Creating Connections: Religion and the media in Plymouth

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Image credit: RMC

By Ruth Peacock

The chief constable of Devon and Cornwall believes that faith has been extremely powerful in the epicentre of the crises he has dealt with in his 30-plus years as a police officer.

Shaun Sawyer has seen faiths coming together to comfort and console when accidents have resulted in great loss of life, for example. He has also observed that many faiths deal with issues systemic in society such as homelessness, gender equality and climate change.

The police must regard faith as relevant in the way they do their job, he said, in order to own their legitimacy — which is the “heartbeat of policing”.

He was speaking at the Creating Connections event at Plymouth Marjon University, which brought together local media with representatives from organisations of religion and belief, to try to deepen understanding and create new contacts, as journalists seek to report religion in their area.

It was one of a series of meetings in five cities in England organised by the Religion Media Centre in conjunction with local steering groups.

The chief constable shared the platform with Paul Netherton, recently retired deputy chief constable who is president of the Christian Police Association. He has led a national initiative to encourage more conversations between police and faith groups, saying that fear of the unknown and nervousness about causing offence has prevented communication.

However, he said, religious groups in the southwest were very active in society and had massive resources to help with problems such as drug abuse, homelessness, poverty and loneliness. It was frustrating that there were not more conversations between faith organisations and the police, asking how they could help each other to make their community a better place.

Mr Sawyer said religion and belief cut across all other categories of diversity, and that was why the conversation could be like a rich tapestry. Yet talking about religion was uncomfortable in the workplace, whereas most people would talk confidently about their sexuality. It was this barrier, he said, that needed to be broken down.

Grace Davie, professor of sociology at Exeter University, has studied growing secularisation and marginalisation of traditional religious organisations.

“None of us doubts that secularisation is growing steadily across the country, in Britain and indeed across Europe. But equally clear, is the fact that pluralism is growing, and diversity is growing as the result of immigration,” she said. This meant that religion was increasingly present in public debate, but the clash with a secular culture meant this led to sharp reactions and strong assertions of secularism.

She observed more “amorphous forms of spirituality” with fragments of belief not closely attached to religious practices. And she warned of the misappropriation of Christianity in populism, peddling the view that those who are not Christian are not welcome.

“We’re an open door. We want to hear from you. We want to know your stories”

– Angela Kalwaites, BBC Devon

The Creating Connections event included short presentations from a dozen or more representatives of religious groups whose faith has made them visible in the public square. They included a young climate change campaigner recently returned from Cop26, a new Catholic priest from Nigeria in the small Dartmoor parish of Yelverton, a refugee from Yemen and people from many countries who are part of the Plymouth Centre for Faiths and Cultural Diversity, based at Marjon.

Arezoo Farahzad, who heads the centre, and Leo Devine, former BBC head of the southwest and now journalist in residence at Marjon, chaired the conference.

Journalists in the room joined a media panel helping the conference to understand the stories they were looking for and how people can contact them to get their story reported.

Mark Thomas, a senior journalist with ITV and champion for diversity and inclusion, explained that he ran a panel of people from diverse backgrounds who act as critical friends, making suggestions and commenting on reports. He said the primary task was to build trust and learn more about the challenges communities faced.

During the pandemic, it had been particularly important to tell stories from a religious or faith perspective: “When we think about loneliness, or the lifting of restrictions or the impact of a pandemic on society, then I think there is a really important place for people from a faith background, because that’s the DNA of our society,” Mr Thomas said.

He said journalists needed to know who to contact about stories and not “always reach for the bishops” and high-profile figures. The challenge was to move away from the easy phone call and to build longer-term relationships with people of faith.

Edd Moore, who is in charge of the DevonLive website, said it was important to build long-term relationships with all communities, and not just dip in when festivals come round.

“I think it’s hugely important for an organisation like ours, which is very much rooted in the community, that you shine a mirror on the community. We’re not doing our job properly if we’re not representing every community in the city. So, do we do that enough, and do we do that right the whole time? Probably not. But we’re making great strides.”

He went on to say that a reporter’s own faith was irrelevant, because they were messengers, or storytellers, making sure that they were connecting with every community.

All the reporters agreed that they wanted to hear from people connected to religion and belief communities and said they needed help to be told about their stories.

Angela Kalwaites, who presents and produces programmes at BBC Radio Devon, said: “I think there’s a slight misconception that we know everything about everything that’s happening in the communities, but we actually need you. We’re an open door. We want to hear from you. We want to know your stories.”

Rachel Hammond, from the Hammond Agency, a digital communications and marketing business, said her trade was about building bridges between people with a story and the media and it was important to understand how the media worked to plan coverage. She encouraged individuals and groups to tell their story and keep conversations going with the media.

The journalists said they wanted stories about people in language you might use when telling the story to a friend — without the jargon.

The audience said they were aware of friends and colleagues who would not contact the media for fear that they would be subject to violent backlash on social media. Mr Moore said this was a massive problem that the industry was addressing, but it felt like a tidal wave. There was agreement that this shouldn’t put people off because for every one terrible comment, there would be 100 people agreeing.

As the media panel ended, the journalists were asked for top tips on how to contact them, with complaints from the audience that a well-crafted email sometimes did not receive a reply or even an acknowledgement. One journalist said his inbox overflowed with more than 1,000 emails a day, so: please just pick up the phone. Others said keep sending the emails — but phone as well.

In the final plenary session, led by Ed Pawson, education officer at the diocese of Exeter, speakers considered what lessons could be drawn from the day. The Creating Connections series was possible through a generous grant from Culham St Gabriel’s, a trust concerned with religious education. Teachers and the media reflect messages about religion that inform public opinion and the closing panel discussed how both groups could learn from one another.

Katie Freeman, chairwoman of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, said she taught children about the multiple layers of belief and practice in religious traditions, enabling them to have a better understanding of people from those communities, to be able to show respect and understanding.

Jo Loosemore, a presenter with Radio Devon, has also worked on BBC Radio 4’s The Listening Project, enabling people to give a window into their life: “I think we have a duty to do that because it enables us to connect, to experience and to meet and that’s something we must continue to do,” she said.

Geoff Smith, a former primary head teacher and founder member of the UK Association for Character Education, who is a Bahá’i from Cornwall, said teaching religion was not just about beliefs. There was a common DNA about virtue embedded in religious traditions, such as being courageous, kind, sensitive, having a reverence for nature. These virtues, he concluded, were about trying to build good people.

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