Spreading the word

While religious conflict has been in the headlines a lot recently, specialist religious affairs reporting is in decline. David Benady looks at what four major religions are doing to keep themselves relevant to an increasingly secular and critical society.

Religious stories can be a godsend for editors looking for a strong visual angle. All those colourful robes, beautiful accessories and ancient rituals make for a strong photo opportunity and great broadcast footage. And there is little more dramatic than waiting for white smoke to billow from the Sistine Chapel as the cardinals finally decide on the next Pope.

But beyond a good line in fancy dress and stunning architectural backdrops, religion is getting sidelined when it comes to media coverage. Islamic terrorism and paedophile priests are reported as political and social issues, but newspapers are dedicating fewer resources to reporting religious affairs. 

There are now no dedicated religious correspondents on any national paper after Ruth Gledhill of The Times stepped down last year. Religious coverage is generally shoehorned into social affairs, but some religious leaders warn that there is a lack of specialist knowledge in the media about religion. This is seeping into wider society, which is dumbing down on its religious knowledge. Many see this as problematic in a world where a quarter of the population profess to be either Christian or Muslim. 

Gledhill, who now works on the Christian Today website, says religions have generally been poor at promoting themselves through the media. With many of the news stories about Christianity focusing on declining church att-endances or moral views that seem out of step with modern society, the stories are often negative. But she says: "Despite the pressure, they try to find a positive way of driving that story; they have a desire to tell the truth – it is a luxury for a journalist to be treated like that."

Broadcaster Roger Bolton, a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which promotes religious programming, says journalists tend to be secular and lack religious literacy. But this is not helped by poor comms from religious groups. "Religious organisations have been slow to wake up to the need to communicate and find a way of speaking in terms that ordinary people can understand," he says. He gives the example of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, an academic who struggled to use language that resonated with the media. 

But maybe the diffused approach to comms of many religions is a strategy in keeping with the times. George Pitcher, who founded PR consultancy Luther Pendragon and is now an Anglican vicar, says the idea of having a PR function to communicate an organisation or company’s message, reputation or competitive advantage is "a very old model". Modern communication req-uires everybody in an organisation to live out its values and purpose in their activities. These tend to be communicated to stakeholders through social media and customer relations. "If companies are unable to operate the old PR model, it is worth looking at the way religions have operated, because everybody in a faith is supposed to be a communicator of that faith," he says. Pitcher quotes St Francis of Assisi: "Go and spread the Gospel, and if you have to, use words."

We look at the comms strategies of four major religions that often find themselves in the UK media spotlight.

Divide: the Church has been split over issues such as female bishops

The Church of England

The Church of England has had to face some powerful controversies in recent years with splits over ordaining female priests and bishops and divisions over views on homosexual priests. The Church is also a big financial story as it runs a £6bn investment portfolio. The Church’s media comms have a diffuse structure with a number of different media offices, such as Church House, while both the archbishops of York and Canterbury have their own comms teams, so there is no overall director of comms. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby brought in the Queen’s press secretary Ailsa Anderson as director of comms at Lambeth Palace in 2013.

Arun Arora, director of comms at the Communications Office at Church House, says everyone who sits in a CofE pew and 16,000 parish priests can also speak for the Church. In addition the 42 diocesan offices each have their own comms teams.

He says that the CofE gets some good press coverage of local and national issues, which he describes as "not bad for an institution that people are ready to write off as irrelevant". He says the CofE has a powerful advocacy role through the media, as witnessed by the recent open letter from the House of Bishops encouraging people to vote in the general election and calling for a "fresh moral vision" from politicians. He believes they got "kicked by the right-wing media who interpreted it as supporting the left, but they hadn’t understood".

The Church runs media training sessions and courses for priests. "We do that on a regional basis. The decline of the regional press has hit the Church hard as relationships at a local level have always been very good. It is where the relationship is strongest, it is where the Church exists; at a local level." He says priests are often the last professionals living in their communities, as doctors and others often travel to work from different places. As such they are good sources for comment on local issues.

But he laments what he sees as a lack of religious literacy in the media. For instance, he has seen a joint initiative between CofE and Roman Catholics described in the media as "inter-faith" when they are both Christian so should be referred to as cross-denominational.

Modern comms: the Flame2 Catholic Youth Festival on Flickr

Catholicism

The Catholic Church has had some tough issues to handle over the past decade, with the paedophile priest scandals and controversy over its views on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.

One attempt to head off some of this criticism before the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010 was the creation of an organisation called Catholic Voices. This was set up by writer and journalist Austen Ivereigh and Opus Dei press officer Jack Valero to give media training to 25 young Catholics so they could appear in the media and talk about Catholic views on controversial issues. "We developed a model for understanding how the Church comes across in news stories and how we could step outside the narrative that comes across in a secular society," says Ivereigh. "We had an attitude of being media friendly and studio ready." He claims the project has worked well – as witnessed in the success of the papal visit, which many commentators thought was well-received given the background controversies.  

