There was a telling moment on the Today programme yesterday morning when its seasoned presenter, Nick Robinson (pictured), was wrong-footed during a live interview he was conducting with a survivor of coronavirus. Hylton Murray-Philipson, 61, had spent five days in intensive care, many of them on a ventilator, and had been invited on to talk about the experience. But scarcely had the interview begun when Mr Murray-Philipson said something unexpected. Having just listened to Thought for the Day with Bishop James Jones, and it being Good Friday, he thought it appropriate to mention, he said, that in the moment of his greatest distress and struggle whilst in intensive care, he had a powerful image of Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee. “I would like to think that was Jesus Christ coming to me, and helping me in my hour of need,” he said.
As both a practising Catholic and one who has spent 30 years as a journalist in BBC News, two thoughts occurred to me as I listened to these words. The first was what a wonderful, reassuring experience that must have been; the second, how on earth would Nick Robinson respond to such a stark expression of faith? I didn’t have long to wait: “Well, it’s so powerful that you have that, partly, I have to say, partly because of the drugs you have to be on in order to be on a ventilator machine, which plays tricks with the mind doesn’t it, really?” the presenter said.
It took another former BBC journalist, Chris Landau, to point out that this was not the response that Christians most wanted to hear. “I don’t relish pointing out the casual on-air dismissal of sincere religious experience,” he said on Twitter, but “Christian faith is not about ‘tricks with the mind’, in intensive care or anywhere else.” Nick Robinson, it must be said, responded quickly and graciously. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to dismiss his or anyone else’s faith,’ he tweeted back. Robinson explained that he had been told that Murray-Philipson had a series of vivid dreams while in intensive care and that, as it happened, his own dreams when on a ventilator had also been vivid and memorable.