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Reporting Faithfully

A veteran BBC journalist shares stories of Christian endurance around the world, including in her own profession.

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Reporting Faithfully January 28, 2016  |  By Julia Bicknell
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Convivium: You talked about what you do in sustaining your faith. You go to church on a regular basis, are part of a prayer group and those kinds of things. My curiosity was piqued about how you managed to sustain your faith through the years of working for a large media organization. It doesn’t have to be the BBC, I mean, it could be the New York Times or it could be the Globe and Mail here in Canada. The difficulty of sustaining faith and being identified as someone of faith, by however small a circle of associates, how did you manage that?

Julia Bicknell: I think I’m very privileged being in Central London. Because obviously London is one of the media hubs of the world. There’s actually quite a few journalists, some of whom would say that they have a faith. And I’ve been part of this actually. One of my strengths is I’m a strategic networker. I used to think that everybody was like me until I married a man who’s completely different. It’s a real gift, actually, to be able to connect people.

One of the things I always did at the BBC was, if I met someone in the business who had a faith, make a point of having coffee with them, just sharing the kind of ethical and moral dilemmas that you would have with a story. Having a bunch of friends who, like you, were working in this business, who understood the pressures of not being able to get to a church sometimes because of your work patterns, of having to let people down with social arrangements when you end up working.

I once organized a small dinner party, and of course, I was held up at work because of a big story and they were literally sitting on the doorstep when I got there. It’s much more about those kind of day-to-day personal things, isn’t it? You just need a bunch of people who get it, who are doing the same kind of job, know the same kind of pressures, and who are also trying to live as a Christian in the middle of that. I think that’s what really sustained me, having a good like-minded crowd of friends.

C: You went through something pretty much parallel to what I went through in this country. As we were coming out of school, faith was something that was being questioned and challenged to the point we’re at now, where essentially it’s not something you discuss in polite company. In fact, it’s a bit of an oddity. You’re sort of like the guy that collects naughty letters from maiden aunts and keeps them in a scrapbook under lock and key.

JB: Yes, you’re treated as someone with two heads, like you must have left all your logic and reason at the door.

C: Did you experience that in subtle or overt ways?

JB: When I was first a young journalist, I think I was more timid and careful whom I “came out to,” if you know what I mean. I would be a bit more cautious. I was one of a large group of people working in a newsroom. So I was a bit more quiet about who I was and what I believe.

In a funny kind of way, I think, in Britain right now, there’s a little more openness to people being a committed Christian, believing, having a faith. So we have politicians in our Parliament who talk about being Christian. They’re not in the majority, obviously; they’re very much in the minority, but the leader of one of our main political parties has been open about the fact that he is a committed Christian, and he’s not shying away from it. It is a little bit more acceptable then it was 30 years ago to talk about your faith.

Having said that, you’re right, the vast majority of people treat you as if you’re a bit of an idiot. I think I’m at the point now where I don’t really care any more because I’ve lived 35-plus years in a career and I am who I am, and I can’t pretend that I’m not. If that gets me people who don’t want to know me or who don’t want to associate with me, so be it. But you’re right, along the middle of my career I would say it was more difficult.

C: You get pegged in a way, don’t you?

JB: You do. You do get pegged. I’ll tell you a couple of things I did to kind of make it a bit less “peggable.” When I was in my mid-20s, I spent six months working in the religious department at BBC radio. Then I went for a job interview in the world service and the guy who was doing the interview, quite a senior guy—he’d been there many years—he said to me rather scornfully, “Oh, I see you’ve done religion. Is that all you can do?” And I felt like saying to him, do you realize that’s actually one of the most difficult topics to cover is religion? To do it well, and by that I mean doing good journalism on all faiths from Hinduism to the finer points of Church doctrine, is actually one of the most difficult things to cover.

The idea that he would be a bit snooty and sneering about it, I found that quite insulting. From that moment, I decided I was going to work in mainstream news and current affairs. I wasn’t going to be labelled as “Oh, I do religion” because I was interested in the whole of life and the whole of what was going on in the world: politics, environment, justice, development.

