REPORT OF THE SECOND RELIGION AND MEDIA FESTIVAL ‘EXPLORING BELIEF’
Religion Media Festival 2019
Exploring Belief, the second Religion Media Festival, featured a stellar line-up of speakers and included panel discussions on some of the most important issues facing religion and media today:
- The need to understand religion’s role in events and the need for the media to
- The need for religious literacy, and for expertise among news and programme
- The impact of social media.
- And the rise of unbelief and the need to study and understand it.
- The need to understand religion’s role in events and the need for the media to
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, opened the conference with a story: one night a man sees his friend searching on the ground under a street light and asks him what he is looking for. “My keys,” comes the reply. “Did you drop them under the street light?” asks the man. “No, over there in the dark, but there I can’t see, here I can see.”
“Sometimes,” he concluded, “we miss the real news items because we are only looking under the street light.”
Lord Sacks took us back to 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed two other events to pass without their full significance being understood, because we were “not reading the religious map or hearing the religious music.”
In February 1989 Russia pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and “Osama Bin Laden saw a handful of mujahideen could defeat one of the two great superpowers of the world . . . and thus began the thought that become 9/11”. The fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie was the second event and demonstrated that “in a global age, religion is a global phenomenon whereas governments are only national phenomenon. And so . . . you could sit in Iran and see consequences in Britain.”
Lord Sacks went on: “We have been living for some time in an age of desecularisation. The one thing that no Enlightenment thinker or post-Enlightenment thinker thought was possible.”
He then turned his sights on the media. “With the shining exception of the BBC, the media have not covered religion as well as it might. Not given it space, time or quality of knowledge that it should have done. And yet religion is essential in understanding what is going on in the world.”
In a Q&A with ITN’s Julie Etchingham, Lord Sacks was asked if he saw any leadership among our political class. “No, there’s no leadership,” he replied. “There’s no followship. We are in a mess, a big, big, big mess . . . We need a leader who speaks to the anxiety of the age . . . that explains us to ourselves . . . who can construct a coherent road map of hope and most important, in this Brexit era, we need a leader who is capable of being an educator.” And the reason a vacuum of leadership existed is the concept of public service has been lost, he said.
How do you follow Lord Sacks? Katie Harrison, director of the ComRes Faith Research Centre, provided the answer. She hosted three “Polemics” throughout the day – punchy, provocative, personal sections in which a contributor told their story and answered questions from the audience. Here’s a flavour of each in their own words:
Tanya Muneera Williams, Jamaican Muslim hip-hop rapper
I am a poet and cultural producer, I am a black British-born Jamaican revert Muslim woman, more than likely with roots in West Africa . . . I am a layered being but rarely do I see my individual layers represented or reflected back to me in the media.
Canon Sarah Snyder, Rose Castle Foundation
Colleagues and I have long tried and tested communal scriptural reasoning . . . which encourages conservative faith actors to participate. Imagine a world where more of these faith actors are at our peace-building tables and celebrated in our media rather than the object of public criticism and blame.
The Rev Sarah Jones, transgender priest
My parents brought me up as a boy. But to be fair to them that’s what they thought I was and that’s what I thought I was . . . It took me nine years from going to the doctor for the first time until just before my 30th birthday when I packed away my old clothes. One day I got a call from a journalist. I know most of you in the media want to do good stories. If you work with someone like me you’ll get a much better story, but the temptation is to drag it down.
In a session chaired by journalist and producer Rosie Dawson, academics working on ground-breaking research explained how they were trying to understand unbelief. Their leader, Dr Lois Lee of the University of Kent, explained that people identifying as non-religious had been growing steadily over a long period.
She told the conference: “Non-believers are believers, too – they believe things about the world. Non-religious people have values, as do religious people.”
Dr Rachael Shillitoe said little was known about children who identify as having no belief, but they, too, have many beliefs. She reported that children were “more comfortable speaking about their unbeliefs”, and “had a better language available to them”.
Also on the panel was Liz Slade, chief officer of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and former chief executive of Sunday Assembly, which she explained had all the hallmarks of worship without the tradition of beliefs. “People love coming together and creating something that is meaningful and giving that time and energy into building a community,” she said.
In December 2017 the BBC produced a review of its religion and ethics output and announced plans “to go further”. Journalist and broadcaster Roger Bolton examined its progress in an interview with James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education. With no “head of religion”, no allocated money and no one responsible for implementing the policy, who was in charge, who had responsibility for delivering the brief, and where was the expertise?
James Purnell explained that this lay in a network within the organisation. But fundamental to his defence was his argument: “Judge us by the programmes. I think there has been a clear uplift in our ambition, our creativity. I think that’s the test. It’s not about judging us on inputs, it’s about saying we have some purposes here and how are we doing?
“We don’t just want to be a Catholic priest talking about Catholic issues. We want faith brought into the big ethical discussions of our time.”
To explain some of the decisions behind those very programmes were Abigail Priddle and Daisy Scalchi, commissioning editors at the BBC. They played clips showcasing some of the “7,000-plus hours” of religion and ethics programmes made by the BBC annually. The conference was treated to a bit of Mary Berry’s Easter Feast and Pilgrimage, Abortion on Trial, We are British Jews.
