BBC's Edward Stourton: British media suffers from religious 'blind spot' leading to 'skewed' coverage

BBC journalist Edward Stourton has said Britain's lack of appreciation for the importance of religion across the world damages its news coverage.

Stourton, presenter on Radio 4's religious programme Sunday, believes British journalists have a "blind spot" when it comes to religion, meaning coverage can be "skewed".

He highlighted coverage of the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria as examples of stories which would be covered better with more understanding of religion.

“I do think that there is a problem with British culture... in the way that we treat religion as a sort of curious ‘ghetto’-like thing,” he told Press Gazette.

“And I don’t say that from the point of view of arguing that religion is a good thing – because very often it’s not.

“But it does damage our understanding and our ability to perceive stories accurately.”

He suggested that British news organisations have not considered the importance of the growth of churches in Russia and what Russian nationalism means in coverage of Ukraine. And on Middle East stories, he said “we continually misread the story because we don’t think what a powerful force religion is”.

In particular, Stourton believes commercial broadcasters – not the BBC and Channel 4 – ignore religion. He also said it is “terrible” that there are no more dedicated religious correspondents on Fleet Street after Ruth Gledhill’s position at The Times was made redundant last month.

“The view is that religion doesn’t sell well,” he said. “Well, for most of the world the view is quite the opposite.”

He added: “When you travel abroad you realise that religion for most people on this planet remains important, and we don’t reflect that.”

Despite his view that the BBC performs better than others in the UK in covering religion, Stourton still sees fault.

“One thing I noticed when I was covering John Paul II’s death and funeral is that... the BBC’s always full of different strands of opinion, and there was a strand of opinion: ‘Old Pole dead, come home now.’

“And then several million people would turn up to his funeral, and people would say: ‘Oh blimey, this is quite a big story.’”

Having worked in broadcast journalism for 35 years, Stourton suggested the British media’s indifference to religion is “deeply engrained”.

He added: “But it’s been perhaps made more apparent than ever by events since 9/11, because a whole area of quite complex religion has become very essential to the understanding of mainstream news,” he said.

“Most people, I suspect, before 9/11, in most newsrooms, would be quite pushed to name the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. [They] would have had a pretty hazy grasp of where people belonging to those two bits of Islam live, mostly, in the Middle East.”

Stourton said that the coverage of the Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnap story in Nigeria and the case of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan could have benefited from more religious insight.

“I can’t claim to have done a full review into the coverage of these stories,” he said.

“The focus on the human side of them is absolutely right, but that does hold in it the danger of distorting the more general point if it’s talked about in a vacuum, which perhaps to some extent it is.”

Stourton is tonight to give a speech at the Sandford St Martin Trust Awards, held at Lambeth Palace, for for radio and TV programmes that reflect religious, spiritual or ethical themes.

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