But I would occasionally offer a specialist sort of interest. I would say, “Look, here’s a topic and actually I really know about it and I know the experts.” I’d sort of offer it so that it became an advantage to have someone who knew quite a lot about that particular subject. And, okay, it wasn’t necessarily going to get me to the top, if you like, but I felt that that was a better way to use my expertise. And in an interesting sort of way, that’s what I’m doing now. It happens that I’ve spent 30 years trying to understand what’s happening to the global Church. Now, why don’t I use that expertise and try to find the people who are actually interested in that and who want my background and my analysis?

C: There’s a former religion writer for one of the national papers here who has a wonderful analogy. He uses it to explain some of the things that he faced in the newsroom. He says, “If a journalist had played high-level basketball or rugby or cricket or whatever their sport might be, you wouldn’t think a) that’s all they know how to do and b) they were incompetent at covering something else because of it. You’d just say, it’s part of who they are. When it comes to faith, somehow it colours everything you do and everything that you’re deemed capable of doing.

JB: I used to use that analogy as well. I’d say, “If I applied for a job in the sports department, you’d expect me to have a passion and an interest in at least one sport in order to be able to specialize.” If I were reporting tennis and instead of saying 15-love, I said 15-zero, you would think I wouldn’t be an asset to your sports team. And yet somehow you think that with religion, any journalist can do it in an informed and intelligent way. And that’s not actually the case.

Having said that, I don’t want to be pigeonholed and labelled. Just because I happen to have faith doesn’t mean I couldn’t do women’s issues or politics or whatever.

C: In fact you’ve probably spent more of your life questioning things in a journalistic way and actually having to think things through. You just bring that attitude to everything.

It’s interesting on the flip side, one of the questions that you were asked about is your distinction between persecution and pressure: Christians being persecuted versus being under pressure. The question that came up was, well, surely this is a difference of kind not just of degree between being persecuted and being under pressure. But it struck me when that question was asked that we, as Christians, are prepared to offer that distinction to other people. Yet every other significant movement in our culture makes use of the fact that if, for example, you’re gay in North America, you understand in an implicit way what it means to be persecuted for being gay. You may not understand the pain of torture, but you understand what it is to be dispossessed, you understand the nature of that continuum. It’s the same with women’s issues. For a woman in Sudan and a woman in Toronto, there’s an affinity there, an affinity to understand what it means to be persecuted.

Yet as Christians, we don’t grant that to ourselves, do we? We almost deny it to ourselves. The attitude is: How can you suggest that we’re anything like what’s happening in Iraq or any of those countries? Do you find that’s true, that we disqualify ourselves in advance from seeing ourselves as part of that continuum?

JB: I think, first of all, that you’ve got to accept that there is a continuum and it is obviously from the Western world to these countries. If, like me, you have lived in Pakistan and in a Muslim and Islamic context, then you realize there’re all sorts of subtleties, whether it’s the language or who you can vote for. There’re all sorts of complications to being a minority faith in a majority context.

My concern is that it’s a bit of a lazy word to use persecuted. It’s quite a labelling word because it almost says that person is one-dimensional and the dimension they have is persecution. You don’t see them as a real human being, with a family, with a job to go to. You tend to see them in a stereotypical way.

I think what I’m trying to do is break down the stereotypical view. Because, actually, when you go to northern Nigeria, as I have done, or to Pakistan, they’re kind of living life not too different from us. Yet somehow we see them as somehow out there and different, and I think that’s what I’m trying to get beyond. We’re all human beings; we’re all living on the same planet; we struggle with the same kind of issues in our lives. We want the best for our kids, we want to live in a nice house, we want a job—that kind of thing.

C: I guess it works, in a sense, the other way, too: “Oh, you haven’t had electrodes attached to your fingers or your fingernails pulled out? You’re not really suffering.” Well, yes, maybe there is a difference of kind; nevertheless, there is still attitudinal violence going on.

