By Rosie Dawson
When I moved to a new city to begin my reporting career, I imagined that my specialism and interest in religion might be tolerated as quaint — as it had been by my fellow trainees at journalism school.
But no. This was Liverpool, and my newsroom colleagues would no more have been ignorant of the names of the city’s bishops than they would have been of its football managers.
It was taken for granted that faith was both something that mattered to many people on a personal level, and that religious leaders would speak regularly into the public square.
More than 30 years on, against a vastly different religious and media backdrop, the Religion Media Centre went to Liverpool for another of its Creating Connections events, bringing together representatives of faith groups and media organisations to discuss how they can best work together.
The conference was held in the former Great George Street Congregational Church, now a community arts centre called The Black-E.
Hosted by Leo Devine and Mick Ord, the emphasis was on listening sensitively to one another’s stories, and recognising that global events may impinge on conversations in the room — as indeed they did.
Liverpool historian Ken Pye provided some context, laying out the historical and contemporary religious scene in Liverpool. The city’s distinctive Catholic flavour is borne of immigration, with the arrival of two million Irish people fleeing the Great Famine in the 1840s.
Later in the 19th century, the country’s first mosque, founded by William Quilliam, was established here. And the Princes Road synagogue, regarded as one of the finest in Europe, was the largest synagogue in Britain when it was built in 1874.
But there have been significant changes in the city’s religious landscape since then. The 2021 Census showed that 57 per cent identify as Christian, compared with 80 per cent in 2001. During that time, the number of people identifying as having no religion has risen from 9.6 per cent to 29.4 per cent.
The proportion of Muslims in the population is 5.3 per cent compared with 1.35 per cent in 2001 and there have been small increases among Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists while the number of Jews has fallen.
Nevertheless, the engagement of faith groups is seen as crucial to the social and economic fortunes of the city.
Alison Navarro, director of the newly formed Race Equality Hub at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, told the gathering that she wanted to avoid the tendency of some secular agencies of “engaging with faith for their own ends without experiencing all they have to offer”.
She said she was committed to exploring “the role that these [faith] communities play in economic advancement so that they can be part of the delivery of our vision”.
A panel of media experts also said they understood the important place of faith and were committed to reporting communities well.
The Liverpool Echo has invested in a community reporter, Patrick Graham, whose job is to find and tell stories from communities that may not otherwise be well known. He said his reporting was an effort to help people understand each other’s cultures and faiths, adding: “I want my reporting not just to be read but understood and to act as a catalyst for change.”
The event came in the middle of a difficult week for journalists. Reach, the publisher whose titles include the Liverpool Echo, announced the loss of 450 jobs, most of them in editorial roles. BBC local radio and television has also faced cuts. In local radio, 39 religious programmes are being replaced by 13 regional ones.
Such changes prompted participants to suggest that print and broadcast media are less rooted in communities than they once were.
Kate Squire, the BBC’s senior editor in the north, defended the changes, which mean Radio Merseyside’s Sunday breakfast show reflecting religion will now have to incorporate Manchester.
“It is a faith programme, going across a slightly wider area. But the themes and the topics will still be absolutely relevant to everybody here,” she said. “News and local content will still be there and those faith themes and spirituality themes will be absolutely key in that four hours and the rest of Radio Merseyside.
“We’re very content-hungry in local services, and we want really good stories. We want to reflect the brilliant diversity in all our areas. And we want really close connections with you.”
Liam Thorp, political editor of the Liverpool Echo, said his newspaper was embedded in the city, living and working among people they reported upon. Trust and relationships were very important.
“You need to have people who are conduits to different communities, different faith groups, so that you can gain that trust and report accurately and fairly and properly in this really diverse city that we live in,” he said.
Jack Walton from the Liverpool Post, agreed on the importance of informed and nuanced reporting. “Nothing is more damaging than a media organisation badly reporting on a city,” he said. “It ruins trust and that takes a long time to build back.”
The media panel faced some tough questioning from participants who said they found it hard to interest them in news from their communities.
Lucy West, the head of news at ITV Granada, acknowledged the challenge, but said organisations had to ask themselves “how far your story will travel” beyond the immediate locality to the wider northwest region. There were practical and logistical challenges too, she said, in deciding how to deploy reporters and film crews so that they can cover as many stories as possible.
Documentary-maker Sally Williams said it was important to understand what made a good story. She encouraged faith groups to brush up their media skills and think about why, for example, their story would make a good television piece.
Journalist John Egan suggested that there was something deeper going on when journalists did not report religion. At one time, faith leaders would automatically be asked for their opinion on a public issue, but now he said: “I think we’re all beginning to feel as if we’re an increasingly beleaguered minority, and our voice or our influence is diminishing by the day.
“Now, you may well argue that reflects society. But I would argue that the media, by marginalising faith, is actually promoting secularism, leading to further isolation.”
Paul Smalley, a religious education specialist based at Edge Hill University, wanted to know if any of the media organisations represented had a religious expert or correspondent. He suggested that there was a need for religious literacy training if their reporting was going to be accurate.
There were opportunities during the event for people to tell their stories to other faith groups and to the media in the room.
Stephen Yip, founder of the children’s charity KIND Liverpool, said he wanted to highlight that Liverpool had “thrived and prospered on the back of immigrant communities” who now found themselves left out of the decision-making process in the running of the city.
Liverpool author and poet Malik Al Nasir told his remarkable story of a struggle from poverty to educational success and his conversion to Islam in the process. His message was that unity was Liverpool’s strength: “We are one people, one humanity, one mankind. There’s more that unites people in this city than divides us,” he said.
Events in the Middle East were never far from the discussions. Ms Squire was asked about a perceived bias in the BBC’s coverage of the conflict and the ramifications among faith groups in the UK.
“I don’t believe the BBC sets out to be biased,” she replied. “I know the effort that goes into getting things right.” BBC correspondents in the field were going to great lengths to get their reporting right, but “it is an incredibly difficult and controversial subject”.
The day ended with a positive story from Michelle Hayward, who chairs of governors at King David High School, Liverpool. She said the school embraced children from 18 different religious groups and that they had all been supporting each other in the light of recent events.
“Liverpool is a safe place to live,” added David Coleman from Allerton synagogue in the city. “If we were all against each other there would be a lot more stories in the news!”
Find out more about our Creating Connections events here
- Bristol, Wednesday 22 November, Conference Hall, City Hall
- Norwich, Tuesday 30 November, Weston room, Norwich Cathedral