On the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal a massive experiment in economic engineering is nearing completion, at least of its first stage. MediaCityUK is being built, literally and metaphorically, around the BBC. Some studio recordings have already been made (including A Question of Sport), and from May this year a significant number of operations will begin to be transplanted from their existing home at Television Centre in London’s White City, along with the hundreds of technical and broadcasting staff involved in making programmes. The construction of MediaCityUK was entirely contingent on the BBC’s decision to expand its production presence in the north of England, and the site in Salford was chosen after some intensive municipal scrapping between the Manchester and Salford City Councils.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into modern Britain, and into how decisions get taken. The port operations that made this area an economic powerhouse in the early 20th century fell rapidly into decline as the century neared its close, and the banks of the Ship Canal, once a kind of maritime aorta supplying the life-blood of economic prosperity and employment to the entire area, became wastelands of dereliction and decay. MediaCityUK is a much more ambitious scheme than its two predecessors (the Lowry Centre and Imperial War Museum North, on the Salford and Trafford banks of the canal respectively) but is modelled on their success. It’s a “partnership” between political authorities, private enterprise, and a quango – albeit an unusually rich and powerful one. I put partnership in inverted commas because that’s too cosy a word, with its implications of friendly cooperation and an almost altruistic collective yearning after a common good. The reality is rather less saccharine, and more like an arranged ménage-à-trois in which each party has its own agenda, whether it be making a profit, securing political capital, or seeking lower production costs. MediaCityUK might glide effortlessly like a swan on the Ship Canal, but under the surface is a struggle for advantage altogether less elegant.
A mobile phone snapshot of the BBC's studios at MediaCityUK
During a visit to the site last week, I came across an institution called The Anchor. Its publicity blurb tells us that it is “the MediaCityUK Chaplaincy [which] is open to people of all faiths and none”, that “it will be the place where honest business values can be celebrated”, and that “the Anchor will root the new city to its surroundings, providing a firm place from which to float ideas, grow and engage.” Well, it certainly seems that the writers of this publicity have absorbed the literary values of the community the Anchor intends to serve since if one removed the references to faith in the leaflet then it could have been advertising a media consultancy or business development guru.
One of the Anchor’s more popular events has been the bacon sarnie mornings (with suitable alternatives for the pork-averse) which, with the enticement of an early morning breakfast calorie boost, have been a means of making contact with the wide range of people currently employed on or visiting the site. Whilst initially some were wary of a dog-collar-sporting provider of victuals, these occasions have provided a platform for engagement and discussion, and perhaps the seeds of a greater sense of community.
I did not visit MediaCityUK alone, and many of those I was with seemed to be more impressed by the Anchor and its message than by the great and good from Peel Holdings (the developers), the BBC and Salford City Council whom we also met. But what should we make of all this, and what does it tell us about the current debates around the place of faith in society; about the allegation that it is now Christians in this country who are the victims of discrimination; and that the secular state is now preventing freedom of conscience and religion?
I was struck by the almost total absence of religion in the way that the role of The Anchor was described in its publicity. The references were seemingly entirely to concepts such as “community development”, to the fostering of “a sense of identity”, to values such as “respect”, “support”, even “humanism”. It was all about building links, making connections, creating partnerships. Although I discovered that Morning Prayer is also offered along with the bacon sandwiches, albeit not at the same time, such aspects of the Anchor’s work seemed somewhat under-stated, even apologetic. I make this observation not as a criticism, but merely as a way of illuminating the awkwardness of the current relations between the secular and the sacred in our society. It seemed that everyone acceded to the notion that the normal everyday discourse of secular concerns is missing something of importance. My fellow visitors, not bound by any religious allegiance, certainly felt that the Anchor was identifying some need that was not being met in other ways. And yet these needs are not remotely religious. They are needs for community, to look after and to be looked after.
It seems that on the one hand secular society, the big, bad world of commerce and politics, is unable to articulate these deficiencies without embarrassment, without feeling that these human concerns are somehow not truly their business: their true business being making money, or securing political advantage. On the other the Church seems equally embarrassed to admit that it has anything to contribute that isn’t merely greasing the wheels of secular society, of ensuring the presence of “honest business values” as The Anchor’s media-savvy publicity puts it. Both sides of this divide seem to need the other to offer them legitimacy and purpose. Without the veil of religion, Peel Holdings was never going to provide any direct input to community development; but in contradiction to those that claim religion is now demonised, Peel felt it legitimate to provide the Anchor with free office space, thus enabling it to tick the box of social responsibility. The Church no longer appears to have the confidence to sell its wares directly, but relies on a secular agenda that maybe is informed by faith, but in which faith is no longer a necessary part. And just in case anyone might not appreciate its commitment to the secular morality of the age, The Anchor assures us that it works “within the remit of Equality and Diversity (note the capitals) legislation…irrespective of race and ethnic origin, gender and gender identity, disability, mental health, sexual orientation, age, religion and belief, learning abilities, economic and social need.” It reads like a modern creed, the new equivalent of “we believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
But I suspect this seemingly post-modern diffidence is nothing new. It is, it seems to me, merely the latest and equivalent expression of that disjuncture between the sacred and the secular that was hitherto symbolised by the hapless curate wielding a table-tennis bat, and offering the love of God via a youth club and its concomitant opportunity to snog in the toilets.