How the media covered the riots: moralising without a prayer

August 24, 2011

As moral outrage spilled out in newsprint during the riots that hit Britain’s streets a fortnight ago, the UK media largely overlooked the role of culture and the work of faith communities.


Some 2,800 people have now been arrested for their part in the chaos that was condemned by both the right and the left-leaning press.  Thirteen hundred have appeared in court so far.


Quasi-religious language has been employed as sociologists, economists, politicians and psychologists have attempted to give an answer to the rioting, looting and violence across London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and other areas this summer.


A Guardian editorial labels the riots as ‘indisputably wrong’and puts the acts of violence down to ‘individual wickedness’, while the Daily Telegraph in an article blaming the riots on the ‘moral delusion’ of liberalism described the behaviour of the looters as ‘callous selfishness’.


The appeal to some form of objective morality which is found in the comment pieces of national newspapers is largely made without reference to religious belief itself.


Journalist Sarah Sands makes the same point, noting in the Evening Standard that the efforts of believers have largely been ignored by both the press and the politicians.


‘The party leaders sound like Baptist preachers in their dismay over the values of our society but none has actually mentioned faith,’ she writes. ‘Yet in the stricken communities, faith has an enormous role.’


She adds: ‘Everyone talks of youth clubs giving a moral framework to teenagers but no-one mentions the churches, which do diligent pastoral work. David Cameron and Ed Miliband daren’t mention religion in case it freaks out secular voters. But the churches and mosques are there just the same and have been talking about right and wrong long before the prime minister dared broach it.’


With the reticence of mainstream journalists preventing them from seeking out the religious angle in the riots, it was down to faith leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, who appeared on the BBC’s Question Time, to make their own voices heard.


But here the religious leaders were often critical of the government and its moralising about ‘breakdown Britain’. Even they were not speaking up about religious believers on the ground taking action.


Andrew Brown, editor of the Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, told Lapido the absence of the religious news angle in mainstream press is down to two factors: the negative perception of religious people and the criteria of hard news.


‘There are two factors at work. One is the general feeling in the media that religious people are just weird. This is of course heightened as we write more about the US.  So the thing to do with them is to ignore them. But that in itself wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t stop the media writing about Muslims.’


And here we find one major news story that brought faith to the front pages of riot coverage: the story of Tariq Jahan, whose 21-year-old son Haroon was murdered in Birmingham along with two other men as they tried to protect their community from the arson and looting. His dignity in the face of tragedy captured the heart of national journalists and he has been hailed as an example of piety.


Writing in the Daily Mail, AN Wilson said: ‘Tariq Jahan is a deeply impressive man, and like the great majority of Muslims in this country, he is hard-working, clean-living, guided in his conduct by religious belief, and unshakeable in his devotion to the ideal of family life.’


Wilson then makes the link between Muslim Mr Jahan and more than 700 Sikhs in Southall who lined up to defend their gurdwaras from possible attacks.


He does not mention Christians who mobilised in their thousands to take action in the wake of the riots and rallied to reclaim their communities.


Clean-ups were organised, prayer vigils were held and peace marches were attended by Christians, thousands of whom rallied immediately to do something practical, as well as pray in the pews for the peace of the nation.


It is only in religious media that we find the true extent of the hard work carried out by Christians post-riots.


The Church Times reports how in Tottenham, one church provided food and drink to people who had lost their homes.


At Westminster Central Hall, hundreds gathered to pray for the country, while scores of prayer vigils and marches took place up and down the country in both areas that were affected by the violence and those that were not.


In Tottenham, Lapido director Jenny Taylor met black Christian boys with mics and amplifiers out on Tottenham High Road bigging it up for peace in Jesus, and bravely sporting T-shirts with 'From Sinners to Saints' printed on them. 


She spoke to bar owner Niche Mufwankolo who lost everything after his pub, the Pride of Tottenham was trashed.  He escaped a knife-wielding mob through a tiny window onto the roof.  He told her, but the Guardian did not pick it up: 'I have to forgive them.  If God could forgive the killers of his son, then I can carry on too.'


A.N. Wilson in his Daily Mail article ignores Christianity and opts for religious belief in general, maintaining the requisite default position for the oh-gorblimey brigade who read the Mail. He believes ‘faith in Christianity itself began to unravel long ago, and the majority of those whose forebears were Christian are now completely secular. They would not even recognise simple Bible stories’.


Brown says there is another more technical reason for the resistance of the media to credit the church for its work. ‘For decades now, the newspapers have covered religion through the prism of church politics,’ he told Lapido. ‘It’s not interested in what people do, but what they argue about, and what they decide. There are good technical reasons for this.’


He adds: ‘But of course, most of the time, the parish story is more important and more real. Parishes actually do things, and synods on the whole, don’t.


‘When you couple this with the difficulty most journalists experience in getting out of the office at all, it becomes obvious that no-one is going to see what goes on at a faith-based level because no-one is going to be looking.


‘Most voluntary organisations could make the same complaint, of course. I don’t remember reading anything about what the social services in the affected boroughs were doing.’


But one medium in which religious people were able both to rally the troops and showcase the good work they were doing is that of social media.


As the hashtag #prayforlondon began ‘trending’ on Twitter and eventually turned into #prayforengland as the riots spread across the country, religious people were spreading their own news via social media.


Says Andrew Brown: ‘Using Twitter as a news feed and filter means that we can get stories through church networks more directly than before, and that certainly helps.’ 


Sally Hitchener, vicar of St John's Ealing, told Lapido:  'As Ealing was attacked many in my church were talking about it on Facebook and Twitter. I posted on my Facebook wall that we wanted to respond in prayer and action and how we would do this and people passed the message on.


'We met to pray (as we always do) first thing in the morning and a lot of our church came to pray before work or to find out how they could help.


'St John's opened for locals to drop in to say a prayer and to offer cups of tea and a listening ear from 8am  the morning after and through the week. We had a steady stream of people through that, many of whom had turned to prayer during the terror of the rioters that were on their streets.


'A number of our young professionals worked with the clean up effort and many took the day off work to be part of this.


'We visited all local businesses to show we care, offer prayer and practical help and comforting bible verses - we found people really appreciated hearing that we (and the God we represent) cared for there business, homes and families.'


 Irena Kuzsta, 41, was another Christian who harnessed the power of social media to bring together her own ‘broom brigade’ to clean up Salford after seeing what was being done to help elsewhere. 


She told Lapido: ‘There were pictures of people in London with brooms sweeping up and I wanted to do the same in Salford; I didn't want Salford to be forgotten.


‘Never having used Twitter before, I tweeted that I would help organise a clear-up and before I knew it my message was going round and supporters were offering their help.


‘How could I possibly say our youth need to find spirituality, such as Christianity, if we're to mend a broken society? What right have I got to say anything at all if I'm not participating in the solution the following day?’


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