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Interview: Sophia Smith Galer, faith and ethics journalist

29 May 2020

‘I do pray. I’m a bad atheist’

The BBC World Service guarantees impartial and accurate reporting across the world, and across so many languages, too. I’m really proud to work there.

I normally find my stories online: trawling through the internet, or receiving a direct message from somebody who has come across my reporting and would like me to look into something. I cover stories from around the world, but I sometimes produce work for domestic output, too.

I’m particularly interested in stories about young people, and women, and digital expressions of faith and social media (Radio, 13 March).

In my two years in this job, I’ve done 12 work trips. I’m very fortunate, but it also means that I usually forget to take any actual holiday; and I’m not very good at giving myself a break.

I’m a visual journalist, which means that my day-to-day job is video-making and developing the digital, visual presence of World Service radio programmes. Mainly this is for Heart and Soul, though I’m branching out to others. Although it’s a radio station, it does need an online presence to engage younger audiences who are more likely to encounter it online.

I’m also a presenter and broadcaster. I take a lot of my digital films on to TV and radio, and I’ll offer live analysis as stories unfold. I am a self-shooter, which means I’m effectively a one-woman production unit: I film, produce, and edit everything myself.

I finished my Master’s in Broadcast Journalism on a Friday, and started at the BBC on the following Monday. I was a social-media producer for BBC.com, the international-facing website for English-speakers outside the UK, serving large audiences in the US, Nigeria, India, and elsewhere.

I’ve had to pick up my digital training, the grammar of how to make an online video, and camera training on the job. In opera, you’re expected to dance, sing, and act if required. Similarly, with cuts in budgets, young journalists are expected to produce radio, television, and online, and go seamlessly between them.

Most religious-affairs news covers the big announcements made by old men: the Ayatollah, the Pope, the Archbishop. I’m hired to do off-diary stuff: the lived experiences and complexities of contemporary faith, particularly for the women and young people the World Service currently underserves.

There’s a misconception that we live in a secularising world. It may be true for the UK and US, but ignores the fact that the average age of Hindus and Muslims is the late twenties; and there are all the young people who class themselves as “spiritual, not religious”. This is the majority in the world I’m supposed to serve.

Some issues are that young women are demanding leadership roles historically not allotted to them: one third of UK mosques not having prayer spaces for women; women demanding voting rights at Vatican synods; the contribution of conservative religious education to sexual-pain disorders.

I’ve just made the first BBC Instagram documentary, which is about young women, mainly in Brooklyn, using Instagram to reclaim the witchcraft practised by their grandmothers. They feel their lives don’t find answers from a Christian God, but in things they can actively control — ancestor worship, lighting candles, crystals. It seems that, as young women increasingly find more equality in the work place, being denied this in sacred spaces comes as a shock.

I was raised a Catholic, but if I’m going to church it is usually to sing. I grew up singing in St Peter’s Italian Church, and was a choral scholar at St John-at-Hackney, and thought I would train for opera in a conservatoire after my degree. But I realised that auditioning and being rejected, not being able to drink or have dairy — it wasn’t going to be fun. Journalism is just as unstable, but at least you can drink.

My dad’s family’s been in the East End for centuries, and my mum’s Italian, raised here. Italy for me is my nonna’s kitchen in Holloway, with tomatoes persevering outside and ragù always on the hob.

Growing up between different cultures can be confusing. I’m an only child and often felt lonely, but I developed a habit for solitude and a desperate affection for my Yorkshire terrier, Bubbles. I’ve lived in a few cities; so I was the last in my cohort to make the twenties’ move to south London, where I now live with friends.

I’m a bad Catholic, but an even worse atheist. I spent most of my Spanish degree learning about hagiographic texts and Counter-Reformation art. I became obsessed by the Spanish medieval period and the Moors in Spain; so I chose Arabic as my second language and chose Lebanon for my year abroad, studying the Levant. You can’t learn Arabic without learning about Islam, and all this got me interested in religious affairs.

My experience of faith has been cultural and in diaspora. My family cannot separate an Italian identity from a Catholic one; but that’s helped me understand a concept of piety that translates across faiths.

I do my best to educate myself about religions, and read voraciously. My lived experiences in Catholic and Muslim communities are definitely huge advantages, and I’m lucky that travelling for work has offered me opportunities to swot up on Judaism and Buddhism. I continue to fill in the gaps, particularly with non-Abrahamic faiths.

My poor home internet connection has made my job very difficult now, but not impossible. Being a self-shooter, I can still continue to film and edit things at home. Being forced to not travel for a while is probably good for my mental health, in the long run, and I’m using any extra time to support other BBC teams I might not traditionally work for, and work on personal projects.

I am happily surprised in all this worry that demographics that aren’t traditionally online are discovering the joys of platforms like Zoom and Instagram.

I can’t say I’ve ever had an experience of God as we’d understand it from a Western, Christian perspective. During my confirmation classes, I felt a powerful sense of Christian community. In my adult life, there have definitely been spooky things that have happened that have no answer. I don’t think that’s God, but even if an idea of a spiritual realm is one that we humans have conjured ourselves, there’s a spiritual realm none the less.

I gave a speech in Arabic at the UN when I was 22. And when I was 21, I sang the role of Carmen in our university opera group. That demands Olympic rigour, and I was worn out for months afterwards. Both singing and studying Arabic are lifelong journeys. Vocal technique and linguistic fluency will go up and down throughout my life, particularly now, when journalism dominates my life; but these were two enormous milestones for me.

A close friend of mine died this year. I learned that grief, and progress, is not linear. I often had to mimic courage in order to lift the spirits of those around me, when I wasn’t feeling very courageous at all. I revert to humour as a resilience mechanism, and being self-deprecating stops me from getting too depressed. Hopefully that helps my friends, too.

Disloyalty makes me angry. I’m quick to trust people, and I’m always deeply saddened when I’m let down. And I struggle to forgive or forget.

Calling my parents or my nonna and sharing good news makes me happy. Also, hosting parties. I’m hosting my first Zoom murder mystery.

If I’m working, I can’t listen to music with lyrics. I stick to lo-fi hip hop and the Twin Peaks soundtrack.

I’ve randomly acquired a sizeable TikTok following, and, every day, I have teenagers messaging me who want to study languages or get into journalism. They’re attuned, global thinkers. When Generation Z grow up and reach positions of power, I think they’re really going to change the world for the better.

I do pray — I’m a bad atheist — normally for somebody to get better, stay well, or for a boy to like me back.

I’d want to be locked in St Anne’s, in Jerusalem, because of its acoustics, and have Maria Callas sing “Ave Maria” a cappella. My family have no time for spineless choral music: we crave drama, heartbreak, and a heavy timbre. I read once that Maria Callas had a mouth shaped like a Gothic arch. Whether that’s true or not, I love the idea.


Sophia Smith Galer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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