This year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival was given by Dorothy Byrne and it is brilliant – sharp, incisive, important and very funny. It is a must-read for anyone interested in media, politics, the lack of democratic accountability enjoyed by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (to say nothing of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ such as Dominic Cummings).

Compare the utter lack of scrutiny or accountability by Boris Johnson – to Parliament, let alone the media – with Macron’s two and a half hour press conference yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn’s absence also gets a serious dig. This is not about political sympathies or partisan claims; rather, it is about democracy, accountability, integrity and the culture we are creating … and the important role of the media in exposing dishonesty, lying, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Even if you don’t agree with Byrne, it is a romp of a read.

The English Defence League – minus most of its recently-resigned leadership – is coming to Bradford on Saturday.

In one sense it is really nice that lost of people from outside the city want to come and visit. They need to know, however, that the weather forecast is shockingly awful and it will be cold.

In response to a request by the local newspaperwpid-Photo-16-Sep-2013-1332.jpg for a few words about this visit, I offered the following:

The first question we need to ask of the English Defence League is: what sort of ‘England’ do you think you are defending? Is the answer something like: racist, violent, anti-social and destructive?

Where the EDL goes, they disturb ordinary people’s lives, and leave behind a huge financial cost to the police and local authorities. Many ordinary citizens speak of feeling violated.

It is interesting that the leaders of the EDL have just announced their departure on the grounds that the organization has become too extreme and has fallen into the hands of the far right. Well, past experience would suggest that none of this should have come as a blinding revelation. But, Tommy Robinson has now distinguished between “Islamist ideology” and “Muslims”: he wants to be against the former, but not the latter.

For Bradford this is significant. Bradford is mature enough in its community and intercultural relations to be able to face hard questions and to have honest conversations about the challenges as well as the opportunities afforded by our cultural interactions (or lack of them). These challenges are clear, but are best addressed by people who live in Bradford and have a purchase on what happens here. We are big enough to avoid illusions and work towards better integration.

Bradford is rich in diversity – and more colourful than any other city in England. We need to hold firm to our common heritage as we shape what it will mean to be ‘English’ for our grandchildren. The EDL has no place here because it has nothing to bring to the conversation.

Really, this just picks up on something I wrote when Channel Four broadcast its two-part programme entitled ‘Make Bradford British’. Since when was ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britishness’ something we merely inherited rather than something we are creating? In the earlier post (referred to above) I observed:

Focus on the naff title is fair – especially as this first programme, if anything, is clear that Bradford is British. The question is: what does it mean to be British? It seems that when we try to identify identity we look to the past. But, ‘Britishness’ is not some sort of product we inherit and then try to keep in a cultural box; rather, it is evolving as time moves on. We are creating Britain as we go. In this sense, perhaps, the title of the series unwittingly opens up a more productive debate – or provides a better-shaped lens through which to look at local culture: how do we take our responsibility in shaping at every level the Britain we are becoming?

I have no idea what fantasy of ‘England’ the EDL thinks it is defending. And I am not holding my breath that they’ll be able to articulate any coherent vision for the England we might create together.

Whatever. If they make it through the wind and the rain, they’ll find a confident city, facing challenges with eyes open, and they can at least marvel at the wonderful Victorian architecture.

 

This is the text of the Radio Times article which caused a bit of irritated response in some quarters. It will be obvious that it is not critical of the BBC, but congratulatory and ‘encouraging’ of how things might develop constructively.

A couple of years ago, before X-Factor ‘popularised’ it, I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah. Covered by more than 120 artists, Cohen the Perfectionist ended up writing and re-writing around 80 verses or versions. The lyric, full of biblical allusions, breathes some human realism into a word that would normally be seen as purely religious (and, therefore, rather suspect).

During an interview with Guy Garvey, singer-songwriter with Elbow and presenter of the documentary, he put it to me that “Cohen had hijacked religious language”. “No,” I replied, “Cohen has understood it.” By this I meant that Cohen had liberated the word from some assumed compartment called ‘religion’ and given it back to real people living in the real world and with real stories to tell. The song speaks of the ‘holy and the broken hallelujah’ – a phrase that encapsulates the torn nature of human beings who long to be ‘holy’ but usually manage just to be ‘broken’. Cohen’s point is that God is not surprised by this.

Leonard Cohen refused to allow ‘religion’ to be stuck in a compartment from which everybody else is spared any engagement. Religion and its place in the public discourse are much misunderstood.

