Given the role it plays in the lives of many readers, viewers and listeners, shouldn’t we do more to understand religion?
In 1968, the most influential TV interviewer of his day, David Frost, sat down with Cardinal John Heenan on his Friday night show to discuss Pope Paul VI banning Roman Catholics from using the Pill. Half a century on, and the chances of an hour of prime time being devoted to an interview about Christian ethics are about zero.
Some would argue that this is because the media is no longer committed to taking religion seriously. This opinion was evident in the letter written by Torin Douglas, a former media correspondent of the BBC, to Radio Times recently to complain that the BBC’s claim that there was more religious content than ever before this Easter was simply not true and that 2021’s output was thin. Douglas cited programmes that had been broadcast around Easter in the previous decade, including the Gospel of St John narrated by David Harewood, and suggested that there was nothing similar. The BBC riposted that indeed there was – although the examples it gave were not so much imaginative retellings of the Easter story as worship services and messages from Christian leaders that form part of the obligatory religious output demanded by the BBC’s Ofcom operating licence.
However, what has actually happened in recent reporting of religion is far more complicated than a binary argument about less or more coverage by broadcasters, the press or other forms of media. Today’s reporting is influenced by, and reflects, several developments in contemporary Britain: that it is a diverse society with a range of religious beliefs but at the same time significant numbers have no religious affiliation; that religion in this country no longer means default Anglicanism; that there is much greater religious illiteracy than ever before, and this lack of understanding is prevalent among reporters, editors and producers. In 1968, most journalists – and their readers and viewers – would have had a basic knowledge of Christianity. They knew when Advent was, and why Good Friday was called Good (nothing to do with a supply of hot cross buns or being a day off from work). Today, that basic literacy about Christianity has not only declined but is matched by illiteracy regarding other faiths.
This lack of quality reporting prompted a major study of media coverage of religion published this spring by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on religion in media which also highlighted that coverage is at times hostile and even intemperate. The report, Learning to Listen, says religion is misrepresented through “a reduction of religion to its visual, liturgical and doctrinal facets”, sensationalising religion, “reinforcement of problematic stereotypes”, “basic mistakes and imprecise language”, “ignoring diversity within faith groups”, and “misleading use of representatives”.
In their foreword to the report, Yasmin Qureshi MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss write that a religiously literate media has an important role to play in creating a “rounded, informed public understanding of religion” and a public debate around religion that is “more informed and empathetic, rigorous and respectful”.
The APPG also points out that understanding religion is essential in today’s world – after all, 80 per cent of the world’s population follows a religion, even if Britain is one of the more secular societies.
It is not only misrepresentation, however, that is a problem, but hostility too. The faith group which has probably suffered the most from this antipathy is Muslims. That approach became apparent after 9/11. Attention turned to Islam, and some journalists equated the religion with terrorism and a rejection of the West’s values, including equality and democracy. In December 2019, the outgoing chair of press watchdog IPSO Sir Alan Moses stated that the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the British press had been the most difficult issues facing the organisation in the past five years.
Since 2018, coverage of the Muslim community in the media has been checked by the Centre for Media Monitoring (CMM), a body funded by a charity in turn funded by Euro Quality Lambs, which runs the largest Muslim-owned Halal lamb abattoir in Europe. CMM’s director Rizwana Hamid, a former TV producer, says coverage of Islam often involves using tropes that distort people’s ideas of it. A prime example of this, she says, is the use of the word “jihad”, which the media has allowed extremists to define and then use out of context, when for most Muslims it is first and foremost an inner spiritual struggle.
Among the incidents IPSO dealt with was a Sun splash on November 25, 2015, with the headline “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”, accompanied by an image of Islamist “Jihadi John” and published soon after the Paris attacks that month. The claim was based on a misleading interpretation of data and more than 3,000 complaints were made to IPSO. The Sun acknowledged this four months later.
In February this year, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett interviewed Zara Mohammed, the newly appointed female secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Barnett pressed Mohammed continually over the role of women in Islam. Many journalists would consider this entirely appropriate, given the programme’s raison d’etre, and that if Mohammed didn’t expect this focus, she was both naïve and underprepared. But many Muslims objected, especially to a clip on the lack of female imams that was tweeted on social media.
