When Religion Makes The News

On 8 November 2016, the National Union of Journalists and ITV Cymru Wales hosted the above-named event, at the Life Sciences Centre, Cardiff Bay.  It brought together journalists and people of belief (especially, media representatives), to discuss and improve communication and reporting.  It also offered a chance to “network”; over eighty people attended; and I got to speak to about a dozen, of a great variety of backgrounds, myself.

I should emphasise that the event came about at the initiative of journalists, not faith communities.  And it was a first in Britain.

The event was chaired by Roger Bolton, who has worked for many years in TV and radio – I have often heard him on the radio.

There were many speakers, throughout the day, both from journalist and faith groups.

The journalists’ situation can be summarised as follows.  The numbers working in traditional media have gone down.  Not only have they have been inclined, themselves, to be less religious than the general population, but also they have tended to subscribe to the idea that religious belief has been declining in importance.  (They have been proved wrong by events).  Those who wanted to report better were represented at this event, then.  They were challenged (loudly and clearly by Roger Bolton) (i) to inform themselves more deeply and (ii) to gain access to the wide variety of faith communities, while not relying solely on the contacts they already have.

In turn, the faith communities (Christians, Jews and Muslims) that were represented on a “panel” were challenged by Roger Bolton (i) to state explicitly what they have to offer to journalists and (ii) to outline the nature of their media operations. (The resources available varied widely between the communities.)

After lunch, journalists and faith communities met separately for one session.  For the faith group, the topic was: “Working with Journalists: an opportunity to consider your experience, your agenda, your media practice.”  It was led by three very knowledgeable women – with great communication skills – namely, Angela Graham (of the Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs), Christine Warwick, and Emma Meese (of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism).

Angela said that belief is wider than faith and includes atheism and secularism.  She set the context: relationships are more important than technologies.  She added that we all communicate through our daily lives.

Angela posed these questions.

What do I most want to communicate?

Why do I want to communicate this?

What results do I hope for?

How will I handle the reactions (the criticism)?

What are the implications of using media I don’t control?

We are always communicating, including with the Divine.  This helps us deal with failure.  We are vulnerable – we need to be prepared.  We need a strategy for dealing with consequences and people for handling risk.  We (believers) are making big claims and so are held accountable (eg by journalists).  Take care of the members of your own group.

Notice where the seed you have sown has grown.  Chase up the messages you have left.  Communicate widely, with discernment, creatively, painstakingly, persistently.

Journalism, she said, is a way to help us live well together.  Journalists must challenge us, push us to think harder.

What is noteworthy?  The novel, the topical, the relevant, the significant, the relational, the provable, the jargon-free, the researched, the practical, the visible.

Pictures help.

We should be contactable, available, responsible, ready for risk.

Avoid propaganda, preaching and proselytism.

Next, Christine Warwick gave us concrete advice on the writing of press releases.

Target your press releases accurately.  Know about deadlines.

The most important should be in the first paragraph and should tell the reader: who, what, where, when, how.

Include the body of your press release in your email, not as an attachment.

Finally, in this session, Emma Meese talked about social media.  What she said about this could be applied, in part, to the more traditional media.  Remember KISSKeep It Short and Sweet.

Make the most of your Twitter profile.  Sell yourself.  But “don’t feed the trolls.”

 

This was a very stimulating day.  Many of those present would welcome a repeat, where topics could be dealt with at greater length.

 

I came away wondering how Quakers – especially those in Wales – can best rise to the challenges posed so vividly at this event.  I am very grateful, both to the organisers, and to Meeting of Friends for letting me go.

 

David Harries

 

 

‘Food Banks Are Not Enough’ – poverty and inequality in the UK today

A few score Friends attended this conference on poverty and inequality.  It was organised by Central England Quakers, and held in Birmingham, on 29 November 2014.  It consisted of talks, discussions in workshops, and informal discussion.

The stimulus for the holding of the conference was Central England Friends’ concern about the growth in the UK of poverty and inequality.  I am glad to say that the two were seen as linked.  (Apart from absolute destitution, I wonder whether you can have poverty without inequality.)

Members of other agencies helped run the day: Equality West Midlands and Housing Justice (the latter a national Christian charity).

At the outset, we were reminded of Quaker history: reference was made to our Statement on Inequality (April 2014) and, further back, to our ‘Eight Foundations of a True Social Order’ (1917) (Quaker Faith & Practice, 23.16), which includes the following:

The opportunity of full development, physical, moral and spiritual, should be assured to every member of the community, man, woman and child.  The development of man’s full personality should not be hampered by unjust conditions nor crushed by economic pressure.

How true, even today!

In the morning, we heard a talk by Suzanne Ismail, a member of staff of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, whose remit is economic justice.  (In her talk she referred to co-operation with other movements, eg Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, and Fuel Poverty Action).