Mention ‘religious broadcasting’ in polite company and you might well be faced with finding someone else to talk to. Either that or it’s assumed you’re really wanting more Songs of Praise on the television to keep the Christians (who haven’t gone to church) happy.

Yet, this isn’t the case. Religious broadcasting simply takes seriously the indisputable fact that religion is a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged and understood, if we are to understand the world in which we live. This doesn’t presuppose a religious commitment, conviction, practice or adherence any more than doing a programme about Marxism demands that only Marxists produce it.

The BBC’s Easter programming looks increasingly imaginative, finding creative and engaging ways of telling the Easter story, questioning the implications of the Easter story, capturing the experience of Christians celebrating the Easter story. The Preston Passion follows on from the superb Manchester Passion of several years ago, taking Easter out of the church and onto the streets. This enables everyone to be part of it and be confronted by it. A bit like… er… the original Easter events.

However, go beyond the BBC (and the odd bit of Channel 4) and religion has been dropped as if it were a toxic contaminator of decent culture. This ideological knee-jerk sees religion as an embarrassing problem (for which there is obviously no audience) rather than part of a solution (one lens through which to tell stories and understand people, their lives and motivations). ITV sees no need to consider religion – despite the fact that more people shape their lives around religious conviction and practice than attend sporting events. Now look at the relative budgets given to sport and religion…

The point here is not that religion should be privileged or protected. It is not to argue that religious propaganda should find space in the schedules of broadcasters. But it is to maintain that we can’t understand people, events and the way the world is if we don’t take religion seriously.

The BBC has a sports editor, an economics editor, a political editor and editors for other areas of life. It has no religion editor. Yet, if an economics editor is needed to help explain and interpret economic decisions and events in order that the public should be responsible citizens in our democracy, why on earth isn’t there someone to explain, interpret and communicate the phenomenon of religion as it influences people, colours political and economic decisions, questions values and shapes both individual and corporate behaviour?

There are two issues here. First, how does the BBC fulfil its public service remit by challenging the ridiculous assumption that the ‘non-religious’ world view is neutral? Second, how do other broadcasters get beyond their own prejudices and see religion as an indispensable lens through which to see and understand the world?

There are some shining examples – despite the problems of encouraging imaginative commissioning – of good religious broadcasting. Some are on the Sandford St Martin Trust Radio Times Readers Award shortlist: the humanising Rev, the powerfully questioning Forgiveness, the affecting re-telling of the Life of Mohammed, to name but three. But, the need is for a change in assumption and perception of religion as phenomenon, motivator and shaper of human stories.

Good media need good stories. Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil.

I managed to get home from a very positive Bradford experience (putting in a new vicar on a large estate) in time to see the second half of the first Make Bradford British programme. Having posted a media literacy lesson the other day, what is my response? I would simply make the following points:

1. Focus on the naff title is fair – especially as this first programme, if anything, is clear that Bradford is British. The question is: what does it mean to be British? It seems that when we try to identify identity we look to the past. But, ‘Britishness’ is not some sort of product we inherit and then try to keep in a cultural box; rather, it is evolving as time moves on. We are creating Britain as we go. In this sense, perhaps, the title of the series unwittingly opens up a more productive debate – or provides a better-shaped lens through which to look at local culture: how do we take our responsibility in shaping at every level the Britain we are becoming?

2. A friend who lives near the canal in Shipley was amused to see how the conversation between the white retired policeman and the Muslim ex-rugby player was edited. They were on a long boat on the canal – somewhere I haven’t yet been. The conversation seemed to be seamless, progressing from one expression of mutuality to another. However, according to my friend, for this conversation to have been played out the way it appeared, the boat would have had to have gone forward, then leapt backwards, then picked up further down the canal before sliding back again to a point they had already passed. Now, I don’t know; but, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were true. What we see on our screen is what I called ‘mediated reality’ – a narrative for which the evidence or illustration is then identified and edited into place.

3. The programme did portray some interesting encounters. I thought it showed strongly the important stuff of people realising through personal relationship the need for good listening, hard learning (about one’s own prejudices and practices), mutual respect and generosity. That’s good, isn’t it? Put aside some of the tacky stuff (like the title and the dramatic trailers) and the programme had some quite interesting stuff in it – certainly stuff worth thinking about and debating further. Such as how to create more such encounters so that people meeting together can challenge and be challenged.

