Having a had a fairly rubbish time with the media in the last couple of weeks, I was interested to see someone else possibly getting the treatment today. He’s more accustomed to it than I am. He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Let’s get one thing straight at the beginning: I am not complaining, whinging, scrooging, bleating or ranting. I am (quite properly) raising a question to which I think a lot of people would like an intelligent answer in relation to the media.
This morning I did a long interview with a radio station about the furore about Christmas carols set of by the Sunday Telegraph report on my book Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?. The questioning roamed widely and covered everything from why Christian leaders avoid ‘speaking out’ for fear of being misquoted, misrepresented, ridiculed or rubbished to how media ‘stories’ actually run (news today, comment tomorrow, blogs the day after, hate mail for a week, then finished). We noted how an observation taken out of context then gets reported (in my case) as ‘complaining’ which then gets passed on as ‘disdaining’, ‘pouring scorn on’, ‘rubbishing’, etc – leading to me being accused of trying to ban carol singing! Bizarre. But, despite this experience (not the first time – I got turned over by Mugabe’s propaganda machine in Zimbabwe in 2007 – I urged a proper and serious engagement with the media – recognising the realities and pressures under which journalists work – but also a refusal to accept that ‘the way it is’ is the only way it can or should be.
So, back to Canterbury. The Telegraph has a front-page article based on an interview between the Telegraph’s George Pitcher (whose blog is always worth reading) and Dr Williams. The headline proclaims:
Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Labour treats us like oddballs’: The Archbishop of Canterbury has accused the Government of treating all religious believers as “oddities” and “eccentric”.
The article (co-written with Martin Beckford) then proceeds to report some salient bits of Rowan’s interview and is reasonably OK. The problem is the interjection of the words ‘accuses’ and ‘Labour’ by the sub-editor in the headline. This makes it appear that the Archbishop launched a broadside against the current government, making hard-hitting accusations about their attitude and policies.
Yet the reality is that Rowan had an intelligent and reasonable conversation with George Pitcher in which he observed that the problem is not purely that of the current government, but rather of the whole political class. The cultural pool we swim in these days is one in which assumptions are made about (a) secularism, (b) religion as a ‘problem to be solved’ rather than a gift to be recognised and valued, (c) the compartmentalisation of life (derived from the spurious post-Enlightenment dichotomy between private and public and between faith and fact) and (d) accessibility to the public discourse on precisely these matters and their implications.
The good thing about the Telegraph’s coverage is that its front-page article points to a longer article by George Pitcher which then includes an audio clip of the interview itself. It is when you hear the interview clip that you realise that Rowan wasn’t chucking around wild accusations, but making some intelligent observations in the course of an intelligent conversation.
I guess some of my criticisms of current journalism are answered when the written word is accompanied by (even an edited bit of) real audio/video in order that the reader can then get a better idea of what the interview actually sounded like. It made me wish I had been there to listen to the whole exchange.
The question I alluded to at the beginning of this is simply whether those of us who expose ourselves to the media have a right to expect justifiable coverage rather than just ‘any’ coverage? Do journalists have a responsibility to respect the truth of a ‘story’ and the integrity of the subject – or are they right to claim that ‘any publicity is good publicity, so shut up and put up with potential misrepresentation’? They will argue that they have done a good job by getting a story on the front page that points the reader through to the more detailed article and the online audio/video – and they have – but is that the end of the matter and all that can be said? Is it enough simply to say: ‘Well, at least it started a lively debate!’?
I don’t necessarily expect answers to this stuff, but I do want to keep the questions alive. The media, whose job it is (among other things) to hold the rest of us to account and to scrutinise ‘power’, cannot hold themselves above accountability or reject the questioning put to them by those of us who engage with them.
I am doing a lecture in Lent on ‘Ethics and the Media’ and this is beginning to occupy my mind already.