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Helping the twain to meeet

12 July 2013

John Wilkins considers the relationship between the media and the faithful

Religion and the News
Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower, editors
Ashgate £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT771 )

"RELIGION is back," said the then Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, in a lecture to the Theos think tank in 2008. "It's not just in the news, but often leads the news." So, he argued, the relationship between religion and the news was "worth getting right". His words give Paul Woolley, the director of Theos at the time, the theme for the chapter he has written in this book.

Mark Thompson warned that it was not easy to achieve his objective, and the media lost no time in proving it. They did not highlight the substantial arguments in the lecture itself. Rather, sensing controversy, they focused on an assertion that Thompson made in a question-and-answer session afterwards: that Islam should be treated with more sensitivity than Christianity. Controversy duly ensued.

This book is a symposium that grew out of a conference organised by the Cumberland Lodge educa-tional charity. The media and religion specialists who took part plead for "religious literacy" among journalists, as well as "media literacy" among representatives of religion.

In illustration, a number of case- histories are examined, beginning with the reporting of the Occupy protesters who pitched their tents in front of St Paul's Cathedral in 2011. How was the handling of the occupation to be understood - as an indictment of a rich Church in collusion with the City; as a failure by the cathedral clergy to agree a line and stick to it; or as a successful hold-up by the protesters? The challenge was to illuminate the complexity beneath the simplifications.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain and Christopher Landau, a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent, are among those who identify a formidable obstacle to "religious literacy" in the media. Newsrooms tend to be dominated by a liberal secular élite who may well share the conviction of the new atheists that religion is intellectually disreputable, and by this élite's caricature of believers' opinions.

Religious representatives appearing on the media, by contrast, will want to speak up for hope and love, and for the universal duty to one's neighbour. The media prefer bad news and bad neighbours. They like a row.

The editors note that some journalists and religious leaders are seeking to build bridges. The BBC's College of Journalism now provides an online journalist's guide to religion, together with short films. One of these is by the former presenter of Radio 4's Sunday, Roger Bolton. He points out that religion remains crucial in many ordinary people's lives, however sceptical about it journalists may be.

Meanwhile, the media are operating in a context transformed by the digital revolution. How to compete with the internet and citizens' journalism? Andrew Brown of The Guardian, in a typically provocative chapter, notes the press interactivity with readers which is now the norm. "Almost everyone in the business believes this was a disastrous mistake," he writes, "but officially, almost everywhere, we are meant to welcome readers' comments and opinions."

The dangers became clear after the Boston bombings, when the Twitter network went viral with speculation about the identity of the bombers. Some of the purported leads were taken up by newspapers, but not one got near the truth. Clearly, in spite of the internet explosion, there is a continuing need for traditional news values of research, objectivity, and balance.

The publishers of this book, the academic press Ashgate, commend it to the attention of media and faith representatives, as well as academics and students. They will find plenty here to occupy themselves with. The book includes an important discussion of religious censorship versus free speech by the director of English PEN, Jonathan Heawood.

John Wilkins is a former editor of The Tablet.

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