I was thinking, too, when you were talking about television or media in some of the countries you’ve worked in and done training in. You told the story of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe going to the brick factory and the entire nightly newscast being about him visiting a brick factory regardless of what else happened in Zimbabwe that day or week. I wonder whether—the brutality of it aside or the bluntness of it aside—the mentality that’s at work is significantly different from the forces of say fashionability that we face in the U.K., Europe and North America. There’s a defined way to look at the world that the media reinforces. This is what’s fashionable, this is what’s current, this is what you’re expected to believe, this is what’s fed to you by the media, whose job is to overwhelm you with what George Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the era.

JB: I think the fascinating thing is what the birth of the Internet has done. We know there are some absolutely dominating narratives in the global media, but the wonderful thing about the Internet... is that we can bypass some of the strangleholds that the traditional media had, the way Mugabe had a stranglehold on Zimbabwe’s broadcasting corporation.

Everyone can broadcast from their bedrooms now. So we can start building niche, community interest and discussion groups where people say “No, no, no. I’m not going to buy into that narrative or that agenda, and let’s build a community of interest around the fact that we happen to think that this needs to be challenged.” And again, we can build those networks, those communities of interest, whereby you build a group of people that say, for instance, “We’re not going to buy this thing about girls have to be skinny and thin to be beautiful. Let’s actually challenge those kinds of narratives that are out there.” I find that quite encouraging.

I recently heard someone say, “Don’t see the Internet as all negative. It’s a tool like any other medium. It can be used for good or for ill, so let’s actually start connecting with other people who want to change that narrative.” A great thing—I don’t know if you have it in Canada as well—in the U.K. is called 38 Degrees, which is very much the voice of the people coming out. So if we want to challenge some legislation in our government, for instance, this group, 38 degrees, builds a massive petition of a quarter of a million people who say: “No, we’re not going to accept the government’s line on this.” So people are using social media in quite a positive way to bring change that they want.

C: Beyond using it as an instrument to affect particular change, don’t we have to develop faith in the legitimacy of our own stories? I’ve been talking for many years about the need to use these tools to tell our own stories. I was at a multi-faith conference a little while ago where they were live streaming. But when the national broadcaster showed up with a camera, everybody went into a tizzy because they were being paid attention to. I said to some of the organizers, “Look they’re going to give you a 35-second clip and they’re going to completely distort what was said. And if somebody said something that was marginally idiotic, that’s what the whole conference will have been about. And yet you are telling your own story.” Their response was: “Well, yeah, but nobody is really interested in what we’re live streaming.” No, you have to have faith that they are interested, don’t you?

JB: At the moment, something that gives me tremendous hope is that the place where I hear more, if you like, stories of hope and Christian engagement in the world, is actually not Christian media at all; it’s on a program on the BBC World Service, probably the most famous program, called Outlook. It was the program that Aung San Suu Kyi listened to every day while she was in captivity. It’s on around lunchtime in the U.K., and day after day, I hear these people from everywhere in the world talking about something that happened to them or that they were involved with. Time and time again, I hear someone saying, “It was God who rescued me” or “I did this by God’s grace,” or they’ll just throw in a phrase and you’ll know the thing motivating them, driving them to bring change or to help change a community or whatever it was, is their faith.

They weren’t doing it in a preachy way. It wasn’t like a gospel program. It came naturally out of the conversation. This is going out to about 300 million people around the world, every day, and it’s on the BBC. Yet a lot of Christians might complain and say, “The BBC is not interested in Christians,” Well, they are if they tell their story in the right way and they’re not ramming it down people’s throats. I love that program and I think that’s what I would love people to get. You have to approach the mainstream media in a way where you say, “We’ve got an exciting person or an exciting story to tell.” And you put the case, you make the pitch, and then it comes out incidentally that the person just happens to be driven by the faith that’s inside them. But you don’t put that as the top headline, and that way you get your stories in.

