This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
Aaqil Ahmed, beleaguered Head of Religion at the BBC, called me in for a cup of tea last September to ask what I meant by religious literacy. He’d got wind of an event I had run that had unpacked for journalists and opinion formers why the media were getting Egypt’s revolution so badly wrong. As usual the media had been siding with the political opposition, in true British fashion, assuming them to be the under-dog in a game of two sides. They had ignored the complicating third and fourth factors: the persecuted Copts, and browbeaten Sufis, either ignorant of their existence or embarrassed about siding with Christians or more esoteric religion. Almost no investigative work was being done on the plight of Coptic or Sufi minorities as Egypt went into revolutionary meltdown, beyond macho scenarios of Jeremy Bowen in Tahrir Square. There was a clear lack of contacts and channels into the Coptic world even though Copts are often fluent in English.
The Sunday Times took two weeks after the main mass arsons in August 2013 to file their report. Ignorant? – or suppressing the news of burning churches lest they appear ‘partisan’? What it betrayed was ignorance of the Coptic contribution to Egyptian civic life and worse, a cavalier attitude to the life-threatening nature of religiously illiterate reporting. Ignoring the Copts, vulnerable as a tiny minority despite their disproportionate economic and cultural clout, consigned them further to oblivion. This was religious illiteracy in the media at its worst – and it’s the consequences of this that a new Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, founded by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, has an opportunity to examine and even change.
How does religious literacy in the media work?
Religious literacy does not require religious partisanship, but as was demonstrated at that Egypt event, a simple attention to the facts. Of four expert panellists, one of whom represents Copts in Britain; one secular historian, and a human rights lawyer from Washington, most impressive of all was Betsy Hiel, a-religious American foreign correspondent who’d lived in Cairo for 11 years, spoke fluent Arabic and understood the religious facts. In a resonant nicotine-stained voice she told the world a story of incredible brutality perpetrated against a historic people by the – gasp – political opposition which no one had heard before. It resulted in a Spectator cover, a piece by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown, and a ‘Christianity being destroyed in its heartland’ sound-bite from classicist Tom Holland that ricocheted around the world – and still does, leveraging real change. Truth is out there and it’s our duty to find and tell it.
“Religious literacy does not require religious partisanship”
Increasingly journalists I talk to share my view that religion is too serious to have only a passing acquaintance with it. And the Commission has set itself a remit to take on board this shift in sensibility. For the media remit, it asks the right question: ‘What principles should guide the education of journalists and media producers in religious affairs and the production of codes of professional ethics for them, and how can these best be built into courses for trainee journalists?’ Journalists pride themselves on their secular credentials. But where religion is concerned they are now acknowledging at least that they need to know. The population’s ignorance worries them, and their own ignorance worries them even more.
Richard Porritt, former Managing News Editor of the Evening Standard and News Editor of the Press Association told me religious illiteracy has now gone toxic. ‘A journalist who is not confident about the facts is dangerous. And with a specialism like religion, misreporting can lead to widespread misunderstanding.’ Ignorant journalists guarantee an uninformed electorate, and stymy government’s ability to govern for lack of a proper mandate. That was the case in Northern Uganda where an 18-year war promulgated by the mad witch Major General Joseph Kony against children, ostensibly in the name of the Ten Commandments, rumbled on because no journalist or government with any clout was prepared to get their heads round it. It attracted a few lurid paragraphs in the tabloids, but nothing that could leverage any change. And that’s because religion was off-piste.
To understand religion’s motivating power, its ability to solidify allegiances, its ability to terrify or reconcile, was to get dangerously close to taking it seriously and that might imply confessional partisanship i.e. bias. Richard Porrit says: ‘For too long religious affairs – as editors deem fit to call the specialism – has been a job palmed off on reporters. It is a role that has traditionally been dodged, by the cream of the newsroom, for specialisms thought to be more glamorous or hard-hitting.’ For the tabloids Kony was almost a figure of fun: delightfully ticking all the boxes in tabloid minds about ‘voodoo’, blood lust, and tin-pot African leadership. And meanwhile 25,000 children continued to be abducted, maimed and horribly disfigured, only fifty per cent ever returning to their villages, through lack of purposeful intervention by the West, especially Britain who contributed in aid a whopping fifty per cent of Uganda’s total budget. Only once international charity Church Mission Society with its two hundred years of experience in religious Africa got onto it, did things change. It took just three years to bring the war to an end, and the International Criminal Court made this its first case. CMS combined religious networks and categories with the unique cross-cutting access to civic society of the churches and faith groups to build social and political capacity and boost consensus and morale. Crucially they helped the media to understand the religious and spiritual dimensions of the war.
