Anna McNamee

Interesting Times: the results of our online “religious, spiritual and ethical broadcasting” poll are in

“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?”

Good question.

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

Can journalists afford to ignore religion? Depends what you believe

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:

Hurrah for Children’s Religious Programmes!

This year the Sandford St Martin Trust launched a new award for Children’s broadcasting.  Sharmini Selvarajah, formerly with the Sutton Trust and a freelance broadcaster and journalist, was one of those media professionals invited to help hone a shortlist from the many excellent entries.  She writes here about the experience.

As a child I thought about religion more than average. My family included Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Anglicans and Buddhists, and, thanks to this, I had direct experience of different customs and festivals. But growing up in 1980s Britain, I’m not sure if the same could be said of many of my contemporaries.

Religious Education – or RE – consisted of learning scriptures off by heart or illustrating Bible stories. And although I was interested in religion throughout my childhood and teenage years, I don’t remember ever being engaged with religious ideas at school, or through the mainstream media.

Shortlisting entries for the new Sandford St Martin Children’s Prize has shown me how much things have changed though. The experience opened my eyes to the diversity and quality of children’s broadcasting on religious issues. Unlike the worthy, and usually boring, videos we were shown at school, these entries spoke directly to young people, informing them without being patronising.

I was particularly impressed with the high production values of many of the submissions. It’s true that some came from big production companies, but many of the specialist films aimed at schools were beautifully made with limited resources.

There was also a welcome diversity within the programmes, with subjects including Hanukkah, Bible stories, Humanism and even an exploration of Ji’had. In addition to explicitly religious themes, there were also entries which dealt less directly with ethical issues. These programmes were particularly interesting, though often hard to judge. Not all met the criteria of the Award, to include a “strong religious or spiritual element”, but those which did were inspiring. They demonstrated that religious themes can be effectively included in mainstream programming for young people.

I watched and listened to many of the entries with my three children, and took on board their comments when making decisions. Seeing their enjoyment and engagement with the process convinced me that the days of poorly produced, unimaginative, religious programming for children are long gone.