Michael Wakelin’s opening question to his panellists discussing “digital religion” cut straight to the heart of the issue: “The internet – is it a good thing, or our way to Armageddon?”
All the panellists acknowledged that the internet had changed our lives but warned that we were all learning how to use it best. Dr Jasjit Singh, a research fellow at Leeds University, had been investigating how the Sikh tradition was passed on via the internet. Its impact, he said, very much depended on what the user brought to it and how they used it.
Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier Christian Radio’s podcast, Unbelievable, stressed the need for accountability. “My problem with the gatekeepers is that their bottom line is dollars . . . And until they are prepared to put principle ahead of profit, it will be impossible to change that because the more thoughtful and helpful voices are not the ones who generate the most clicks.”
Hussein Kesvani, a journalist and author of Follow Me Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims, emphasised that the internet could never replace the mosque in dealing with fundamentals of your life. “The tools online are so individualised . . . but, for example, I’m a member of a mosque I rarely go to, but I know they will sort out my burial if I die,” he said.
And would Muhammad, Jesus or Guru Nanak have used the internet?
“I don’t think Muhammad would be on social media,” Hussein said, “but the followers would be. So much Islamic interpretation was spread by his companions. They were the ones writing things down . . . so not him but the followers.”
“Jesus drew crowds, he told stories, and I can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t have used the rule of modern technology,” Justin said. “At the same time, he broke a lot of the rules . . . so I think you would probably find Jesus there in the public sphere, but not abiding by conventional rules.”
“Guru Nanak?” said Jasjit. “A few tweets, maybe. He tried to lead by example. So rather than chasing likes and followers it would be more, ‘I’m going to be here today, let’s have a chat’.”
The final panel discussion, chaired by BBC journalist and broadcaster Emily Buchanan, offered the audience insight into what it was like at the coalface of the newsroom, what made good religious journalism and how to get those stories on air.
Richard Greene, the senior news editor at CNN in London, provided a good example of when knowing what just happened was not enough and needed to be complemented by investigating the “why?” Richard had noticed a spike in antisemitic incidents and commissioned a survey with ComRes in seven countries. The results were shocking – for example, 22 per cent of respondents said Jewish people had too much influence on political affairs – and guided CNN online programming for a week.
Sophia Smith Galer is an award-winning BBC journalist, making digital video and running the BBC World Service Instagram account. For her, the best stories are always case studies. “I have rarely interviewed an expert. My remit is to find underreported stories, someone whose voice isn’t heard.” Later she shared an insight: “One of the important things for me . . . if there has been any thread in the reporting I’ve done this year, it’s women and how women are changing things.”
Nicola Meyrick, a former head of BBC Radio Current Affairs, is now trustee of Sandford St Martin Trust, which is giving a new award for journalism. Her comment on Sri Lanka went to the heart of the difficulty newsrooms and broadcasters face. “You struggle to explain the why of it – and this is part of the issue for religious journalism altogether. It’s tough stuff. But without trying to explain, people are none the wiser.”
As an expert called on by journalists for interviews, comment and background, Dr Suzanne Newcombe had a unique perspective. “I think the biggest pressure is the 24-hour news cycle . . . and when the call come in from a breaking news story . . . it’s hard for academics to respond.” And she had her own advice to journalists: “Instead of picking the first male figurehead, they could pick up the phone.”
The closing keynote address was an interview with Simon Terrington, the former Ofcom director of content policy, and chaired by the radio and TV presenter Hannah Scott Joynt.
With the day drawing to a close, discussion looked to the future and whether podcasts needed to be regulated. “There does need to be a degree of regulation. There’s a complex relationship with the audience,” Simon said. “What works best is when the audience know what to expect. And society needs to evolve and have conventions – we have clear conventions on TV and radio – but we are learning as we go along with podcasting.”
The Religion Media Centre’s second conference was proof of its commitment to providing an independent, transparent voice of expertise on religion. If there was one recurring theme throughout the day, it was young people. How are young audiences being reached? What do young people need from coverage on religion? What do young people and children believe? Can religion and media help them better understand the world they live in?
As Lord Sacks said at the beginning; “Every time I get depressed at the state of the world I go to visit a Jewish primary school . . . I hope that we give children a voice in our broadcasting.”
Report of the inaugural Religion and Media festival ‘Exploring Belief’
JW3 Centre, Finchley, north London. Tuesday March 27th 2018
Religion Media Centre trustees and advisory board members joined others to organise the inaugural Religion and Media Festival, Exploring Belief, which took place at the JW3 centre in London at the end of March.
A stellar cast of panellists and speakers including James Harding, Mark Thomp son and Frank Cottrell-Boyce addressed why and how religion is reported and portrayed in the media.
More than 100 people attended throughout the day, including academics studying the sociology of religion, theology and media, journalists working in general news and specialising in religion, press officers from faith groups, film makers and people whose working lives involve an engagement with religion in public life and the media.