Journalists are also careless with their categories: Paul Wood, rightly lauded BBC World Affairs reporter, nonetheless owned up to the mistake of calling the war in Central African Republic ‘sectarian’, as if Islam and Christianity were variants of the same faith, like Catholics and Protestants. Language is our stock in trade as journalists. You wouldn’t confuse basketball with rugby, even though both are sports. Getting it right matters. In a place like Sudan where, as al-Jazeera brilliantly showed in a documentary recently, the bloodbath caused by the failure of two big men to work together was neither ‘tribal’ nor ‘ethnic’. Yet the West almost rejoiced to conclude it was, and then it became so, as people consolidated around rumour promoted by media stereotypes.
“Only faith, not contempt, can speak to faith”
Sociologists have long known, as Anthony Giddens put it, that ‘description becomes prescription’. Martin Bright in the Evening Standard makes just this point in an awkward little piece about politicians ruling what is ‘good and bad Islam’. ‘The time has come for banal and patronising platitudes to stop . . . jihad is central to Islam.’ And one of the things that fuels the jihad is precisely the West’s apparent contempt for those things held most dear by the majority of the world’s population, who often have nothing but their faith. Only faith, not contempt, can speak to faith. Addressing the failure of the government’s approach to Islamic extremism, which has allowed upward of 500 young people to prefer life with psychopaths who behead social workers to life in their native leafy suburbs, now affects us all. This is where a religiously literate media, confident in handling religious facts and categories, come in. Their job is to mediate the discourse, and at present it is puerile and inadequate. While politicians go on deciding what is and what is not ‘good Islam’, they will fail to get anywhere near the complexity of an ancient civilization that is totally ‘other’ than our present categories for it. Or as someone else said, ‘if you cannot talk the talk, you cannot walk the walk.’ Speech acts. Or not as the case may be.
The Kingdom of Whatever
Journalists have a job to do. They are largely oblivious of the deeper discourse wars that have paralysed their profession for a generation. What is preventing them getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation. Scott Stephens calls this ‘the Kingdom of Whatever’. Rowan Williams lamented ‘a world in which there aren’t and couldn’t be any real discussion of the goals and destiny of human beings as such’. That’s the stuff of journalism, but we now lack even minimal consensus on the most fundamental questions of life, social obligation and political ends, as well as the means – the common moral and conceptual grammar, as Stephens put it – to resolve such widespread disagreement.
“What is preventing [journalists] getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation”
The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life has created a platform and an opportunity from which to make broad-brush recommendations to relevant institutions such as media training colleges that just might stir enough energy or anger or both to fund and implement the changes that are urgently needed. Were the Commission not so top-down – the Patrons and commissioners are largely the usual suspects who between them have served to sterilise the discourse in the interests of neutrality – my hopes would be high.
Not just religious programming
Journalists are meant to be fearless, but in the current climate of extreme nervousness about religion, it is hard to know when fearlessness is not just social recklessness. I suggest that for good journalism to have a chance, society itself must become more open to religion. The context must change as well as the content for meaning to be made.
“for good journalism to have a chance, society itself must become more open to religion”
This will require:
- a cultural shift encouraged by thought leaders recognizing that the population has been befuddled with propaganda about the ‘decline of religion’, and ‘all religions are the same’, which was ideological and simply untrue.
- Opening up the airwaves to a more informed debate. ITV’s religious programming has been cut to two hours from 104 in 2004 when Ofcom required it. The trend should be reversed
- Listening sincerely to the ‘small voices’ that have been either suppressed, intimidated or ignored
- Recognizing that this is not simply ‘religious programming’ or ‘religious affairs’. This is world affairs, and it concerns us all.
- Revoking aspects of legislation that have not just chilled but outlawed any discussion about, or criticism of, groups that might be deemed ‘ethnic’, such as the Pakistani sex exploiters
“Religious literacy means, essentially, catching up with the paradigm shift in British secular culture that is already upon us.”
For journalists in particular, a new commitment would mean:
- every newsroom retaining at least one religion specialist, or subscribing to one specialist organization like Lapido Media
- Short courses tailored to the needs of newsrooms on political religion
- A core element in all media training courses on world religions and religious sociology and psychology
- Link-ups between media courses such as those run by Lincoln University teaching conflict reporting with nearby theological colleges
- Exposure to relevant resources on religious literacy in world affairs such as our Handybooks for Journalists series
- Doctoral research into epistemology and journalism: how does a journalist know what to report and whom to believe in reporting stories with a religion dimension?
- A massive commitment to funding for the above from relevant civic society bodies including the Research Councils.
Religious literacy means, essentially, catching up with the paradigm shift in British secular culture that is already upon us.
About the author
Jenny Taylor is a cultural analyst and journalist and founder of Lapido Media, a consultancy specialising in religious literacy in world affairs: http://www.lapidomedia.com/
 The story is told in ‘Taking Spirituality Seriously: Northern Uganda and Britain’s ‘Break the Silence’ Campaign’ in The Round Table –The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 94:3782, 559-574.