The Sandford St Martin Trust (which I chair) has just launched its new website here.

The first in a series of guest blogs is written by me, but to read it you will have to pop over to the website here!

 

Monday saw the annual Sandford St Martin awards ceremony for religious broadcasting. Lambeth Palace is a wonderful venue for this prestigious event and a large audience of programme makers, commissioners, presenters and others saw the best in religious broadcasting recognised.

The term 'religious' is a difficult one – and one that produces in some people a blanking reflex. Yet, as I have argued before, broadcast media need to take religion seriously – not for propaganda or naive evangelistic reasons, but because religion is a phenomenon that needs to be understood, explored, interpreted and explained if we are to defy mutual incomprehension and comprehend why people live as they do. Like it or not, religion shapes and motivates individuals, communities and societies.

So, this year's awards – the judging panels were chaired by art critic Brian Sewell and (ordained) veteran radio presenter Cindy Kent – dug deep into what makes for excellent programme making that does the above. The Trust also gave a personal award to retiring Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and a new Trustees Award to Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Full details can be found here. The Guardian reported here, the Independent here, the Tablet here and Ariel here.

 

There’s nothing quite like spending time in a potential war zone for putting other concerns into perspective. A week or two in Israel-Palestine raises questions of life and death, justice and oppression, propaganda and truth. You meet people who are up against it (on all sides of the divides) and then come back to the General Synod of the Church of England discussing religion in the media in its overblown terms. And just to add to the Christian mix, I discover that traditionalists are threatening to go off to Rome while Reform evangelicals are threatening to hold back their money and grow their own little church – threats obviously being a biblically grounded way of ensuring you get your own way. (That was ironic…)

But, it’s the media stuff that I am interested in on my depressing return to the UK. The General Synod will debate a motion bemoaning the decline of religion in general and Christianity in particular on the BBC. Fortunately, the bishops have proposed an amendment that is a little more grounded in the real world. However, this won’t stop the usual suspects from getting to the microphone to bewail the country and the church going to the dogs. (I think it was GK Chesterton who said something to the effect that it’s the dogs that keep dying…)

Before going any further, let me say clearly (lest I be misrepresented…) that I think the BBC has an obligation to cover religion fairly, fully, intelligently and interestingly. The BBC has a duty to cover Christianity (and all other religions)with respect, scrutiny and intelligence. This must include covering acts of worship as these are not minority sports. We can find a million reasons for moaning about when the broadcasters get it wrong, but we rarely stand up and shout when they get it seriously right. Religion in general (and Christianity – as the dominant religion of these isles – in particular) demands careful and intelligent coverage and broadcasters need to reject some of the ‘religion is only ever a problem’ stupidity that often dominates the media discourse.

And here lies the problem. A friend of mine who is ‘big’ in the media has always countered any complaint of mine about media coverage of religion with the sensible and obviously true retort: ‘Well, you have no right to be broadcast anywhere if it isn’t ‘good radio’ or ‘good television’. In other words, the churches have got to broaden their horizons, improve their creative game and see ‘religious broadcasting’ as more than Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day. Good characterisation of Christians in soaps and drama will be more important and effective than some of the stuff we usually consider in this category.

Come to think of it, we know little or nothing about the liturgy of Jesus in the synagogue, but we do know he used image, story and characterisation to draw people’s imagination into the Kingdom of God in everyday life.

In the last year or so, the best religious broadcasting I think I have done was to contribute to a thirtieth anniversary documentary on the Life of Brian, a radio documentary on Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah (before X Factor got its hands on it) and a documentary on Pete Seeger’s song Turn turn turn – all for BBC Radio 2 and none of them in the ‘religious broadcasting’ slot. This means speaking into the public discourse and not simply hoping the disinterested public will listen in to our churchy preoccupations.

