By Amardeep Bassey
In a city where football is held to be god, the Religion Media Centre’s third Creating Connections conference revealed that it’s not the only religion in town.
Indeed, it highlighted how Newcastle’s inhabitants worship more than just the deified players of the “beautiful game”.
Although latest Census figures for the Newcastle region mirrored the national trend of a decline in religious observance, the conference showed how faith is as alive and kicking as the football.
More importantly, the event recognised the responsibility of the media, especially the local press, to contact faith groups for stories — rather than waiting for them to get in touch.
With the backdrop of the tragedy in Israel and Gaza unfolding before our eyes, this event could not have been more timely in the debate over community cohesion and understanding neighbours.
Kayleigh Foster, a Northern Echo reporter, said the 2021 Census showed that the northeast of the city was the most “religious”, but Newcastle had the highest percentage, at 5.6 per cent, of respondents who simply did not answer the question about religion.
Ms Foster said: “It was good to be able to work with lots of up-to-date data on religion and ethnicity. The numbers help me understand what’s happening on the ground in these areas.”
She also mentioned how a rumour about a barge being used to house asylum seekers in the region had led to divisions in the community, prompting her to wonder if the response would have been as negative if those living nearby were non-white.
Dr Jennifer Uzzell, from the Centre for Pagan Studies at Durham University, spoke of the rich variety and long history of faiths and beliefs that could be called pagan or “heathen”, which had been noted in the Census.
Earlier, Irim Ali, a Newcastle city councillor, opened the conference by reminding us of events in Israel and the importance of embedding diversity in civic authorities.
Her views were echoed by Imam Ali Asad of the city’s Madina Masjid Mosque, who is also a hospital chaplain. He told the audience: “Every community, everyone, deserves and needs to have their stories told and sometimes that can be difficult. What is needed is an inclusive interfaith programme that goes beyond the meet and greet.”
This theme developed further when the media panel convened to face the audience, made up of faith group and charity leaders, desperate for the ear of the press.
Gavin Foster, group editor of the Newsquest group northeast, opened by describing the deluge of email messages he received every day.
“There’s literally thousands of emails of people wanting us to cover their story and we simply can’t,” he said. “I would advise people to try to build relationships with reporters on a one-to-one basis and then keep them regularly updated.”
This prompted one attendee to complain that “reporters always want things too quick”. Another mentioned the difficulty of reaching journalists in the first place and how they sometimes get things wrong.
“If we do something you are not happy with then please come and speak to us,” Mr Foster replied. “We are not in the business of turning people over and misquoting people.”
Mr Foster’s reply led to me to ask whether the onus should be on reporters to contact faith groups and charities, as much as the other way round. “After all, we are the ones who know how media works and want people to give us their stories,” I said.
Fellow panellist Helen Dalby, audience and content director for Reach Northeast and Yorkshire, said the best way to get hold of her reporters was to email the newsdesk directly.
David Bootle, who heads public relations for the Allies Group marketing agency, suggested that getting a story in the press was often a matter of getting the right timing and place to pitch and tell your story.
“Get to know the workings of your local media,” he said. “It’s about timing — find out when the media is at its most receptive, for example not during their morning and afternoon conference times. You want to almost follow the press. If the TV cameras are all at a local event, or football match, then get out there and make connections.”
Helen Ford, diversity champion at ITV News Tyne Tees, reminded the audience that television news was more images-led than the print press. ‘Think in pictures. What will the viewer see? Show rather than tell is the mantra for local telly news,” she said.
Some of the audience then spoke about stories that had been overlooked by national and local media.
Paul Cleever-Thorpe, minister at Brunswick Methodist church in Newcastle, spoke of the significant increase in membership of Chinese Methodist congregations, meeting within Methodist churches in Middlesbrough, Durham and Newcastle. Nationally, Chinese congregations are the fastest growing branch of Christianity in Britain today, with numbers increasing by 29 per cent in the last two years.
Douglas Davies, professor in the study of religions at Durham University, mentioned one angle that had gone under the radar during reporting on the Covid crisis, but was clearly a public interest story.
“We were all clapping for the NHS and nurses but what about the crematorium workers and the pressures they faced?” he said. “They, too, are frontline workers but no one really told their story.”
Next, the conference heard from a panel of the city’s youth who said they got their news from social media such as TikTok and Instagram, but perhaps surprisingly did not really care for so-called “influencers”.
Hugo Negron-Jennings, studying theology at Durham, said the mainstream media needed to adapt to social media to survive. “I get my news from Instagram and the BBC. I don’t follow influencers,” he said. “One of the problems is we only hear about religion in the news when someone has extreme views.”
Fellow panellist Ella Vickers said she tried to seek out positive and hopeful news and mentioned the online Happy Newspaper. Another young speaker said she felt the UK press coverage of events in Israel and Gaza was biased and “not very focused”.
Indeed, the dangers of “fake news” on social media was a concern to all attendees. Mr Foster said social media was fast becoming both the journalist’s “best friend and worst enemy” and that the deliberate spread of misinformation was increasing.
The north east is the location of Britain’s first and only Faith Museum at Auckland Castle in County Durham and the conference heard from Amina Wright, its senior curator, who said the idea was borne out of the need to “give people space where they can go and think about faith in the broadest sense.”
The museum includes local artefacts, some prehistoric, as well as items such the prayer beads and holy water carriers once owned by Lord Headley in the 1920s. Headley, who converted to Islam in 1913, is believed to be the first British Muslim to have completed hajj.
The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, wrapped up the day’s proceedings, saying: “We embrace diversity in a very real way in Newcastle and I’m interested in how we communicate with each other across different faiths and beliefs. In a practical sense I think these groups and organisations need sessions on how to actually navigate the media.”
She lamented the “diluting” of local media, adding: “The danger is we lose the hyperlocal and so lose the opportunities to tell stories that can bring in a faith angle.”
Bishop Hartley gave an example of her visit to the site of the Sycamore Gap tree, which made international headlines when it was felled.
“The story really resonated firstly because the tree is in my diocese” she said. “So, I made a point of going to the site and while there I spoke to a Times reporter and it snowballed from there. It showed me that I can’t always expect the journalist to come to me.”
Find out more about our Creating Connections events here
- Liverpool, Thursday 9 November, the Black-E
- Bristol, Wednesday 22 November, Conference Hall, City Hall
- Norwich, Tuesday 30 November, Weston room, Norwich Cathedral