The Press Saturday, December 13th 1997

"God, Andrew, can you think of a Muslim for Christmas?" It is the busy time of year for Godslot editors; the friend who rang me up and asked that question was only putting as pointedly as possible the eternal dilemma of the people who edit broadsheet newspapers' Saturday religious columns. All year round they toil, largely unnoticed, entirely unsung. So this year let them be hymned a little, or at least hummed. At this time of year, the only alternative is to look back on what has passed, and that is not to be contemplated, especially if you work in the General Synod communications department.

When you consider the difficulties they labour under, the Godslots in the broadsheet papers are surprisingly worthwhile. I can probably manage a few sour or bitter sentiments, as even the most saintly editor can, when pressed, since I invented the Independent's godslot (Faith and Reason) and edited it for most of ten years. I wrote it, too, for quite a lot of that time, and still do, once a month. I am sure that there were people who did it better, but when I was editor it was so much less trouble to write it myself than to bully or cajole someone else into doing it.

"Our readers love religion" says Ruth Gledhill; and this is one justification for giving it a regular space in the paper. Newspapers do try to give readers the stories that they want, if only as a way to give advertisers the readers that they want. So the religiously interested seem to editors to form an identifiable sub-group, like people who are interested in computers, cars, or the architecture. Unlike all those groups, though, the faithful bring no advertisers with them. The Daily Mail's Monday New Age supplement is crammed with advertising for courses, books, and medicines, but Christian advertising hardly exists, and, where it does exist, is of the sort that gets newspapers into trouble, like the claims of Morris Cerullo. So, though everyone who has worked as a religious affairs correspondent for a few years comes up with the idea of a "God page", only the Times has ever run one.

This should have been one of the more important developments in religious journalism this year, but it was launched this autumn so quietly that many readers may still be unaware of its existence. I was watching for it with unusual zeal, since it takes pieces from me, and still missed a couple of weeks after it started: the page is hidden towards the back of the weekend section, along with gardening and pets. It allows the Times to combine the two main approaches to a Godslot: the devotional and the sardonic, on one page. Other papers plump for one or the other, though the Daily Telegraph compromises with the devotional Edward Norman on Saturdays and the sardonic Clifford Longley on Fridays. The two approaches reflect a profound confusions about whether the readers is assumed to be a participant or an observer in the activities described. In theory, the religious sections of the paper ought to be for participants, rather than observers, but that is hard for journalists to understand, for some good reasons, among the usual bad ones, idleness and ignorance. All journalism is balanced between observing and participating. It is always recounting things to a third party, and so rightly suspicious of taking anything at its own valuation.

This confusion is deepened by the problems of a multi-faith society ("God, Andrew, can you think of a Muslim for Christmas?). If anyone wanted to argue against the Prince of Wales's desire, once expressed, to be a "defender of faith" they should only try to edit a godslot, or a radio programme, on that basis. To take one obvious example, it is simply impossible to be a participant Christian and not at the same time an observer, however friendly, in Islam: this principle can be generalised until it is impossible to have newspapers at all. If God slots are for participants, then one has to define quite narrowly what it is that they participate in. This is why the Independent's godslot has remained tightly focussed on Christianity throughout its life. My principle was always that Rabbis were welcome to write, but only about other Rabbis.

On the other hand, the tradition of addressing only participants, or preaching to the converted, is probably responsible for the sheer awfulness of most of the pieces submitted for godslot, and, perversely, for the popularity of Rabbis. "They are so well educated, and they write so well" said Ruth Gledhill. Perhaps this is because Rabbis are hired by their congregations, and so learn to make people think and enjoy it or else they starve. It is a rare Bishop who can be trusted to produce something for which we should be proud to ask 45p in the market place: and one who is so competent will usually have better things to do with his time, and even those who had something to say soon find it has been worn away by constant repetition.

It is not only the converted who are to blame for the low standard of preaching. Expectations outside the church are if anything lower than inside it: my local paper has a regular godslot by a local free churchman of such truly startling awfulness that I sometimes wonder whether it is not all a spoof by the British Humanist Association: "Make sure Jesus is the gardener of your soul, then one day He will transplant you to heaven!"

This is why, after a while, almost any editor of a godslot will fall back on a small circus of regular and reasonably predictable contributors: newspapers are, amongst other things, organisations, so nothing disturbs them as much as novelty. The Times currently has four; the Independent five or six; the Daily Telegraph one. Only the Guardian has a more open policy. The trend is clearly against it, though. The Times's Faith page has three regular slots, and only one is open to amateurs. The most depressing lesson a godslot can teach is that journalism is often done best by journalists.

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