How Woman’s Hour got it wrong on Muslim women
Hamid says: “There’s nothing wrong with robust interviews but Emma Barnett’s interview with Zara Mohammed was a classic example of how the media creates an agenda. Barnett went down a rabbit hole and became fixated. The clipping of the ‘female imam’ segment for social media shows how Woman’s Hour framed the interview and ended up perpetuating the trope of Muslim women having no agency. Very surprising when she was interviewing the youngest new head of the largest Muslim umbrella organisation.”
CMM complained to BBC director-general Tim Davie, leading to an hour-long meeting with him to discuss BBC coverage of Islam. It led to an agreement that the BBC will incorporate a glossary of Islamic terms into its guidance for journalists on religion, while the CMM will also provide training.
According to Hamid, this is evidence of progress, but there is still a long way to go in other areas of the media. There are plenty of examples of the media making mistakes when covering religion: the BBC Wales report mentioning a mosque and featuring a photo of Brighton Pavilion, for example, or calling Holy Saturday – the day between Good Friday and
Easter Sunday – Easter Saturday, when Easter hasn’t begun. Rabbis complain that journalists don’t know the difference between Reform Judaism and the Orthodox, and illustrate either with pictures of Haredi Jews. And once a mistake is made, it is often repeated. When the Sikh Press Association complained to IPSO about The Times mistakenly saying Vaisakhi, a Sikh
festival, was the Sikh new year, IPSO said The Times couldn’t be blamed because this incorrect description had been reported so often.
One organisation that is changing its approach to reporting religion is Reach plc, which owns a stable of local papers as well as the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips told the launch of the APPG report that her newspaper has published internal guidelines on faith reporting, and set up an editorial advisory committee and a staff forum.
“We need to listen to people, and without listening we are never going to have good journalism,” she said. “Polarisation of debate is a problem, especially given the influence of social media. We now take an awful lot of care over articles that mention faith.”
An organisation set up in 2016 to help improve media coverage of religion is the Religion Media Centre (RMC), which provides webinars on religious topics from worship and the pandemic lockdown to help to train post-Brexit Northern Ireland, fact sheets on different religions, and training sessions. Reach plc hired RMC to young reporters on its local titles.
Ruth Peacock, RMC’s editorial consultant, says poor reporting of religion has been particularly noticeable at local level, where news reporting as a whole has declined. Peacock, who reported on religion at the start of the 1990s, has seen a shift in the religious issues that interest the media.
“Thirty years ago, the focus was more on the Church of England, especially after it clashed with the Conservative government over the inner cities. There is still the connection between politics and religion and the Church still makes news, but the focus is more diverse now, including other issues such as antisemitism and Islam.”
Sarah Sands, former editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, who stood down last year, says religion was approached with caution by the programme and was a subject often linked to social cohesion or division, such as a row about Muslim parents objecting to LGBT equality messages being given to Birmingham primary schoolchildren, or conflict between
Israel and Palestinians. “The nearest we got to forcing religion on to the main agenda without conditions was the fire at Notre-Dame,” says Sands. “I remember the Archbishop of York at 8.10 calling for prayer and John Humphrys saying ‘What are we praying FOR?’.” Today, of course, has a ‘God slot’ in the middle of the programme, with Thought For The Day, which is run not by the programme but by BBC Religion and Ethics. Sands says she tried to tie in news with the slot but rarely managed it, although religion and ethics producers constantly urge contributors to link their thought with news and current affairs. While its contributors come from a mix of faith backgrounds – but not humanist or atheist, despite complaints from some quarters – the majority are Anglican. Elsewhere in the media, the Church of England no longer dominates religious thinking.
Andrew Brown, a former religious affairs correspondent for The Independent and The Guardian, says the decline in dominance of the Church of England in religious coverage reflects its own decline in attendance and its influence in society. It can still prompt ire, though: witness the criticism of its complete shutting of churches during the first Covid lockdown, which was reflected in newspaper comment pages.
Lack of trust between faith groups and journalists
According to Peacock, it is incorrect to say that religion is not being reported; rather, the way in which it is reported is different, with stories being written according to a broader, less specific focus on the religion itself, but its impact on other issues such as politics, policing and welfare. She does see problems in the relationship between journalists and faith groups. “It’s up to faith groups to understand what journalists are interested in. And there is a problem with trust. People are frightened of being misquoted.” One problem is a lack of understanding of how different religions function. Journalists seem more comfortable with those, such as Christian denominations and Judaism, that have clear structures and hierarchies. The lack of similar set-ups in other faiths, such as Hinduism and Sikhism, as well as Islam, leave busy journalists flummoxed and sometimes, it has to be said, unwilling to spend time finding a way through.
