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Religion and Politics on Have Your Say and World Have Your Say Forums

This research examined how talk about religion is facilitated and conducted on the BBC online discussion forum Have Your Say (HYS), for 24 debates on HYS message boards linked to the WS site but run by BBC news on-line, between January and July 2007. For comparison, we also examined debate about religion and politics when it occurred on the daily phone-in programme World Have Your Say (WHYS),which grows out of a daily blog, focusing on the period from February to August 2008. Analysis of debates was supported by interviews with BBC staff, to determine how far this type of online forum functions as a diasporic contact zone and global public sphere, providing spaces for democratic debate denied by repressive regimes and enabling public discussion at a global level.

Research Aims

  1. To investigate how topics related to religion and politics are framed and discussed on interactive forums run by BBC online and BBCWS and related to BBCWS broadcasting.
  2. To investigate how forum architecture, moderation and platform interactivity influenced discussion of these topics.
  3. To see if such forums provided any evidence of ‘media contraflow’, that is of user generated contented being circulated by the BBC, or impacting on BBC production.  

Research Questions

  1. How are political and religious topics framed and discussed on interactive forums run by BBC online and BBCWS?
  2. How does forum architecture, moderation, and platform interactivity influence discussion of these topics?
  3. To what extent does the BBCWS archive its aim of fostering global conversations through these forums?
  4. Do these forums provide any evidence of ‘media contraflow’, that is of user generated contented being circulated by the BBC, or impacting on BBC production? 

Taking the HYS message boards first, we found evidence that the forums operate both as contact zones for people with transnational, cultural and religious ties, and as an arena for global debate, where some users actively seek out others with perspectives different from their own. However, we also found that use of news events to generate public discussion tends to reinforce conflictual understandings of religion (conflictual framing), a pattern re-enforced by some technical features of forums. We argue that editorial anxiety about the inflammatory potential of religious topics produces a style of moderation which highlights a tension between the BBC’s brand of impartiality and its aim to broaden public participation. In assessing the democratising potential of such forums, we argue that the diversity of global participation demonstrated should not obscure the absence of those unable to participate, and note the advantages afforded to participants with higher levels of access/technical competence.

Turning to WHYS, we found that while the WHYS blog remains a small service compared with bbcnews.com, its contribution to developing global citizenship, based on discursive communicative practice and nurtured by a shared listening experience, may be disproportionate to its size. As well as developing this communication community, it also produces media contraflows, as these debates feed into the WHYS programme, and may be picked up by BBC News. In a highly competitive, commercial and centralised news production environment, WHYS has succeeded in bringing marginalised voices into global conversation. While it remains to be seen how long and well this can be sustained and developed in that environment, the established reputation of the programme, the continued growth of the blog, and the evident passion of its staff give grounds for hope.

Project contact: 

Dr. David Herbert, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, d.e.j.herbert@rug.nl

    Project members: 

  • David Herbert is Lecturer in Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen, and he worked at the Open University from 1996-2009. His main research interests are in religion and social integration, and religion and media. His most recent research project was on cross-community programmes in Northern Ireland (2005-8), and before Tuning In he also worked with Professor Gillespie on Shifting Securities, investigating the role of media consumption on perceptions of security.

    Tracey Black is an anthropologist with a special interest in South Asia and material culture. She has a PhD in anthropology from University College London and has carried out ethnographic research in Bihar, India. She is currently conducting research for a UK charity about the effectiveness of one-to-one mentoring for children from a BME background who are experiencing behavioural difficulties.