero sum game” and news organisations could only prioritise a certain amount of specialist roles. Besides, the University of Westminster professor had other ideas.
A dearth of constitutional correspondents was “more dangerous than not understanding religion”, he ventured. And what about a journalism specialism in drugs.
It was a question of relevance in an increasingly secular society, he felt: “More focus on religion would displace stories with more relevance to most lives [in the UK].”
The rise of IS and the rise in anti-Semitism were “huge questions” globally that called for some religious knowledge on the part of journalists, he conceded. But they were ultimately “political” stories, in the way that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had been about politics and oppression more than Catholics and Protestants, he told his very engaged audience.
Damned if you don’t? Not quite the Barnett formula.
You can read the original blog and other articles by Cathy Loughran here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/authors/015a469e-dfef-36f7-9ba9-d44056f4bfd0
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