C: So their faith is an essential part of their full humanity. It’s interesting, too, that you said—and these are my words, not yours—don’t like and don’t assume that everything that you are told is the truth. And don’t assume the truth you do have is going to be understood by everybody else. That seems an essential component: that ability to tell your own stories opens up as people become more comfortable with what you’re saying. Those are three key principles: don’t lie, don’t assume everything is true, and don’t assume everyone understands you. How do we develop that? How do we make sure those principles move ahead in the world of journalism?

JB: Well, it’s media literacy. Anyone can google and find anything. Obviously my background and training as a journalist for over 30 years really helps me understand, but it’s so easy for someone to read something somewhere and just copy and paste it, instead of actually doing the rigour that I’ve learned and done every day, hopefully, of asking the big question about where a story originated. Where did that story start? Who is behind the story starting in the way that it did?

Also the other question I always ask my journalists is, “Tell me how you know what you know?” Did you just read it on the Internet? Did you see it with your own eyes? Did somebody who saw it with their own eyes tell you? So often these stores get multiplied around. There’s a phrase I love about “the howl round of the Internet.” Some story starts and it just gets picked up and repeated. Nobody questions where it comes from.

So my question is: How do you know what you know? I was talking to an Egyptian man about one of the many demonstrations where the police opened fire, and I asked him, “How do you know that?” And he said, “Because I saw it out of my window.” Now if he tells me that, I know that he saw it and heard it. If he tells me, “Oh, well, I read it somewhere” or “My neighbour told me that his neighbour told him,” that’s no good to me. I need to know. But that’s the rigour of my journalistic background and training. But, dare I say, most ordinary people don’t think about that. They just read this horrible story that somebody’s forwarded and they’ve just forwarded to 100 other people without thinking.

C: Or paying attention. I taught journalism for a number of years on a part-time basis while I was still working in the mainstream media, and I always used to ask the class at the beginning of every term, What’s the most important tool a journalist has? You’d always get the laptop, the tape recorder, Google. And I always used to say, “No, it’s the question.” It’s the most important tool we have.

It’s always struck me that the central question of both faith—religious faith—and journalism is the same: Why? Why this universe and not something else? Unless it comes from some kind of creative impulse. And on a purely earthly level: Why would somebody do that? Why would somebody say that? It’s the central question. Once you force the explanation or at least ask for the explanation, then you get the how. Those are the simplest questions in the world. Children constantly ask why. It’s so fundamental. But we forget.

How do you build that reflex back into young journalists, into the people that you want to develop that sense of media literacy?

JB: I think it’s a question, first of all, of understanding some of the technicalities of how the media works today. So understanding sort of an overview. But I also think it’s just exactly what you said: it’s that curiosity and inquiring mind that says, What is the motivation behind why this story would be coming from this particular source now? Or what is going on in the wider ecosphere that suddenly we’re hearing about this? Well it just happens there’s a vote in Parliament next week. It’s putting the pieces together.

Now if I’m looking to hire journalists, I really want someone who has this insatiable curiosity about the world and what it’s doing and why it’s doing it and how it’s doing it. Because I think that’s one of the key things people say to me: “What do I need to be a journalist?” I would say you’ve got to have that insatiable curiosity and you’ve got to always be asking questions. If you’re not doing that, then you’re right, you won’t get very far in the long run.

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C: It’s funny isn’t it, it’s the central impulse of journalism to challenge everything, and yet to also believe that there is an answer. In that way it’s so contrary to the cliché of hardbitten, cynical journalism, isn’t it? Good journalism really is more a matter of faith than cynicism: you don’t know the answer, but you know there’s an approach to an answer. Someone says, “All politicians are just thieves.” Really? Why are they all just thieves? How do you know they’re all just thieves?

JB: Exactly. And that’s just very lazy journalism.

C: What about the ethics of training journalists to be good journalists when journalism itself seems to be collapsing? The institutions are collapsing. There are so few jobs. The jobs that do exist don’t pay. You said, and I was so glad to hear this, that a labourer should get paid a wage for his work. But is there an ethical issue with training people for journalism who are never going to be able to use it at least in the institutional context that we came up through?