4. It will be interesting to see whether the second programme points to how all the above is already going on in Bradford. There are loads of initiatives aimed at bringing people from different communities together. The Church Urban Fund sponsored Near Neighbours scheme (to name but one) is funding dozens of such imaginative initiatives – but they aren’t dramatic or sexy enough to hit the headlines. There is some great stuff going on here already, and in Bradford we know this.

5. So, if the picture of Bradford offered by the programme is of more interest outside the city, what might be the response so far? Well, inevitably the local media proclaim ‘fury’ locally – Bradford being ‘hit’ again, misrepresented by outsiders who then just walk away. Outsiders who know the city have rightly complained that it represents the place as a single-issue city in which ‘race’ is the only lens through which all else must be seen. This, of course, clouds the multifaceted richness of the place… and the other challenges we face which are identical to those faced by neighbouring cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. It would be more helpful to have a focus on Bradford that went beyond race. Such an approach would be enlightening for everyone and would demonstrate a maturity and intelligence on the part of media production companies (rather than a rather lazy stereotyping or recourse to tired cliche that a more media-literate and sophisticated audience simply sees through).

6. I might (again) be in a minority of one on this, but responses from around the country also demonstrate that how Bradford responds to a programme such as this also forms part of how Bradford is seen. The response is fairly cross so far. Yet we should have confidence in Bradford and its people to be able to watch a programme such as this and not be taken in. Confidence allows us to take the hits, turn the focus, shine a different light, and shape the debate as we go forward. Complaining makes us sound like weak victims when we certainly have it within us to take some control.

Bradford is a brilliant place. It is facing questions in the public spotlight that other cities face in a more hidden way. The microcosm we saw last night points to the source of hope: that people in relationship can see themselves more clearly, be ashamed by their prejudices more readily, and find themselves changed by their encounters. Relationships lie at the heart of how we shape our future – not just of Bradford, but of the Britain (and Britishness) we are now creating. After all, today’s ‘Britain’ will be tomorrow’s ‘inherited Britishness’.

Tomorrow evening the first of two ‘reality TV’ programmes about Bradford will be screened on Channel 4: Make Bradford British. They have clearly earned their money in the media world by drumming up a lot of interest and – which I guess was the purpose – eliciting pre-emptive suspicion and resentment against the series… even before we have seen it. I have met two people who have seen it – I have not.

When it was first announced at the back end of last year there was an immediate outcry here in Bradford. The line is – and, given past experience, it is fully understandable – that Bradford keeps being visited by media types who give the place a kicking before departing and leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces. So, we can understand why even the mere suggestion of yet another experimental programme will raise the hackles and provoke pre-emptive resentment locally.

But, I have not been part of this history – having only moved back to the city nine months ago when I took up my new responsibilities as the bishop here. All my media instincts tell me (a) not to preempt what I haven’t seen, (b) not to assume everything in such a genre must always be negative, and (c) to think that it is possible to take control of a thing like this, turn it, shine a different light on it, and shape the subsequent debate/response. So, although I fully understand the response of some to the prospect of these programmes, I want to see them before making any judgements about them.

Yes, I might be proved to be naive, over-generous and in a minority of one.

Ahead of the screening I would make the following points for consideration as we watch it:

1. All ‘reality’ programmes are always selective and mediated reality. In other words, it has been edited according to the story the programme makers want to be seen. So, it is not ‘neutral’. Therefore, we need to ask how far the mediated reality takes into account in its ‘messages’ the actual multifaceted realities on the ground.

2. Images of people getting on really well do not make for good television. The ‘story’ must involve danger, conflict, emotion and some sort of resolution. Otherwise no one would bother to watch it. So, we need to dig beneath the apparent story to ask deeper questions about what is going on in and between the characters presented to us. The trailers for the programme are irritating because they purport to highlight the conflicts – but, that is a ploy to get us to watch the thing. It is entirely possible that the brief conflicts depicted in the trailers represent the sum total of conflict in the mediated narrative. We will soon find out.

3. The title is crass. Bradford is British. But it raises a very good question about what it really means to be British in the first place. No one ever said Bradford was Irish, but it was the immigrants from the Emerald Isle who really got the place going. Jeremy Paxman in his interesting book The English illustrates how impossible it is to say what it is to be English… in a way that doesn’t apply to the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. I am German, French, Norse, Celtic (Welsh, Irish and Manx) and probably related to Genghis Khan somewhere down the line. This is why the English Defence League is barking up a branchless tree in trying to defend something undefinable.

