Creating Connections: Religion and the media in Birmingham

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Image credit: RMC

A dearth of stories in the media about Britain’s Hindu population can be partly explained by religious scriptures, a leading member of the community says.

Ashvin Patel, chairman of the Hindu Forum (Walsall & West Midlands), spoke at a conference of journalists and community representatives in Birmingham that the Hindu faith “almost forbids” believers from promoting their charitable work.

Speaking at the Religion Media Centre’s Creating Connections event, Mr Patel said: “Our scripture teaches and instructs us not to expect any returns for our community work and helping our neighbours. We are supposed to do this work but not expect any glory for it. We are almost forbidden to talk about it, certainly not to shout about it.”

The suggestion was in reference to Bhagavad Gita chapter 17, verse 20: “Charity given out of duty, without expectation of return, at the proper time and place and to a worthy person is considered to be in the mode of goodness.”

While Mr Patel acknowledged this may prevent those “who follow the scripture to the letter” from speaking up, he said an understanding of this might improve dialogue between the community and the media. He therefore urged journalists, such as those sitting on a media panel at the event, to “seek us out”.

The Exchange in Birmingham’s Centenary Square hosted the fourth of five events organised by the Religion Media Centre. Staged in conjunction with local steering groups, they aim to enhance religious literacy and understanding in a landscape often fraught with misconceptions and assumptions on both sides.

Launching the packed schedule of talks was Canon Dr Andrew Smith, director of interfaith relations for the Bishop of Birmingham, who said this was a “very religious city” where more than 70 per cent of the population claimed adherence to a religion, according to the 2011 Census. “The joy of being in Birmingham is that we have every religion and every bit of every religion,” he said.

Image credit: RMC

Roger Bolton, the journalist, broadcaster and Religion Media Centre trustee who was chairing the conference, then quizzed a panel of journalists on what they looked for in a story and how they might connect better with the city’s many diverse groups.

Gary Newby, news editor at ITV Central, explained how the 30-minute 6pm regional news programme worked. “The first part tends to be recounting and responding to the day’s news,” he said. “The second part is an opportunity to be more reflective and celebratory about the Midlands.”

Urging people to contact his team regarding coverage for their communities, he said: “I’m not saying we always get it right, but we endeavour to get different voices.”

Those contacting the media should always consider how best to illustrate their story, Mr Newby added. “For us it’s always about pictures and it’s always about people.”

Sharing the platform with him was Stuart Thomas, head of BBC Midlands, who made a simple appeal to the audience: “We want more stories.” He added: “Give us your stories and we will cover them. I think faith stories go to the heart of what being a human being on this planet is all about … they have a massive role to play within our output.”

Christina Savvas, senior customer editor of the West Midlands for Birmingham Live Online, said she was passionate about her job and “the people that make this community tick”.

She said her own background helped her understand the importance of avoiding stereotypes. “I’m Greek Orthodox and the number of times people say ‘do you smash plates?’ It’s funny at first but it can be annoying after a while. It’s up to us to challenge these things with our contacts.”

Dr Muhammad Hanif is a GP in the city and a trustee at Unity FM, an Islamic radio station. “People often think all we talk about is faith but we talk about all sorts of things and we look at it from a faith point of view,” he said. “We also try to educate the Muslim community, to give them guidance in terms of interaction and engagement with wider society.”

Unity’s aim is to give a “positive slant” on news from the community, he said. “We are used to very negative stories to do with terrorism. They always make the mainstream news — it’s difficult to see how exactly we can change that.” Part of the problem, he believes, is representation. “Often the people who do represent the Muslim community aren’t necessarily the ones who stand up.” Meanwhile extremist groups “seem to get the media”.

Echoing those sentiments was Amrick Singh Ubhi, director of the Sikh faith Nishkam Centre. “There’s a saying in our culture … ‘the empty pan makes no noise’,” he said. Hailing the event as “a new beginning”, he said: “We need to get out there while Rome isn’t burning and we are not up against a turmoil issue. This is about trust and relationships. Hopefully we will identify organisations we can plug into. It’s a starting point from where we can start building bridges.”

“…I think faith stories go to the heart of what being a human being on this planet is all about… they have a massive role to play within our output”

Stuart Thomas, BBC Midlands

Members of the audience shared brief outlines of their work with the gathering, among them Liisa Wiseman, project manager for Adavu, a charity working with victims of human trafficking.

“We help people rebuild their lives after. We get people from all backgrounds who we support. Often their faith is the only thing that can help bring them to us,” she said.

Kamran Shezad, the climate change and sustainability lead at the Bahu Trust, said he believed faith communities stepped up to the plate at COP26: “This time around faith communities really mobilised.”

Others included Nilesh Solanki, a volunteer at Sewa UK which raised hundreds of thousands to send oxygen supplies to India during its second wave of Covid. Meanwhile, Bishop Mike Royal, who co-chairs the Commonwealth Games 2022 Churches Together working group, described how his team was training dozens of “volunteer chaplains” to support next summer’s games.

Image credit: RMC

Later in the afternoon Mr Bolton led a discussion with students from Kings Norton Girls’ School in Selly Oak about faith-based news. The teenagers all said they did not read newspapers or listen to radio broadcasts for news, relying instead mostly on social media. While they acknowledged the risks of fake news, most felt social media allowed for a greater range of voices. One said: “I feel like it’s important to share and that people’s voices are heard. That’s the only way a difference can be made.”

In the final plenary session, speakers considered what lessons could be drawn from the day.

Professor Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, from Birmingham University, said the pandemic had highlighted some of the positive stories that were normally overlooked. “The last year, with Covid, was the first time I saw a lot more positive news stories about faith communities coming together to highlight some of the things they were doing,” she said.

Building relationships is all important to improving coverage of faith-related issues, said Dr Anna Lockley-Scott, the education and learning consultant at The Faith & Belief Forum.

“There’s an ongoing trust and rapport developing process that may take more time than just today.”

For Gary Newby of ITV it was the “wealth of stories out there”. He said: “There’s a lot of messages here that I can take back to our newsroom on how we can reach out to individuals and groups. There are some terrible tragedies out there but the best kind of stories give the audience some kind of hope at the end. And there are a lot of stories out there about hope.”

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