Religion and the
Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower, editors
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
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.
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