I have just spent 24 hours at St George’s, Windsor, for a Church & Media Consultation. This has happened twice before: in 2000 and 2005. The aim is to bring together serious players in the British media and the Church of England for a frank and constructive (as well as instructive) conversation. The level of representation this time was lower than last – for example, no national newspaper editors – but the conversation takes seriously both Church and media.
Apart from being enjoyable and stimulating, it was also illuminating and challenging. Chatham House rules apply, so I am not at liberty to say who said what about what to whom. Which, in fact, is a good example of where confidentiality allows for a conversation you couldn’t have if everything had to be ‘transparent’. Confidentiality is not the same as secrecy.
It seems to me that this distinction is more important today than some thought it was a week ago. Wikileaks has again put into the public domain records of communications the interlocutors thought were confidential. I think Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was right to maintain (on the BBC) that the news media which edited the leaked documents for publication did so in order to ensure that the story which would ultimately be told was a coherent one – rather than simply having millions of documents dumped into the electronic ether. The problem, however, is not now primarily whether news media should have got involved with ethically ‘dirty’ material, but what such leaks will do to the nature of confidential diplomacy.
Do we want everything our diplomats say and do to be regarded as public property? Even if such disclosure (a) inhibits honest or speculative communication – often necessary if options are to be explored before judgements are reached, or (b) betrays information that might be needed in case of conflict? Or are even these questions now redundant in a world of electronic access which renders any electronic communication subject to exposure? Clearly, there is a price to be paid for refusing people a forum in which they can have a non-public conversation.
The justification offered for leaking is ‘the public interest’. Last weekend the News of the World published a story based on the so-called Lambeth List, the confidential list of clergy who have been disciplined because of misdemeanours or who have decided to relinquish their orders (often for good and honest reason). The justification in an email was that ‘publication is clearly in the public interest’. My question is this: was it of interest to the public (and, if so, which public) or in the public interest? The distinction matters.
This question was also raised at the Church & Media Consultation at Windsor. Apart from rehearsing some serious observations about ‘religious illiteracy’ in the media (but not confined to the media), we were looking for creative, positive and opportune ways of engaging with the media… starting from a recognition of the realities and pressures under which (particularly) news journalists operate. The media professionals were asking for the Church to be more confident about its ‘story’, its communicative ability, its resources (some very able communicators) and its possession of what people are hungry for.
But this distinction between ‘public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’ kept rearing its head. A story that is interesting to a particular community might not be of importance to the wider community addressed by particular media organs. Equally, a matter of public interest might not be communicable in a form that makes it of interest to the audience. However, ‘public interest’ should not be used as a cover for telling tales that tittilate some while destroying the subjects – when the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good.
One of the most interesting questions to be raised at Windsor was the inherent good fit of the Church of England to the direction in which the media are drifting: local. Digital media are increasingly focusing on ‘the local’ and ‘the local’ is precisely where the Church is. Frustration was expressed with the fact that the national media are interested only in the politics of conflict in the Church (so they cover the General Synod with its peculiar preoccupations) while remaining ignorant of what goes on in every community. Now, that is not a complaint! The politics of women bishops are inevitably more interesting to the Times than what a vicar is doing to support sanctuary-seekers in an otherwise unremarkable South London inner-urban parish. Indeed, it is the Church’s responsibility to tell its stories locally and to value the local in the face of the dominant messaging of the national media.
I guess this is where people like me fit in. Local people (not just bishops and other clergy) can use the connectedness of social networking and new media forms (such as blogs) to tell stories, challenge prejudices, correct misrepresentation and form a locus of interest, communication and confidence.
I would argue that this is both of interest to the public and in the public interest.
(And isn’t today’s snow in Croydon just beautiful?)