Suzanne reminded us that inequality declined in the UK between 1937 and 1977 but since has got worse, so that the UK has become one of the most unequal members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (with the USA, Chile, Turkey and Israel).

Most Friends, she said, are concerned about this social change, and some are very angry about it.  She argued that inequality adversely affects people’s ability to relate to each other.  Inequality makes us want to buy more things, to keep up.  There is also a connection with sustainability: consumerism destroys the planet.

What can we do?  There are various sources of inequality and therefore various focuses for action.

  1. Re the social security system: undo the harm being done to it, and improve it. (Let us have a grown-up debate.)
  2. Re the tax system: deal with tax dodging, which is costing the Exchequer billions of pounds.
  3. Promote the Living Wage, especially as (a) Chief Executives’ pay has risen astronomically while (b) minimum wage jobs are not a gateway to better paid ones. (Quakers as employers, please note.)
  4. People on low incomes pay a lot more for basics, eg fuel (note pre-payment meters), so we need a fair market for good and services.
  5. Companies can sign up to the Fair Tax mark, to show that they pay the taxes they owe.

Have we, and the wider citizenry, the political will to campaign for change?

Later, I attended two workshops: one on income inequality, the other on housing and benefits.

As regards the first, I found myself in a sub-group looking at “high pay”.  We were asked to discuss whether a maximum income could and should be imposed on UK residents.  We thought not, but that progressive taxation was one day to deal with excessive pay.  We thought that it should become socially unacceptable, (disgusting, even) to command high pay.

Alastair Murray, of Housing Justice, introduced the afternoon session I attended.  He said that the UK housing market is dysfunctional – but not for everyone.  Private wealth has been promoted, at the expense of the public good.  Unfortunately, housing is not a very live election issue.

Alastair declared that we can build more homes, to meet the need, if we want to (and there is enough land).  He painted a sad picture of what many of our fellow citizens have to endure: poor quality housing stock, overcrowding, insecurity of tenancy, and very long waiting lists for social housing.  He argued that, in the private sector, landlords have the power, rather than their tenants.

What is to be done?  These are some of Alastair’s suggestions:

  • Form or join a Housing Action Group
  • Free up empty spaces, eg rooms above shops and in other premises
  • Use church land and property for affordable housing (the Faith in Affordable Housing project)
  • Form a housing co-operative
  • Increase Council Tax bands (unchanged for many years!)
  • Improve tenants’ security of tenure (as Shelter advocates)
  • Support the Homes for Britain Campaign (homesforbritain.org.uk)
  • Note Homelessness Sunday (18 January 2015) and Poverty Action Sunday (15 February 2015).

Alastair recommended some websites: whobenefits.org.uk and housingjustice.org.uk .

In the final plenary, mention was also made of a Fabian pamphlet, A Convenient Truth, by R Wilkinson and K Pickett (a follow-up to The Spirit Level): this can be accessed on-line via fabians.org.uk .

I left with two feelings: (a) that we can all do something; and (b) that we who chose (or were chosen) to attend the conference, while well-informed and passionate, are not poor or homeless ourselves!

David Harries

3 December 2014

 

Quakers in Britain – Statement on Equality

“We value that of God in each person, and affirm the right of everyone to contribute to society and share in life’s good things, beyond the basic necessities.”   

Quaker faith and practice 23.21
 

A commitment to equality is a hallmark of the world’s great religions and a foundation of our Quaker faith . We are called by our experience of equality to voice deep concern over the widening gulf between rich and poor. Equality is the heart of good relationships. It is about our right to equal respect, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, health, disability, nationality, age or social class. It is the cornerstone of a society that affirms our common humanity and recognises wellbeing and human fulfilment as the desire of us all. A society that values equality cannot restrict the goods and benefits of society to any one country, caste or class.

We applaud progress that has been made towards equality in some parts of the world but lament the gross disparity between the life chances of those born in the wealthier countries and those born in the poorer countries, and the continued widespread poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition in many parts of the world. Quakers in Britain deplore the increasing concentration of economic authority and the social stratification that transmits inequality across generations. We are angered that the UK now has a greater disparity in income than at any time since the Second World War and are compelled to speak out against government policy that makes cuts in spending that promote inequality. We challenge the culture and ethos that enable the leaders of finance and industry to take salaries and bonuses that are many hundreds of times larger than those of their employees. Deepening economic inequality cannot continue indefinitely without a risk of violence and oppression. We are dismayed that the government is giving so little consideration to the long term impacts of spending cuts on whole communities. Under-investment and short term accounting are putting the wellbeing of future generations at risk. 
 
Quakers strive to uphold the values of justice and equality in the face of spending cuts that increase poverty and have a disproportionate impact on the poorest among us. Sacrifices shared can strengthen our society. We urge policy makers to address the deficit through a fairer tax system and measures that increase solidarity.