4. A confident city will not be afraid of a television programme. Bradford is big enough to look at what is portrayed, take seriously the questions it raises, challenge any misrepresentations or selective representations, hold the programme-makers to account, take control of the debate and move it on.

5. Bradford is a unique place and one that is compelled to address questions the rest of the UK will need to face at some point. Pioneers will always feel exposed. Yes, there are significant challenges, but there are also great resources, massive successes and huge opportunities. I might be wrong, but it seems to me so far that most of the challenges are fundamentally economic and rooted in confidence.

6. Check the language when you watch the programmes. Undefined (or ill-defined) shorthand can set hares running that either don’t live in the field or are not hares in the first place. For example, lazy use of the word ‘segregation’ does not help us to understand a complicated and complex set of social relationships. (For example, when wealthy Brits buy houses in Spain and, ignorant of all but a few holiday phrases in Spanish, choose to live close to and associate with other Brits, we don’t speak of segregation. When they then bring in British plumbers and builders, electricians and administrators, foodies and others, we don’t scream that this is unjust segregation, do we? What we say is: “Well, it’s natural for people to want to live with people like themselves, people who speak the same language and eat the same food, people who share a set of cultural experiences and expectations that do not (in this company, at least) have to be articulated or rehearsed.” So, when the same phenomenon happens in an English city – as it does in every English city – why do we change the rules?

There are ‘issues’ and challenges in Bradford and some of them are unique to Bradford. But, lazy and superficial readings of the situation are not helpful when it comes to tackling them on the ground.

As I said earlier, I haven’t seen the programmes. In fact, I won’t be able to see tomorrow’s at all. Why not? Because I will be licensing a new priest to a parish on a huge estate on the edge of Bradford where the previous vicar did 26 years of utterly committed and brilliant work. His successor is coming from the south of England to pick up the mantle and develop the work further. I will be out all evening with him, his wife, and loads of people from the churches who, rather than pass judgement on a telly programme, will be doing the real business with real people on the ground – not being voyeurs, but being committed. These guys have moved north with vision, faith and hope – all words which, in my time in Bradford so far, I have found in abundance in many of the communities here.

Now watch Make Bradford British with your media brain engaged.

It’s a funny old world. Last night I had a two-minute TV spot on Channel 4 and today has seen a barrage of responses.

4thought.tv has a theme for the week and this week it asks whether Christians are being persecuted in Britain today. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I don’t think we are being persecuted. Some Christians have responded with anger at my betrayal of the cause and some atheists/humanists have commended what I said. The former think I should be more worried about what is going on out there and the latter think I can be recruited to their cause.

Inevitably, it is more complex than that. I recorded over an hour and a quarter and it was edited into two minutes. I have no complaints and they gave a fair representation of the sweep of matters we discussed. The producer asks questions, but the broadcast piece does not indicate to which questions the statements/views were given in answer. Again, I stress, I have no complaints. However, the one statement I wish had been included was along the lines of:

Being marginalised, misrepresented or misquoted is not the same as being persecuted. And it isn’t just a matter of semantics.

Christians are being persecuted in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, parts of Africa and the Middle East. Being ridiculed a bit or misrepresented by the religiously illiterate in Britain is a pain and poses challenges – but it is not persecution. My point in the broadcast was to encourage Christians to stop seeing themselves as pathetic victims, recognise the amazing freedom we have in (and massive contribution we make to) British society both locally and nationally… and get out there more confidently with the unique gift of Christian faith, service and apologetics. As Liverpool keep discovering, playing defensively allows the opposition all the creative space to attack – and you don’t win football matches by playing that way.

The websites that are claiming me as an ally in the ‘secularist’ cause shouldn’t celebrate too soon. My stance yesterday does not mean that I don’t get fed up with (and argue against) the rather stupid anti-Christian or ignorant/irrational secularist stuff around in the public square. But, rather than bleat about it, I’d rather we took up the creative challenge and engaged seriously with it.

I had no idea about any ‘Not Ashamed’ campaign until I saw it today. Whatever I said yesterday was not an attack on it – hard to do when you don’t know it exists. In fact, you could argue that the point of my 4thought.tv piece was to encourage Christians to stop seeing themselves as victims, to be confident about their faith and its ability to stand in the public square, and to do the opposite of being ashamed.