Broadcaster Roger Bolton suggested that the media in the UK should reflect that 84% of the world͛s population have a religious affiliation, yet broadcasting hours were in decline. Speakers throughout the day analysed whether this was because the media is generally secular and against religion, or because stories about religion couldn’t compete with news from other areas of public life.
James Harding, former editor of the Times and former director of BBC News, said: There’s often an assumption among people of faith that newsrooms are secular if not arrogantly atheist.That’s not been my experience. Many people who don’t believe in God work in news, but there are plenty who do and there any many people for whom their identity, history and life are all bound up with religion, belief and a sense of belonging.
“Religious correspondents are blessed with a beat that really speaks to people – how they live, how they love, how they work, how they die. I am arguing there are better stories out there.”
Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times and former director-general of the BBC, joined the conference by Skype and said the idea that religion has ceased to be a force in society is manifestly not true:
“Whether reporting Northern Ireland or conservative politics in the USA, I think great journalists are open-minded about everything including faith. In the late 70s and early 80s there was a view that religion shouldnt exist, and very soon wont exist, and is therefore quite an irrelevance. But the central task of journalism, of trying to understand what is happening in your own country and the world, is indissolubly linked with questions of faith.”
Criticism by faith groups that they are misunderstood and misrepresented by a media which is out of touch, was given full vent in a panel debate, chaired by Emily Buchanan.
Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has made numerous complaints to newspapers about the coverage of Islam, resulting in 50 corrections in the last 18 months: “Religious coverage seems to be very focused on negativity, this is problematic as polls show that the majority of people in this country find out about Islam through the media. Some of this is pure inaccuracy, but some journalists have a pre-held prejudice.”
Charmaine Noble-Mclean, director of content for Premier Christian Radio, also complained of negativity when reporting Christianity: “When I look at press or mainstream TV, I see corrupt vicars, perverted priests, the church in decline, churches with scandal – that’s what it feels like. We don’t seem to tell the ordinary stories of great Christians who do everyday things.”
The journalists challenged back. Catherine Pepinster, a former editor of the Tablet, said: “Journalists ought to be doing better but some of those who respond to journalists also need to do better. One inquiry took three or four days to get back to me. I would like to know to what extent Muslims are proactive, rather than issuing a correction, helping to keep journalists better informed about Islam.”
And Peter Stanford, a freelance writer, said huge cutbacks in newsroom staff resulted in pressure to do a story faster with fewer resources, and the lack of religious education in schools wasleading to a loss of religious literacy.
An intervention during the debate from Dr Jasjit Singh, of the University of Leeds, stressed the importance of the media speaking to academics and educators with specialist expertise on religion, as going to faith and belief leaders alone won’t give the full picture of religion. This was good news for the Religion Media Centre, as that is exactly our aim.
The festival took place in the middle of the row over Facebook’s use of data, but one of its key executives in the UK, policy manager Dr Erin Marie Saltman, told the gathering that the online space is going through a moral crisis. Facebook is learning from errors and has a responsibility to evolve, she said.
Her work in countering terrorism and violent extremism showed the importance of enabling community voices to be heard: “You see hate-based extremist movements that utilise and cling on to religion for legitimacy, but the internet allows the loudest active people to get attention in a way that they couldn’t before. We need to create an infrastructure that promotes positive voices help community voices to upscale and help bring their voices online.”
One hour was devoted to BBC output and strategy, following a recent review on BBC Religion and Ethics, which concluded that there should be a religion editor in BBC News, a global team of specialist reporters, religious festivals marked on flagship shows and new dramas and documentaries commissioned.
The report author, Mark Friend, said a network of specialists will be created in production areas, to ensure that experts on religion, already working within the BBC, join together to achieve these goals. BBC TV commissioning editor Fatima Salaria said she wanted to make religion and faith feel exciting and relevant. Programmes such as, Muslims Like Us, had prompted people to look at Muslims in a completely different way that they are not the same. Mohit Bakaya, religion commissioner for BBC Radio, said radio broadcasts, downloads and podcasts reached millions of people. “Radio 4’s strategy is to try to understand how faith is shaping and has shaped our world today.”
͞Understanding the audience was another key panel debate. Katie Harrison, director of the Faith Research Centre at Comres, explained that although 53% of the UK have no religion, one quarter of this segment pray, believe in life after death or in angels. Also the population is not static: “Numbers of people identifying as Christian and Muslim will increase across the world, according to projections.”
The golden moment for many was an interview with Frank Cottrell-Boyce, by broadcaster Hannah Scott-Joynt. In a deeply personal contribution, he spoke with immense humour about faith as an important dimension to his work in film making, which “busts you out of the prison of the present”. He had come to recognise his calling as contributing some grace and wonder into the world through his work. With a Catholic heritage, he said, “Judaism is the mother of my faith and the father of my socialism. “The festival closed with a reception for the newly formed Religion Media Centre, which aims to address the issues raised during the day. Chair Michael Wakelin said: “The festival was enriching and challenging, with contributions and audience interventions from top people in the media world and leading thinkers on religion and public life. We hope it will be the first of many. It proved the need for the Religion Media Centre, which seeks to help journalists cover religion through providing context and comment.”