Making the media the (wrong) message

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
10 Feb 2010

Many church communicators I know were feeling distinctly queasy about the spectacle likely to unfold at the General Synod of the Church of England on 10 February 2010, as the motion tabled by Nigel Holmes on the issue of religious broadcasting on television was debated.

In the end, sense prevailed. But those arguing for a fresh media approach within the churches still face a bit of an uphill struggle against those who tend to take negativity and the grasp for control as their template.

The Holmes resolution claimed that coverage of religion - Christianity in particular - was, "once exemplary", but that now the BBC "marginalises the few such programmes which remain" and "completely ignored the Christian significance of Good Friday 2009".

Others are likely to think that there are few spectacles less edifying than an institution that appears to clamour for authority and influence, but which is actually riven with division and failing to maintain adherence, seeking to blame everyone but itself for its plight.

Along with wrangling about women and gays, internal faction fighting, and using unelected bishops to thwart equality legislation in parliament, an attempt to harangue the BBC into compliance would surely look like yet more bad publicity for the Church? But those at the heart of such initiatives often seem blissfully unaware of how awful they look to those outside - many of whom find little of the love and justice Christianity proclaims in constant churchy bleating.

Indeed, given what some Christian representatives are saying, a cynic might conclude that it would be better for the image of the church if they had less opportunity to say it! That, however, is far from the case. There is more opportunity than ever before for people of all convictions to communicate. 'Only connect'. That is the watchword. Thankfully it was ably emphasised in the C of E Synod debate by Elaine Storkey, Christina Rees and a number of others.

As far as the BBC is concerned, the heyday that some of those who tried to 'shoot the messenger' this afternoon look back to is the Reithian era of the 1950s and the 1960s, when, in spite of the cracks that were already showing, the assumption that Britain was "a Christian country" was widespread.

Some fifty years later we live in a very different world. Modern Britain is actually a mixed belief society, and the mixture includes 'cultural Christians' (those in the census who claim some sort of ongoing reference to the faith, but do not practise it), the growth of other religions, an increasing number of vocal non-believers, and the large number - probably the majority - who think of themselves as 'spiritual but not religious' or who have little or no interest in the subject one way or the other.

At the same time (and this confuses those who try to maintain a simple secularisation thesis) religion, which is far from being on the wane globally, has become a major factor in international relations. It is also an increasing talking point in a diverse society like the UK, where the boundaries between 'communities of conviction' can be strained, and where the issue of how particular beliefs and lifestyles are handled and expressed within the public arena is producing plenty of lively discussion.

As a publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC has a huge task on its hands to reflect, and reflect upon, this change and diversity - and not just on TV. That is crucial. We are talking multi-platform output now. Its attempts to do this are also under greater scrutiny than ever before, with some in the churches accusing it of "marginalising faith" while others, like the National Secular Society, claim that it is acting as an instrument of "propaganda" for religion.

Both claims look to me to be exaggerated and misleading. Over the past 23 years the amount of dedicated input has varied by just a few hours overall - 177 hours in 1987, to 164 now - not taking into account drama, arts and news programmes, which also cover religious and ethical topics. (The Synod background paper chooses to highlight 155 hours in 2007, to provide the worst comparator.) The Church of England's active membership has fallen at a greater rate than that, one should note. But the amount of TV coverage of faith questions as part of other current affairs and culture strands has undoubtedly gone up.

Of course, the tenor of programming about religion has changed over the years. There is more probing and questioning; more examination and less uncritical devotion. But that is something Christians and people of other beliefs should welcome. The modern media conversation about religion and belief might be rather juvenile and pointlessly confrontational at times, but that is only part of the story. The contemporary media environment, which offers an unparalleled opportunity for participation, is an open invitation to engage better - rather than to spend time complaining that someone else isn't doing the communication job for us.

If anyone has a right to complain right now, it is probably Humanists and those who are seeking to develop a non-religious approach to ethics and life. They are rarely heard directly. The Radio 4 Thought for the Day slot is still reserved for religion only, and the assumption of many connected with the Synod resolution is that anything that is not an identifiable faith segment is thereby an advert for non-faith. That is patently not so.

