Media Society-Sandford St Martin Trust religion panel – Groucho Club: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”
This article by the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade is a write up of the event mentioned above: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”. Ed Stourton chaired the panel discussion on the media’s coverage of religion, featuring Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah.
GUARDIAN: As an atheist, I didn’t expect to be engaged by a panel debate about religion. But last night’s discussion on the topic turned out to be one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended.
And that’s because the most stimulating contributions were all about the need to see beyond a professed faith in order to discern the reasons for people’s actions.
In fact, those opinions appeared to turn the title of the debate, “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”, on its head.
Roger Bolton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, certainly argued in favour of greater journalistic understanding. In modern multi-cultural Britain, he said, religious literacy is essential.
But the problem is that we are illiterate because our journalism is just not fit for purpose in terms of covering religion. The BBC has no editor of religion and there is no centre of expertise to consult at our public service broadcaster.
Bolton thinks British culture is informed by Christianity regardless of whether people go to church, describe themselves as Christian or even believe in a Christian god.
This makes it difficult for non-Christian immigrants to understand our society. Similarly, seen in reverse, the indigenous “Christian” population cannot understand the religious cultures of immigrants.
As for our journalists, they are a largely liberal secular metropolitan crew, according to Bolton, and they cannot therefore understand what motivates people of other faiths and, by extension, cannot help the public to understand.
Freelance journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes and broadcasts on the Middle East, and Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster university, were having none of this.
They accepted that knowledge of religion, as with all knowledge, was of value. But what was of overriding importance was to grasp that there were deeper reasons for people taking outrageous actions that only appear to stem from religion.
They were, of course, referring to various deeds by those we call Muslim fundamentalists – suicide bombings, 9/11, the formation of Al-Qaida, various atrocities in Britain, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the rise of Isis.
For Francois-Cerrah, the examination of such deeds and movements through religion is overstated. Socio-economic factors were far more motivating and it was those that required closer investigation.
Religion, in her view, was a rallying point for people in order to confront power. Note, she said, that most of the autocratic regimes overthrown by Muslim groups were secular.
Note also that suicide bombings were a desperate response to territorial occupation. See beyond the veneer of religion, she said, to the real ideological reasons behind people’s apparent adherence to religious extremism. If she said it once, she said it a half dozen times: it’s all political.
Barnett agreed. There were political rather than religious reasons for what has happened across the Middle East. Self-described as “a militant atheist”, he rejected the notion that we should create a religious specialism in journalism because there were far more important and pressing journalistic concerns.
Privileging religion was unnecessary because there were too many other issues that needed greater attention. For example, he pointed out that too many British journalism students know nothing about the workings of government in their own country. They are unaware, he said, how our constitution operates.
Sure, get to know about religion if you must. But knowing how our democratic institutions work is far more important. That was also a task for the BBC.
One telling point made by Barnett was his reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Seeing it as clash between Catholics versus Protestants, he suggested, concealed a deeper economic and historic reality of poverty and power.
Ann Leslie, the former Daily Mail foreign correspondent, did not really get involved in the central tussle between Bolton on one side and Francois-Cerrah and Barnett on the other.
But she did think it important for people to know more about other people’s religions, stressing particularly the need to grasp the tenets of Islam. Her view was informed, she said, by growing up on the sub-continent as the daughter of a British colonial family.
“Religion is important to Muslims,” she said firmly. But she provoked gasps from a keenly interested audience – and wide-eyed amazement from Francois-Cerrah – by telling an anecdote about her father’s kindness in hiring Muslim servants.
Bolton didn’t back down. But I felt Francois-Cerrah carried the day. Her warning against Islamic exceptionalism is one that needs to be taken to heart if we are to come to terms with what is too easily regarded as primitive religious fundamentalism and barbarism.
*The panel debate at the Groucho Club was chaired by Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, and it was co-hosted by the Sandford St Martin Trust.