“…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6.8

New International Version

Approved by Meeting for Sufferings by minute S/12/03/3, 31 March 2012.

 I approve

David R Harries

TOWARDS A QUAKER VIEW OF MENTAL HEALTH

On 15 March 2014 Quakers in Britain held (in London) a first conference, open to all Quakers, on our approach to mental health issues.  It was sponsored by The Retreat, a Quaker mental hospital set up in York in 1796 and still going strong.  The ninety plus people attending comprised: people with personal experience, carers and professionals – and indeed any combination of the three.  We looked at: (a) our history, (b) the wider context today, (c) our present work, and (d) the impact of mental health problems on individuals, carers and the pastoral care within the Quaker community; and we asked ourselves where we go from here.  We did not finish these tasks in one day!

In the last 350 years Quakers have taken an active interest in all sorts of matters: war and peace, slavery, social justice, independent schools etc.    Mental health has not been prominent in our discussions apart from support of The Retreat.  It may be no surprise though (a) that many Friends these days work in care settings and (b) that our Local Meetings are sometimes attended by people in distress (and an appropriate response can be hard to devise).

There were numerous speakers and also discussion groups.  I would just like to mention a few things that came out.

1. A young Friend spoke frankly and vividly about her personal experiences, both as a patient and as a member of a supportive Local Meeting.  She suffers mood swings (varying from elation to tears), which had affected her behaviour in Meeting for Worship at times and required other members to try to understand her.

On the one hand, a psychiatrist had asked her, “Does God talk to you?”  She had taken the opportunity to explain the Quaker belief that God does indeed talk to those who listen, especially in the setting of a worshipping group.  This young woman was in a position to say that she had been accepted by her Local Meeting: she was not “broken or worthless” but “valued and trusted” – “good enough as you are”.  Help had been emotional and practical.  In return, she had contributed to the life of the Meeting by volunteering to take on tasks.  (Doubtless, not everyone has such a satisfactory experience.)

(I should add that this young woman has just completed a postgraduate thesis on the choices pregnant women with a mental health history make about what medication to take, if any, while they are expecting.)

Our Friend ended by saying that (although being a user of services is bad enough) being on benefits is worse.  Community services that help people stay well are being cut.  “The way we look at people on benefits is wrong.”  She called upon Quakers to challenge the cuts and the attacks on benefit claimants.

2. During the day, the question was posed: who is mad – the person occupying the back of a pantomime donkey in a demonstration outside a nuclear weapons factory, or the arms manufacturer?

3. Finally, for my personal reflections: the day was very successful in getting lots of people together who did not know each other (for the most part) but who had a burning interest in mental health issues.  We talked and talked and listened and listened.  We were all committed to trying to attend sensitively to the pastoral needs of people (including ourselves) with passing or long-lasting, mild or deep, mental health problems.  What we did not and could not solve was the challenge of manifestations of mental distress that sometimes disrupt Meetings for Worship (where most Friends seek stillness). 

More will follow, no doubt.

David Harries 

Reflections upon 2013 in general and November in particular

This year has been marked by four family funerals and the planning of a family wedding (for 2015).  Three of the deceased were well over 80, whereas one was only 60.  (I say “only”, as once you’re over 60 yourself, you think of 60 and under as young.)  Partly through funerals, I have made contact with relatives who I have not seen for decades, and I was pleased about this.

In May I suffered from a bad back, and treatment by a chiropractor and exercises helped me get better.  The condition returned in November, but I shook it off by going for a series of long walks in the locality.  This is something worth persisting with.

The last week of November has been busy.  Jane was getting ready to return to voluntary work in Palestine, together with a close friend, with visits to Israeli and Palestinian friends lined up.  (They flew out today.)

We hosted Paul Parker, Recording Clerk and in effect Chief Executive of Quakers in Britain, as he was giving a talk – about Quakers in 21st century – to local Quakers in Bridgend Meeting House on the evening of 26th.  (38 people turned him to speak.)  He is a very engaging speaker.

On 27th Jane and I set off for the home of Jane’s sister in Scotland (370 miles away), not sure yet whether the funeral of their Uncle Andrew would take place on 28th or not, as the authorities’ permission was required.  In the event, the funeral did go ahead, at 9 am, as hoped; and we spent the day with family and friends.  On 29th we set out on the long journey home.

On 30th, Jane was involved in the 75th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the Temple of Peace & Health in Cardiff, eg with running a stall for Cymdeithas y Cymod (Fellowship of Reconciliation in Wales).  Then she dashed off to catch a train to London, to be ready for the early flight to Tel Aviv today.

It was St Andrew’s Day yesterday: one can’t help thinking of the helicopter crash in Glasgow and the aftermath, but also the positives of people rallying round.

David Harries

1 December 2013