The goalposts for journalists reporting religion have moved a long way since the days when all you had to remember was that ‘vicars’ rhymed with knickers (as Dernard Levin once quipped about religion’s chief PR problem), writes Jenny Taylor.
Generally it was a case of ignoring religion in the happy belief that it was dying out anyway, and good riddance.
Where it was unavoidable, it could be interpreted through some other more tangible grid: racism, crime, poverty – or on the weeklies relegated to a corner along with Women’s Institute meetings. The Rushdie fatwa changed all that.
As the Churches’ Correspondent byline morphs into the much broader ‘Social and Religious Affairs’ brief on several papers – the Telegraph and the Sunday Times have both done it in the last year – there will need to be a wholesale shift in approach in order to avoid the pratfalls.
Religious illiteracy is the term for reporters’ unpreparedness for the facts of a globalized news context. Religion Avoidance Syndrome, a term coined by the Director of the US State Department’s office of religious freedom Thomas Farr, might be more accurate.
This prevents either insightful, prescient or even accurate reportage. “We just didn’t see this coming” has been a common refrain including from foreign correspondents like John Leyne on the Today programme last month, and throughout the Arab Spring, when the clues were a mile high.
The rumpus last week surrounding Tom Holland’s film Islam: the Untold Story for Channel 4, seen by 1.7 million viewers a fortnight ago, was largely got up by The Guardian and Mail who did not check their sources.
This erudite documentary by an award-winning Cambridge-educated historian who, until recently, was Chair of the Society of Authors, evinced headlines about Muslim fury over ‘distortions’ and ‘offence’.
The Guardian repeated verbatim a ‘paper’ from a heavyweight-sounding institution, the until then unknown Islamic Education and Research Academy, without mentioning its salafi backers.
The most cursory Google would have unearthed that the IERA is the platform for a British public-schoolboy turned Muslim ‘sheikh’ who is openly bigamist, and is on film as advocating hell for Mother Theresa.
Knowing the difference between credible and bogus sources is more vital, if complex, than ever. As with the Danish cartoons affair, feelings of offence can be easily manufactured or exacerbated for political ends.
More importantly, understanding the battle for freedom within the Muslim world itself, and not reporting it as a monolith, will help foster a climate of pluralism that religious extremists are bent on shutting down.
If we are not to abandon moderates whether in the UK or in the Arab awakening to a worse fate than before, it won’t do simply to use the adversarial template of our parliamentary system.
Globalization means that many stories don’t make sense without understanding religion. And it’s not going to go away.
Dr Jenny Taylor was the first Race Relations Correspondent in Westminster Press. She founded Lapido Media which is launching a new series of Handy Books for Journalists on Religion in World Affairs at the Frontline Club on 27 September.