Exploring Belief – The 2019 Religion Media Festival

Image credit: RMC

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 explain it
  • The need for religious literacy, and for expertise among news and programme makers
  • The impact of social media
  • And the rise of unbelief and the need to study and understand it


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.”

“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.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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:

“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”.

Tanya Muneera Williams, Jamaican Muslim hip-hop rapper

“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”

Canon Sarah Snyder, Rose Castle Foundation

“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.”

The Rev Sarah Jones, transgender priest


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 Lois Lee

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.”

“The internet – is it a good thing, or our way to Armageddon?”

Michael Wakelin

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.”


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