In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Religion – a big Scottish story for the next decade or more?

RELIGIOUS affairs correspondents, who needs them?

Little did Scotland’s newspapers think they would need to genuflect in that direction at the beginning of the year.

They can’t say they weren’t warned. I suggested here on allmediascotland in January that this would be a big year for religion.

Pope Benedict XVI might even resign or retire from office, I suggested to the sound of muffled laughter and much scoffing on news desks across the land.

Well, Benedict did become the first pope to resign in 600 years, didn’t he, and Scotland’s media were left scrambling around for informed comment.

BBC Scotland, reduced to reporting the Pope had tatties and neeps for his dinner when he was last in Edinburgh, had to call in Robert Piggott, their London-based religion expert to give them a heads up.

And later on, heavyweight Scots journalist, Alan Little, was drafted in to make some insightful comment and give much-needed gravitas to these matters religious.

Then, as the world waited for the conclave to elect a successor, Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh announced he too was resigning and wouldn’t be going to the papal election in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

The Scottish media struggled through, with comment from prominent Catholics, academics mostly – but very few journalists, hardly any of them staffers.

Since the telephone lines to the Catholic Media Office were jammed with calls from across the world, many Scottish reporters will have been grateful for the information they could crib, mostly from the London-based Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Currently, the Scottish media has the ongoing circumstances of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation to cope with and the scandalous allegations that have followed in its wake.

Similar stories of clerical indiscretion and abuse have been running in Ireland for the past ten years while our media has sat on its hands and accepted Cardinal O’Brien’s word that this was ‘an Irish problem’.

Perhaps now we all know better, might this not be the moment when the next time a news editor interviews someone for a reporter’s job, he/she asks what they know about religious matters?

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is coming up in May and promises to be a meaty affair.

And in the next few months the new Pope, Francis I, and his Curia, will be announcing possible boundary changes for the Roman Catholic dioceses of Scotland and the appointment of new bishops.

It’s time for Scotland’s media to take its responsibilities seriously when it comes to reporting religious affairs.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.