Bad news for Premier Christian Radio

What connection does Kate Adie have with a trainee sign engineer who committed suicide? Andrew Brown finds that the British today have little appetite for religious stories.
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The Independent Online
The Independent subscribes to the services of all the main news agencies, so that we can keep watch on important stories as they develop. There were, for example, 118 agency stories about Hugh Grant in the first 72 hours after he was arrested in Los Angeles. I find this statistic a stirring tribute to the industry of my profession. In the same period, there were 84 stories which had some connection with Christianity. This connection might be quite tenuous but an examination of the stories tells us something about the role and importance of Christianity in the modern world.

The test for inclusion was that a story should contain one of the words "pope", "church", "bishop" or "Christian". The selection threw up a fair number of murders and suicides, when it was often quite a puzzle to determine what the connection with my search terms was. If you got assaulted in Church Lane, then you appear in my list. So, too, does Christian Pritchett, a 21-year-old trainee sign engineer who drank four pints of strong lager while working late one evening, climbed up one of the factory walls, fell off it, and died.

Other mis-hits include a driver who killed a young mother in Bishop's Stortford; an item about Kate Adie returning to her old school, which had "church" in its name, and so on. This world of giddying fragments in which "Christian" survives only as a term for "first" name encompasses most of the religious news in Britain.

In fact, of the 19 English stories over the last three days, only nine use the terms "Christian", "bishop" or "church" in a religious context. Six of these are versions of the same story: the differing treatments given by provincial news agencies to the Hereford Baptist church whose new PA system interrupts sermons when it picks up broadcast police messages. Two stories deal with an athlete who refuses to run on Sundays. One concerns a speech made by the Bishop of Chester in defence of the National Parks. And that's it. Christianity in Britain is not a source of news the average reader will find indispensable.

Abroad, the picture is transformed. There is lots of Christianity out there; nor is there ever any difficulty in working out its connection with murder, war, or any of the other horsemen of the apocalypse. In Sicily, a Roman Catholic archbishop has just been charged with defrauding the Common Agricultural Policy. In Rome, the Pope is meeting the ecumenical patriarch; the background stories make it clear that, with the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats fighting a war in Bosnia, chances of reconciliation between the churches are slim. In Northern Ireland, Gordon Wilson, who forgave the men who murdered his daughter at a church service, is buried. His is the only one of these stories in which the religious can take real pleasure.

This is all very bad news for Premier Christian Radio, the new London Christian Radio station. In a glaze of mingled horror and boredom, I have been listening to it while driving most evenings and mornings since it was launched a fortnight ago. It really is very bad indeed. Some of its problems could be solved by greater professionalism. In this category comes the presenter who announced the news headlines one morning and forgot to put the tape in, so his breathless spiel was followed by 20 seconds of silence, then an emergency jingle. Others seem more difficult to solve: one Friday evening between 7.30 and 7.45 there was only one advertisement (for the Radio Times) and that was played only once. The only other advertisements I have heard have been for Christian holidays to Israel and - bizarrely - a firm which claims to ship packages both for the Saudi government and for Christian organisations around the world.

There are no signs here of a station which can reach further than the evangelical ghetto; and if I want a thoughtful discussion of the moral implications of a story, I am far more likely to find it on Radio 4. The only slick and professional bits I have heard have been imported from America. There, of course, there is no Radio 4. That is one of the important things wrong with that unfortunate country; because it means that there is no scrupulous, neutral place of public discussion where the middle classes can work out what is happening. In America, a large part of that work is carried out by churches instead. In America, you find really interesting news stories, like the two women who have been defying a court injunction to stay away from a Catholic church near Pittsburgh: their crime had been to pray so loudly that the priest couldn't hear his own words; and to refuse to shut up.#