Life is a bit busy at the moment and there doesn’t seem to be much time for blogging. However, despite watching Germany play Spain in the company of German friends (who are not happy…) and reading about the reality of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (66% cuts in Croydon’s voluntary services budget – of which more anon…), my real surprise is how easily people believe what they read in speculative (mischievous?) media reports.

Recently – in relation to World Cup prayers – Ruth Gledhill described me in the Times as ‘one of the favourites to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury’. By the time this reached the other side of the world, I was ‘the favourite to succeed…’. It doesn’t take long to be made an object of ridicule.

Now, apart from the obvious silliness of this suggestion (among other things: Rowan Williams isn’t leaving, I’m not a diocesan bishop, I lack the gifts, academic qualifications and experience … and would prefer to boil my head), the obvious question the reader should be asking is simply: favourite among whom?

Did the journalist do some research? Did she ask a few mates in the pub? Did she ask the House of Bishops or a scientific sample of clergy around the Church of England? No. It is baseless and meaningless. Fortunately. So, the reader should look at such stuff and dismiss it as baseless fabrication. It might add colour to a piece in the newspaper, but it should be dismissed by the reader as nonsense.

I have ignored this until now. But, reading the mischievous speculation last weekend about the nomination of the new Bishop of Southwark, I thought I’d have a fresh look at the language. (Linguistic analysis of texts isn’t just the preserve of under-occupied pedants; it can be useful in shining a light on reality – as we discovered when training in it at university.)

According to the Telegraph last Sunday, a particular person was ‘understood to be the favoured candidate’. What does that mean? I have served on one of these commissions and there is no such thing as a ‘favoured candidate’. There is a longlist which gets reduced to a shortlist and from that a series of votes comes up with the final name(s). To speak of a ‘favoured candidate’ is nonsense – the most that could be said is that a particular person favours a particular candidate.

Then the article goes on to say:

Members of the Crown Nominations Commission, the body responsible for selecting bishops, will vote this week on whether Dr John’s name should now be put forward to the Prime Minister for final approval.

Er… the CNC will vote on which of half a dozen names should be put forward to the PM. That’s different.

And if that isn’t enough, the piece goes on to state (as if fact) that ‘the overwhelming majority of clergy in the diocese are believed to be very keen’ to have a particular candidate as their bishop. Really? How does he know? Has anyone asked ‘the majority of the clergy’, let alone the ‘overwhelming majority’? This is speculative nonsense dressed up as statistical fact. It should be dismissed as such by anyone who can read with their brain engaged.

And don’t get me started on the way in which disconnected observations are associated as if they were intimitely connected.

In today’s update (again, speculative) the language has shifted interestingly from Sunday’s edition. On Sunday the Crown Nominations Commission is a ‘confidential meeting’; now, apparently, it is a ‘secret meeting’ which took place at a ‘secret location’. How sinister. Confidentiality is something we respect (allegedly), but secrecy implies something to hide. Yet this is purely in the mind of the writer. Clergy are said to be ‘furious’ – really? Who? How many? And the candidate was ‘considered the frontrunner’? By whom? The journalist who was making the story?

The point of this ramble is to encourage a closer questioning of what we are being fed. The words matter. Journalists might want to tell a story and raise temperatures – that is fine, that is their job. But the readers should engage brains and not take seriously this sort of language without seriously questioning it first. This isn’t knocking journalists – I am more interested in how the readers read rather than how the writers write.

And if you are wondering why I am not commenting on the person at the heart of the speculation, the answer is simple. He could do without this stuff and I have no intention of commenting on what I don’t know about – the conversations or decisions of the CNC in which I wasn’t involved and about which I know nothing.

After all, it was confidential. Wasn’t it?

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