The State of Religious Journalism in Britain 18 December 2016

When I started my PhD four years ago, I also started On Religion. A magazine where I hoped I could bring together some important voices to discuss religion and faith. The need for the magazine was impressed upon me when I was an undergraduate in religion and theological studies. I read widely, and I was looking for a magazine that would stimulate me in the same way that The Economist might stimulate an economics student, the National Geographic might stimulate a geography student, or BBC History Magazine, a historian.

There was nothing, no such magazine existed. It’s what led me to creating On Religion a few years later. Since then, I’ve always kept an eye on what could be described as the “religious journalism” in Britain, an industry without much coherency (yet) and still in its infancy.

So while there is no magazine other than On Religion that looks at faith in contemporary society, current affairs magazines discuss religion at length; so you’ll find “God” issues of the New Statesman, regular columns about religious politics in Prospect, confident arguments for faith (a particularly upper-class Christian version of it at least) in the Spectator (and they’ve recently launched Holy Smoke, a podcast about religion).  There are also “spirituality” magazines, such as Kindred Spirits, appealing to a new age and modern expression of religion, that can waver between fascinating insights into the changing religious landscape of Europe, to slightly inane feel-good perennialism.

In terms of newspapers, there are the standard stories about religion written by beat reporters, and those written by religious affairs correspondents,  of which there weren’t very many at all when On Religion first started. There seems to have been a sea-change, and increasingly there are more and more religious affairs correspondents (at least on Twitter, I’ve not tracked this with any rigour). Some religious affairs correspondents (although increasingly less so) restrict their coverage to a very narrow view of what the “religion beat” entails. So plenty of reports on what bishops have said or done, the occasional report on non-Christian religious festivals, and second-hand reporting of debates about religion happening elsewhere. The more engaging religion correspondents observed how religion is a contested term, and which is in many ways shot through everything from politics, to economics, to sport.

Then of course there are faith based media outlets such as The Church Times or The Jewish Chronicle or the Muslim News, magazines such as Reform, and online blogs such as 5Pillars. These can be great, covering underreported stories or providing new angles – but the focus is on global news with an eye on relevance to a particular faith group, and this itself can be a bit suffocating, and at times hits you with the same feeling of local papers searching for arbitrary local links to global stories.

I once asked Andrew Brown, religious affairs correspondent for The Guardian, why there is such an absence of religious magazines in the same way as there are countless history periodicals once. He wondered perhaps it was that everyone has an equal distance to history through the passage of time, but religion involves a more complicated partisanship.

I wondered about this a lot as I ran On Religion – is the magazine, trying to provide coverage of religion without a confessional angle, doomed to failure? Is it too close but not close enough for many, occupying an uncomfortable liminal zone. I was reassured however by the United States, which unlike Britain, has plenty by way of religious journalism.

Take the Religion News Service, its run as a non-profit syndicated news stream over in the United States, and is largely successful in providing a running commentary on the “religion beat”. Likewise, there are a plethora of news and coverage on religion, from Huffington Post Religion to the Washington Post’s Acts of Faith, the recently relaunched On Faith. There are the Patheos blogs and pretty much every major news outlet has some religion stream. In fact, in general, the United States seems to have much more developed and mature conversation on faith than Britain. Huffington Post did seem to try HuffPo Religion in Britain, with a month long “Beyond Belief” campaign in November with commentary on faith in the United Kingdom.

By and large however, the most consistent religion coverage seems to come from the BBC. While I really don’t like The Big Questions, it does at least engage with the religion as a facet of everyday life. I am more of a fan of its counterpart, BBC Sunday Morning Live, which is distinctly better. Radio remains a bastion for considered reporting. There is BBC Radio 4’s Sunday and Beyond Belief and BBC Wales’ All Things Considered. Journalist and producer Roger Bolton accused the BBC of “coming up short” regarding religious broadcasting, and the departing of Aaqil Ahmed as head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC (with the responsibility being given to James Purnell under Factual Scotland) has made many wonder if perhaps Bolton is right.

New media definitely is playing a role in all of this too. So there are podcasts, like Things Unseen by CTVC, which is one of my favorites, and a slowly developing niche of religious studies podcasts (usually from the US, but not exclusively).

A different approach is taken by Buzzfeed UK, perhaps one of the only news outlets to invest specifically in a journalist to cover the “Muslim beat”. Hussein Kesvani occupied the role at first, followed by Aisha Ghani. Clearly there is a journalistic appeal to this type of coverage for Buzzfeed, as the US branch is advertising for a similar journalist, and recently launched “See Something, Say Something” a podcast on the American Muslim experience.

Religious journalism in Britain is still in its infancy. We’re certainly talking a lot about faith and religion, it’s become a significant frame of analysis in understanding the world, but there does seem to be a lack of what some academics call “religious literacy”. Efforts have been taken towards addressing this however, with the establishment of the Religion Media Centre by a collection of academics and journalists. This London-based charity seeks to replicate the work of the Science Media Centre in equipping journalists with the tools to cover religion better, and by contrast, help academics and religious leaders to communicate through the media more successfully. It’s one of a number of efforts to address what is often seen as poor religious journalism, something that Commission on Religion and Belief identified as a serious issue in last year’s report.

But impartial, plural, and in-depth discussion about religion in the news is an innovation, and it’s worth keeping in mind the distance traveled to arrive to where we are today. Religious studies in academia only emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century. So while religious journalism is in its infancy, it really has only become a necessity in a religious plural and globalised world – in another era, bigoted coverage of minority faith groups and reverent attitudes to the established religion would have gone unchallenged.

As for On Religion, it remains a place I hope for different voices – academics, faith leaders, and interested experts – to discuss religion, provide fresh and in-depth insights, and to offer commentary on current affairs.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.