Although flattered to be commended by the humanist commentariat, they should also be a little bit worried: this isn’t a cave-in to secularism; it is a call to get stuck in with a bit more nous and a bit more confidence in the Gospel.

Lambeth palaceLast night I chaired the 31st Sandford St Martin Awards at Lambeth Palace – the first event since I took over chairmanship of the Trust (set up in 1978 to encourage excellence in religious broadcasting) last year. The awards event brought together writers, producers, presenters and the creative teams who produced some of the finest religious broadcasting of the last year or so. The quality and range of submitted programmes was heartening and the shortlisted line-up was excellent. I quote from the press notice:

For the second year running readers of Radio Times voted Anglican vicar, Peter Owen Jones, their favourite – this time in his worldwide search for and participation in 80 expressions of faith.  Around the World in 80 Faiths was produced by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC1.

 The search for raw talent amidst the run-down Manchester estate of Harpurhey won the Trust’s Premier award for religious television with Miracle on the Estate made by BBC Religion and Ethics and broadcast on BBC 1 on Good Friday 2008.  Tim Gardam, chair of judges, said it “drew its viewers into the lives of others by the artless authenticity of the characters on the estate”, as, guided by a poet, a composer and a producer they constructed, rehearsed and performed a play about Noah and the flood.

 By contrast, professional excellence was the hallmark of the Premier religious radio winner, Tested, episode 4 of the collaborative series Witness, broadcast on Radio 4.  Nick Warburton’s dramatisation, based on the gospel of Luke, was “brilliantly acted and directed” and followed by a feature examining aspects of the story which was “a fine complement” to the play, said Gillian Hush.

 Television runners-up were episode 3 of The Passion, Frank Deasy’s dramatisation of Jesus’ trial and death, shown on BBC1, and Antony Thomas’s exploration of the history and importance of The Qur’an, broadcast on Channel 4.  The Merit prize was awarded to the Channel 4 programme which examined the scourge of superstition in Africa, Saving Africa’s Witch Children.

 Radio’s runner-up was Christmas Awakening, personal reflections by a poet, a musician and a minister on Christmas, broadcast on BBC Scotland, and the merit awards went to Heart and Soul: Fatwas, a BBC World Service programme explaining the real meaning of fatwas, and to Let Us Pod – Bereavement, a personal reflection originally made for the Roman Catholic diocesan of Clifton website, subsequently broadcast on BCfm Community Radio for Bristol.

RT2009My speech and a record of the event can be downloaded from the Sandford St Martin website. Both BBC Religion & Ethics and Channel 4 did themselves proud. The creative range of material commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed at Channel 4 augurs well for BBC as he moves into his new role as Head of the Department and Commissioning Editor for Religion TV. His appointment was announced recently alongside that of the promotion of Christine Morgan to Executive Editor and Head of Religion Radio. I assume that those being vociferously critical of Ahmed’s appointment will be equally critical of Morgan’s? (Don’t hold your breath!) I think we are in for interesting times and I look forward to seeing the range of programming being commissioned in the next few years.

The programmes that won awards need to be watched and heard. The most shocking was Saving Africa’s Witch Children – which followed Englishman Gary Foxcroft  as he raises money to help Nigerian Sam Itauma care for children who have been violently exorcised after being accused of witchcraft.  Gary is also trying to get the local government to protect them from the “Christian” pastors undertaking such exorcisms. It was hard to watch ‘Christians’ treat children with such cruelty (involving ostracism, murder, torture and prolonged neglect) – making one wonder what sort of Christianity it can be that mixes wild superstition with Pentecostalism.

I was asked what the Anglican Church in Nigeria is doing to counter such superstitious cruelty and could not answer. I will be pursuing this, though.

The great thing about the programmes on Fatwas and the Quran was that they genuinely explored difficult material in a sensitive but inquisitive way. The root assumption was that the audience knew little or nothing and had to be enlightened before any critique could be brought to bear. In both cases it worked superbly. If I have any wish for how Christianity might be treated in the media, it would simply be that this pattern be followed more often. It is too often assumed that we can go straight for the critique or challenge – on the assumption that ‘everybody’ knows the Christian story and what Christianity is all about. That simply is no longer true.

I would hope that critique and inquisition might follow after explanation and exploration, rather than merely assuming that explanation is not necessary.