While there is concern that journalists may not understand faith, or can distort it, the APPG report was clear that it is vital that they continue to investigate faith as rigorously as any other topic. Once, investigating religion meant sex revelations: dodgy vicars having affairs with members of their congregations were once Sunday tabloid staples. In more recent times, other
much more malign sex scandals have been exposed in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches: child sexual abuse. The service that the media did to society in investigating cases of abuse covered up for decades was exemplary and frequently resisted by senior clergy. At times, the reporting was sensationalised: even The Times used terms such as “devil in a dog collar” to describe a Catholic priest prosecuted for abuse. But more serious has been the lack of interest in continuing to report on abuse. Ideals about being journals of records fall victim to clickbait.
It has often been left to specialist religious journals to maintain coverage. Titles such as Church Times, The Tablet, The Jewish Chronicle and The Muslim News are independent publications that tread a fine line in reporting on institutions that they want to criticise on occasion while also wanting to keep the lines of communication with them open. These titles usually serve two functions: interpreting issues such as climate change, poverty or capitalism
through the prism of a specific faith, and covering their actual faiths, whether reports on what a leader such as the Pope is saying, or meetings of a key body such as Synod, or discussions over theology or liturgy. Some of this reporting is picked up and covered by the specialist religious affairs correspondents of the national media. But they often have a tough time convincing news editors of the merits of detailed stories on the Synod, say, against crime and politics.
Religious affairs correspondents, once high-profile specialists, are now more often reporters covering more than one beat, and often junior staffers. At the BBC, the problem is acute. In its recent review into religious coverage, it pledged to improve it by appointing a religion editor. It gave the role to the existing religious affairs correspondent, Martin Bashir, and did not hire any additional staff. Then, in November 2020, at the height of the controversy over Bashir’s 1995 interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, Bashir went on sick leave for months, with no acting editor or correspondent cover. He quit in May.
While the BBC and newspapers may struggle to cover religious news through a lack of experienced correspondents, religions themselves have expanded their own output through websites, tweets and other forms of social media. But that is essentially preaching propaganda to the converted. Coverage that is trenchant and rigorous is still the province of broadcasters and the press.
At times, the APPG and their witnesses seemed more idealistic than realistic in their views of reporting on religion. The study comments that many of those who gave evidence urged the media to understand the lived experience of religions as well as doctrinal and ritual elements. But in a 300-word news story, or a 60-second report, how much space is there for such empathy? It’s noticeable that the examples of good practice cited by the APPG are of features, where there is more opportunity for breadth and depth.
What is apparent from the APPG’s analysis is that blame cannot be solely heaped on the media. It recognises that more work needs to be done by faith groups to understand the media’s needs and how to interest journalists in potential stories. And the media CAN spot a story: the APPG report comments on lazy narratives, citing the assumption that London is a
secular, liberal city when research shows that it is a place where religion is becoming more visible and significant. In fact, research on this matter by the think tank Theos (was widely reported). In other words, when it comes to religion – just as with science, or the arts, or all kinds of specialisms, journalists are interested in what is important and interesting. But their view of what is important and interesting may well differ from faith groups.
Can coverage of religion be improved? Undoubtedly it can, as can all reporting. But when it comes to religion in particular, the APPG highlights three issues that could particularly be improved. One is the religious literacy of journalists, ill-served by their school education, where RE is not a mandatory subject. So those responsible for journalism training could pick up that particular baton. Another is diversity of entrants to the profession. If reporters and editors come from more varied backgrounds, newsrooms will end up employing people of faith, who will make use of their understanding in their reporting. And finally, greater dialogue between the reporters and those reported on is vital.
Andrew Brown believes that there will, however, always be a chasm between faith and the media. “Religion as lived is about life and not doctrine and decisions,” he says, “but the press likes decisions with consequences.” And with an increasingly non-religious Britain, he warns, many journalists think religion is “a term about what other people are doing”.
Catherine Pepinster is a journalist, broadcaster and author specialising in religion and a former editor of The Tablet.