The Catholic Church has an advantage over other religions in media relations because it has a clear hierarchy, so can give out a strong, coherent message.

The main body handling media relations is the Catholic Communications Network, which works on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales at a national level. Meanwhile, the diocesan comms offices concentrate on more local news and issues.

Alexander Desforges, director of CCN and press secretary to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, says there is a huge media appetite and demand for stories involving the Catholic Church, which is met by the CCN’s small team. There is a huge challenge to explain in simple terms what are often difficult and complex issues.

But he says: "Understanding the role and aims of the media while working with media outlets and individual journalists as partners on stories is central to what we do. Inevitably there will be stories where the media have different objectives to the Church, but accepting that some coverage will be critical should not and does not change relationships."

He says the Church is at the service of wider society, through its teaching and its actions. "We welcome the opportunity to be able to explain the reality and beauty of the Catholic faith. We try to get some of this across on our news website catholicnews.com and through Facebook and Twitter where we can signpost to helpful sources for those who want to know more."

He says ‘show not tell’ has been a big part of the Church’s digital and media strategy. Its Flickr channel has more than seven million visitors.

Photos show images such as the Conclave that elected Pope Francis, the Flame2 Catholic Youth Festival and the life of an asylum seeker in the West Midlands. "They are used, commented on and shared by people across the world and appear in so many different publications from Alain de Botton’s Cathedral book to an in-house Indian Catholic journal," says Desforges.

Reaching out: Dr Shuja Shafi at an interfaith Unity gathering

Islam

The United Kingdom’s 2.7 million Muslims originate from a variety of countries and different strands of Islam. The Muslim Council of Britain, which was set up 18 years ago, represents 500 Muslim organisations, mosques and charities in the media. Harun Khan, deputy secretary general of the body, says the MCB does not represent all Muslims in the UK, only the organisations that are affiliated.

There is a small media team of volunteers at the council, headed by former microbiologist Dr Shuja Shafi. The team handles a range of political and social queries from the media. But the council does not talk about theological matters. Khan says that journalists seem to be well-informed about the political issues involved.

He adds that the body does mainly reactive media work when issues involving Muslims, such as terrorist attacks, are in the news. The council wrote a letter to The Times complaining about a front-page headline "Call for national debate on Muslim sex grooming", which it said was inflammatory and divisive.  

"It is very difficult in the media to gauge what is coming your way. We are dictated to by headlines and events," says Khan. So a terrorist attack associated with Islamic militants would require a high priority response. The body would put out an initial response to the situation and update it as more information became available. "For anybody carrying that out in the name of Islam, it is our duty to respond and condemn that action and to calm the situation to prevent another adverse reaction," he says.

For instance, after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity when the magazine published its next issue in the UK with cartoons of the Prophet, the MCB asked 50 imams to put out a statement to express the concerns of the Muslim community at the publication. But it also aimed to calm the situation, as Khan explains: "It is a message that this is a free country and you may be offended but do not react in an aggressive way."

The council also promotes proactive stories through the press such as Visit My Mosque day where British mosques opened their doors to the public.

The council is active on social media, with 20,000 Twitter followers, which Khan says is an effective way of communicating with the media and journalists.

Public profile: the PM with Jewish Leadership Council members

Judaism

Judaism may be one of the smaller religious communities in the UK but it is long-established and has a high media profile – often controversial – largely due to Israeli politics. Much of Judaism’s UK press and media relations work is carried out through the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which was established in 1760 to represent Britain’s Jewish communities.

Alex Brummer, a vice-president at the Board of Deputies and City editor of the Daily Mail, says this has been a busy time for Jewish media relations, with the Israeli elections, anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year. Added to that is the UK general election, for which the board has prepared a "Jewish manifesto" with "ten commitments" on issues such as education and health. The Board of Deputies has organised hustings with the major parties.

Brummer says the board’s vice-presidents including himself and Jonathan Arkush are available to speak to the media on a range of issues. The organisation is also advised by PR man Ben Rich, who has his own consultancy and previously worked at Luther Pendragon.

The highest Jewish role in the UK is that of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, held by Ephraim Mirvis, who took over from Jonathan Sacks – a regular contributor to the Today programme’s Thought for the Day – in 2013.

Brummer says: "Jonathan Sacks had a very big public profile on radio and TV and was very outward-looking. The current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis tends to be more community focused, which may have lowered the public profile of Jews."

Brummer says that the Jewish community sees The Guardian and The Independent as hostile to Israel, but he believes that The Guardian is actually good at reporting on Jewish community issues, as it has Jonathan Freedland who writes about the Middle East in an informed way. He adds that the Daily Mail’s social affairs correspondent Stephen Doughty gives a good account of issues that affect the Jewish community.

On the quality of the media’s coverage of religion, he says: "We have become a very secular society; religion is seen more as a fringe activity. The current Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope have tried to move into areas of resonance with the public and that has got them some great headlines." He points to Justin Welby’s stance opposing payday lenders, which has helped stir up media interest. "They have moved the debate on to a different agenda. They have had to move in a different direction to get the headlines," he says.

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