JB: Journalism is changing and has changed enormously in the past few years. What I say to young journalists now is if you want to start, if you want to be a journalist, be a journalist. Go online, start writing about things you know about, you hear about or you’re interested in. Try to build up your own online portfolio as it were. Because these days it’s fragmenting, but there are new amazing ways of covering news in greater depth, a particular interest topic, in a way that I think we used to struggle with in our day. Remember when you depended on your Filofax and everything you were connected with, you had to know someone who knew somebody who knew somebody? Nowadays you can go online and find a so-called expert instantly.

But then again, you build up that expertise so that you are the one. If your topic is, I don’t know, beekeeping in Western Ontario, you become the expert. So you know who the really good people are who know what they’re talking about when they talk about bees, or are they just kind of a bee commercial company that just wants to sell honey or something. We used to use this phrase at the BBC, although the BBC itself has been challenged by some of these new media, the phrase we used was, “People still need trusted guides” through this plethora of sources. If you decide that you want to be a journalist, become a trusted guide to some part of what’s going on in the world. And then people will come to you and you can develop that as a specialty.

C: If the institutions are collapsing, if the mainstream media institutions are transforming, what better grounding for journalistic fundamentals than Christian faith, which always propels you, regardless of anything, toward the truth, toward honesty and toward love of neighbour.

JB: Absolutely.

C: So you don’t write slanderous things about your neighbour. Not just because you might get sued, but because it’s against the foundation of your faith. It’s against the great commandment to love God and love your neighbour. It’s not just an ethic that’s been developed and handed down from some crusty editor. It’s actually intrinsic to who and what you are, to your identity.

JB: It’s foundational. Let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” Give the facts straight, don’t embellish them, don’t exaggerate them, none of that.

C: Just tell me a bit about your going to New York for a journalism conference. Is the gathering and the work of the organization, about being Christians in the media? Or is it about being Christian media?

JB: It’s about being Christians in the media. It’s very much encouraging them to be Christians in the mainstream, regular media and to thrive and do well in that environment.

C: Because there is a difference, isn’t there, between coming to the craft of journalism thinking that you’re going to use it to proselytize and thinking no, these are the beliefs that I hold most sacred to myself, I’m going to put them to use in my craft, in what I do?

JB: There’s a continuum actually. I think, for instance, that you could now ask because I’m choosing to focus on what’s happening to the global Church, “Well, am I now Christian media?” I don’t think necessarily I am, because I’m writing for a mainstream audience. That’s my intended audience—anyone and everyone. People who are Christians and people who are not Christians. So I’m not writing for people who I expect or assume to be coming from the same worldview as me. I think that’s where there are gradations. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying there’s the mainstream media and then there’s Christian media. I think some Christians in media are trying to do interesting things. I don’t think it’s a question of throwing one at one end and one at the other. I think there’s a bit of blurring going on in the middle.

C: I identify myself as a Catholic journalist, a Catholic obedient to the Church, but a journalist who is not going to lie on behalf of the Church. If I came across a story of child sexual abuse, I would not pretend it didn’t happen.

JB: My ethic, my driving principle, is the truth. And if that does at times make the Church look wrong, if clergy have been involved in abuse or whatever, then you’re right, you can’t just suppress that for the sake of giving the Church an easy time. Because I think it will actually come out in the end anyway, and I think our duty as journalists is to report anything and everything. Warts and all.

Having said all of that, I don’t think that means that you necessarily go out of your way to be abusive. You’re not digging for dirt all the time. You don’t want to become one of those journalists who’s always looking to dish dirt on people. I think by and large you’re trying to just tell the truth.

C: And tell the story. Your primary purpose is to tell the story.

JB: In a fair, balanced way rather than telling it for a particular end.

C: A heart might open for God’s grace to move in, or it might not; but nevertheless, you’ve told the story.

JB: That’s it.

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