In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Religion could be the saving of Scotland’s newspapers

NEWSPAPERS, which are increasingly threatened with closure through loss of circulation and advertising, could find their salvation in religion… or, more accurately, in the coverage of religious affairs.

However, the Scottish Press continues to be more interested in affairs amongst religious figures than in religious affairs.

Coverage of religion-related matters in this country is minimal compared to the USA and other countries in Europe, where every quality publication employs specialist religious affairs reporters.

Huge magazines like Time and Newsweek and the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers have their man or woman in the Vatican and journalistic experts on Islam and other major and minor religions and sects on their staff. Seventy full-time Vatican-based journalists from media across the world will accompany Pope Benedict to the UK in September.

Nearer home, just across the water in the Irish Republic, where circulations are holding up despite the recession, Dublin’s two main newspapers, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, both have religious affairs correspondents, the latter a Scot – former Herald reporter, John Cooney.

Lanarkshire-born Cooney has broken exclusive after exclusive on the child abuse scandal which has rocked the Catholic Church not just in Ireland but across the world.

Brother of former Radio Clyde MD, Paul Cooney, and cousin of veteran sportswriter, Brian Cooney, John is one of the most talked-about journalists in Ireland. He is likely to be on the shortlist for a major prize in this year’s Irish Press Awards.

Highly respected, he has proved himself to be worth his weight in gold to his newspaper – in terms of publicity through his many appearances on radio and television, nationally and internationally, to comment on religious affairs and politics in Ireland.

Here in Scotland, however, our newspapers have shied away from covering religious affairs – apart from the child abuse scandal, which they dip into and dip out of erratically and often without setting it in context.

The Herald did, however, give extensive space to the public dispute over the prayers and hymns and music being prepared for the open air Mass at Bellahouston in Glasgow during the visit to Scotland of Pope Benedict XVI on September 16, much of it written by readers in its letters’ pages.

Even the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh doesn’t get the coverage it used to receive in the media. This is despite the interest and involvement of the national church in controversial issues like asylum seekers, nuclear weapons and, more locally, the recruitment of clergy, church closures and parish mergers. Other denominations feature hardly at all.

This is quite remarkable for reporters like me who were reared on the Bishops in the Kirk row and other religion-related controversies in the old Scottish Daily Express under the editorship of the late Ian McColl in the 1960s.

Scotland’s new millennium newspapers appear to have taken an approach similar to that of Alistair Campbell when Tony Blair’s abrasive spin doctor famously announced: “We don’t do God.”

Perhaps newspaper editors and marketing people should sit up and take a bit more notice of the numbers regularly paying homage to the deity?

A census carried out by the Catholic Church in Scotland, admittedly a few years ago but not all that long ago – 2002 to be exact – showed that 570,000 people in this country went to a church of a Sunday, whereas the average attendance for the six Scottish Premier League football matches at weekends is about 90,000.

Yet, while page after page of the Scottish press is devoted to soccer day in, day out, there is practically no coverage of religion. A clear indicator of how much interest there is in religion should have hit home with newspapers when, while the public dispute over the liturgy for the Papal Mass was going on, the story was at the top of the ‘most read’ section on the Herald website.

Did they miss this, or did they choose to ignore it? Perhaps not, since I am reliably informed that some of Scotland’s national newspapers are contemplating producing souvenir editions for the Papal Visit.

The attitude of the media to religious affairs will wash out in the coverage of the forthcoming Papal Visit. The fear expressed by Bishop Philip Tartaglia, the prelate in charge of Scotland’s Catholic media communications strategy, is that the media may simply “fan the flames” of the child abuse controversy rather than concentrating on the Papal Visit itself.

Let’s hope that there is in-depth coverage of the Papal Visit. And that it will be a catalyst for a change in attitude in the Scottish media to religious affairs coverage.

By this I mean balanced coverage of the controversies as well as the good things that the churches do. This could lead to beneficial outcomes for both the press, who could do with the circulation boost, and the churches – all the churches – who would welcome the publicity given that that they too are having problems with clergy recruitment and attendance numbers.

All of this will depend, of course, on whether the media coverage is fair and whether the churches come to have confidence once again that religious affairs will receive the coverage they are convinced they merit in the secular press.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning newspaper editor, reporter and columnist. He has been a special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, and media adviser to David Martin, vice-president of the European Parliament. He was, for four years, media adviser to the chair of the UK Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a life member of the National Union of Journalists. He is also a former managing editor of Flourish and of the Scottish Catholic Observer.