I sympathise with the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. He was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, but later blogged that he felt misrepresented by the article. He praised the interview printed in the Church Times (not available online until next week) as being more accurate and claims that religion at the BBC is safe in his hands. Well, as I said in a speech at the Sandford St Martin Awards last June, we will watch this space and see what the evidence is as time goes by. (He thought I was attacking his appointment – which I wasn’t – when I was simply stating the obvious.)

The reason I sympathise with him is not only his feeling misrepresented, but his insistence that the media environment is changing so rapidly that debates such as that at the General Synod this week feel a bit like discussing paddle design while the ship is either sinking or sailing away. The media world is mutating in so many different directions that any religion that wants fair coverage will have to be much more creative at engaging with a much wider range of media in a wider range of ways. This will demand creativity, imagination, confidence, risk, adventure and wisdom – and it will be suspected and hated by many Christians who wish the world could go backwards.

Christian broadcasters and media people need support and encouragement to keep going and keep growing in the face of church nostalgia. That is what the churches’ MediaNet is for.

Anyway, the debate will happen and the usual things will be said. The media world will continue to change and we will either be left behind moaning – or we will be in there re-signifying ‘religious broadcasting’ for new generations. We will still fight for Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day, but we’ll keep them in perspective and get the energy to try new ways of representing and exploring the faith in the public arena. At least it won’t be boring.

Baroness ScotlandThe Churches Media Conference is taking place at Swanwick and there is an impressive line-up of speakers and contributors. We began this afternoon with an address on Faith in the Public Space by Baroness Scotland, the first black and first female Attorney General. She was impressive, but left a lot of questions hanging – especially about the supposed neutrality of non-religious government ministers and the need for individual ministers/politicians to have to decide for themselves how comfortable they are ‘doing God’. Why should ministers who hold a religious world view be subject to a dilemma to which holders of other world views are not subject?

But, following a video appearance form Tony Blair, she did give us some good quotes: ‘Public policy that turns its face from faith turns its face from the public’ – noting that faith is not an optional add-on (but runs through a life like ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock) and is held by the vast majority of the population in one form or another. She further noted what has become abundantly clear today: the BNP took a reduced number of votes but got two MEPs elected because of the ‘stay at home’ policy of thousands of people who normally vote. Recalling Martin Luther king, she observed that for evil to succeed it only required good people to do nothing. (The consensus here seems to be that the church needs to engage seriously with the BNP and not just leave them out and hope they will go away.)

John Lloyd of the Financial Times made a very good contribution to the conference, celebrating the ability of politicians to compromise. Compromise is often thought of as a negative and weak word/concept; but this is misguided. He pointed out that David Cameron has urged young entrpreneurs to join the Conservative Party and stand for election to public office. The problem with this is that the young entrpreneurs don;t want to dilute their ideals once in office. But, politics is the art of compromise – not of fundamental values, of course, but of priorities and praxis. ‘The only ones who don’t ever compromise are Communists and Fascists,’ he said.

(He later made us laugh by interjecting to a statement by another contributor who asked why young people are always said to be in ‘gangs’, but old people are not. Lloyd suggested that old people form not ‘gangs’, but the ‘House of Lords’.)

Mona SiddiquiMona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, made a strong case for the media  carrying a moral burden because of the nature of their business: communication. The media, she asserted, affect strongly the way we talk about God and yet regularly succeed in diluting ‘faith’, failing to subject it to the same intellectual rigour as politics and economics or culture.

What is interesting about all this is that over a hundred media professionals and veterans are wrestling with serious matters relating to faith, broadcasting, integrity, creativity and the moral weight their profession imposes upon them. ‘Telling the truth’ is not always straightforward because it isn’t always clear what the truth is (about an event, a person, etc.); but the journalist still has to produce something for public consumption that (a) the public will want to read about and (b) will sell the medium. And that brings with it particular challenges – both professionally and ethically.

And this brings me back to questions raised in an earlier debate on this blog about the moral responsibility of the media in a civil society. Not an easy one.

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