Meanwhile, the BBC's Head of Religion, Aaqil Ahmed, is a Muslim. In securing the post he had to endure some unpleasant sneering, gossip and finger-pointing from the narrower-minded among Christians and from some hardline secularisers. The Sunday Telegraph recently reported him as saying that the Church is 'living in the past' on broadcasting. He didn't, but it might not have been entirely unreasonable if he had - at least as far as some in senior positions are concerned. His main response to the debate was "watch the output and forget the prophets of doom."

Ahmed also says that "religion is safe in my hands". But that does not (and should not) mean that any one group gets an easy ride, or that the coverage of religious issues is weakly accommodating. It needs to be robust, informative and questioning. Living in ignorance of faith and/or non-faith is a dangerous thing in the world as it is right now, and that is what far too many people are doing. There is an important task to inform, educate and discuss issues of belief.

In a recent BBC blog, Aaqil Ahmed adds: "[S]imply totting up the number of hours of religion we broadcast is not a fair way to measure its value. More is not always better. The range and quality of our programmes ... and the ease with which people can view those programmes on TV and now online thanks to iPlayer, I feel are equally important."

I agree. The recent documentary series 'A History Of Christianity' based on scholar and presenter Diarmaid McCulloch's magisterial book, is a prime example. Of course that series, together with the more uneven (but still useful) one by Michael Portillo on Channel 4 recently, hinted at the kind of epochal change that underlies the anxiety some will see in the General Synod resolution. The 'Christendom era' of Christianity's cultural and societal dominance is coming to an end, and the challenge for Christians of all traditions is to find a new way of relating based on respect and persuasion rather than dominance.

Rather than whining that the BBC and other broadcasters are not working enough on 'our' behalf, 'we' should therefore be working to improve 'our' capacity to engage in conversations and in programming which is no longer constructed on 'our' terms - and rightly so. A privileged place for a once hegemonic minority is no longer acceptable - and, many of us would say (since we are not, in fact, part of a monolithic 'we'), this is not, in any case, something Christians should be trying to defend.

Jesus castigated his followers for wanting the best places at the top table, but that is precisely what some in the Established Church are still demanding. Two thousand years seems an awfully long time to get the hint, and frankly all the complaining is lacking in dignity as well as proportion. The agenda for post-Christendom - in the media and elsewhere - is what Stuart Murray terms "witness" rather than control. That is, living (and speaking) by good example.

And what of Good Friday 2009, which Mr Holmes' Synod motion complained about? I remember it well. First I thought, "not much on telly". Then, after church, I found a fine Good Friday liturgy broadcast on Friday 10 April that year, at 15:00 on BBC Radio 4. It was called 'The Passion in the City', and in it the Rev Milton Williams, an Anglican priest who ministers on Capitol Hill, meditated on the Passion Narrative as it impacts on the African American community in Washington, DC, one of the most deprived communities in the United States. There were also images of Good Friday from across the world on the BBC website, and reports on the TV news of events in different places. BBC local radio had masses of coverage too. Oh yes, and the Beeb also ran something on "Bishop attacks Good Friday TV".

This year's Easter output will include a special from King's College, Cambridge, 'The Private Life of an Easter Masterpiece' and a documentary on the meaning of Good Friday presented by the historian Bettany Hughes.

Marginalisation? I think not. Negotiating the wider media environment is certainly a challenge for those who are used to controlling 'god slots', but it is much more worthwhile than talking to yourself.

As for media concerns, there are plenty - the role of corporate owners, the lack of reporting of development issues beyond emergencies, the gap between new media haves and have-nots, and so on. This is where faith groups, alongside others, have an opportunity to raise concerns and offer alternatives in a constructive (and non self-interested) way.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, the religion and society thinktank. He has worked in journalism, in between other activities, for 30 years.

Ekklesia's paper on The 'Thought for the Day' Debate is available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/thought_for_the_day

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