Why we need to look behind the religious veneer

Some years ago I was asked during a radio programme why the British press rarely publishes anything good about religion.

You know how it is, said the interviewer, assuming that I did: there are plenty of stories charting the decline of churchgoing, highlighting splits in the Church of England’s synod and headlining attacks on the activities of non-Christian creeds.


At the more personal level, he said, the most consistent themes concerned the exposure of hypocrisy by individuals who act as society’s moral guides. At one end were the clichéd tales of philandering vicars. At the other were revelations about the sinister activities of paedophile priests.

Point proved? My routine initial response: newspapers accentuate the negative in every area of their coverage, whether it be politics, business or law and order.

But I had to concede there was some evidence to back up the interviewer’s substantive argument. So I suggested that editors, who tend to view themselves as secular moral arbiters, prefer to have one-to-one relationships with their readers.

In their opinion, their leading articles are the only sermons that count. They don’t want bishops, imams, pujaris or rabbis intervening in territory they regard as their own.

Although there may have been something to my claim, I later realised it was anything but wholly convincing. For a start, I very much doubt that editors, some of whom are, or have been, church-goers, devote much thought to the way their papers cover religion.

Most, if not all, UK national newspaper editors would either call themselves Christians or, at least, regard themselves as the products of a Christian culture. That influence runs deep even among journalists, like me, who proclaim ourselves as atheists.

I recall once accepting a challenge by the Methodist Recorder’s editor, Moira Sleight, to write about my Methodist upbringing and I concluded my article by admitting that it had had an enduring effect on me, most of which had been positive.

In recent years, given that Britain is now a multicultural country, I believe it has become important for journalists to become knowledgeable about religion, meaning religions plural.

Roger Bolton, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Feedback, argued at a Media Society seminar a couple of years ago that religious literacy among journalists had become essential.

He contended that largely liberal, secular journalists within our Christian society could not understand what motivates people of other faiths and were therefore unable to help the public to understand.

I agreed, sort of, and then only up to a point. Knowledge is fine. All knowledge has a value in itself. But there is a danger, should one follow Bolton’s logic, of knowledge eliding into sympathy and, by extension, of luring us into the trap of relativism.

For example, it is unacceptable to show “understanding” for so-called cultural practices that breach women’s human rights, which are themselves attributed to misguided interpretations of religion.

Taking that a stage further, journalistic knowledge of a religion is surely less important than knowledge of the material circumstances that foster religious extremism. The religion is not the problem; it is those who act erroneously by claiming a religious motive.

Public service reporting would benefit from showing that criminals who claim adherence to a faith – whether it involves the mutilation of women or the carrying out of bomb atrocities – are using religion as nothing more than a convenient cover. In order to discern the reasons for their actions we need to look behind the religious veneer.

But I want to go back to where I began. Our central mission as journalists is disclosure and, despite the objections to our trade’s general negativity towards religion, our record in dealing with real religious scandals has been rather patchy.

We have been happy to expose the misdemeanours of individual clergy while being less forthright in holding religious power to account. A former subbing colleague of mine struggled to interest his editor in the allegations of abuse against his local Anglican bishop and it was many years later before the man was finally prosecuted and jailed.

The problem faced by my friend, and his editor, was the refusal of the church to hold a proper investigation into the claims and its apparent willingness to cover up the man’s crimes.

A similar outrage happened in the United States, in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston, where members of the church hierarchy, law officers and, sadly, some journalists turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.

It was almost a quarter of a century after the original 1974 allegations that the Boston Globe’s then editor, Marty Baron (now editor of the Washington Post), persuaded his paper’s reporters to investigate. They went on to reveal a pattern of abuse by several priests, as the award-winning film, Spotlight, recorded.

As a result, many cases of abuse by Catholic priests in other cities were revealed. Indeed, other accusations came to light in Ireland, Australia and Canada. Even so, despite the publicity, Catholic bishops sought to keep a lid on crimes whenever possible.

I have just watched a disturbing Netflix documentary series, The Keepers, about a cover-up by the archdiocese of Baltimore. It centres on the unsolved murder in 1969 of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. According to several witnesses, her death occurred at a time when it looked as if she was about to reveal the truth of a priest’s abuse of girls at the school where she taught.

One of the remarkable features of the series is the way in which two retired journalists play a part in helping two of Sister Cathy’s former pupils as they try patiently and diligently to solve the crime.

The revelation in the seventh and final episode, which exposes the cynicism of the church hierarchy, is one of those rare moments that makes viewers gasp aloud.

But I couldn’t help wondering why the journalists had to retire before they were able to go about the work. Are newspapers still intimidated by institutionalised religion?

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*