When I have sounded off about the media in the past, one of the journalists to respond with vigour has been Martin Beckford of the Daily Telegraph. Some of his responses have been illuminating and helpful – especially where he took time and trouble to address some of the charges I and others were levelling at journalists. So, despite thinking that the Telegraph has to be handled like a tabloid these days, I do respect Martin and I listen to what he says.
In this week’s Church of England Newspaper he asks why, when politicians and other public personalities don’t whinge about their treatment in the press, the church (or, let’s face it, bishops) does. It’s a reasonable question and, if I was in Martin’s position, one I would pose with a degree of frustration. I am one of the people who exasperates him, but at least I don’t stop getting stuck in with the media on their terms. So, what I am returning to here is a discussion we have had before about expectations of the media.
I think this point sets us off:
[George Pitcher] should know, as should everyone who reads newspapers, that the bottom line is that they are businesses and they sell copies by finding stories that are new and interesting. Of course that doesn’t mean making things up or distorting them, but at the same time they are within their rights to interpret what public figures say and highlight the parts that are new and controversial.
I couldn’t agree more. With every point. But, what Martin misses here is the perception of some of us on the receiving end that ‘making up’ and ‘distortion’ are precisely what has gone on. Hence, the story is not about the core substance, but about the journalist’s perception of or spin on it. That’s why I pointed out in this blog that justice should be done to the subject of the story even if the content of what he says then gets roasted on the spit of analysis. In this respect, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on politics are game for all the inflated and angry comment they provoke. But, the context in which his views were expressed must dictate the nature of theme addressed, the register of his language, and so on. An editorial that introduces a series of guest articles debating precisely the issues he opens up in his editorial surely has a certain status as interrogative or provocative; but, it can’t be seen in isolation from those later articles and their context. That is where – rightly or wrongly – some of us feel stitched up.
Martin goes on:
I don’t think the reason clerics [complain] more than politicians is because they are other-worldly or naive, I just think MPs are much more realistic about the nature of the press and appreciate that we are overall a good thing for democracy even if occasionally we go a bit too far. After all, reporting is not a science and there is never just one way to write a story.
The implication of this is that we must simply accept the nature of the press as it is, rather than express some desire that it should be better than it currently is. My personal issue with this is both ethical (the role that the media play in the democracy Martin wants to defend gives them enormous power and influence and, therefore, affects behaviour as well as discourse) and professional (as a former professional wordsmith I would have been very uncomfortable about putting a spin on a story in order to create a story when I knew I was distorting the original). Surely a democracy that needs a free and bold press is one in which its citizens have the right to demand that its journalists do justice in their role as ‘players’ and not just ‘observers’ of the democratic substance? Accountability works both ways.
Martin writes that he had originally intended to write his piece about how Rowan Williams “was the sole survivor of what was once a large group of outspoken figures in the C of E”. Is it not just possible that many of the current ‘figures’ see what happens to their outspoken counterparts and decide (a) you can’t win and (b) it isn’t worth the hassle? I am not defending that response, but I do think it is understandable.
Martin goes on to observe that the Archbishop “knows exactly how his words will be received; he just doesn’t crave positive headlines like most public figures.” He concludes:
For the sake of the church, as well as those who make their living reporting on it, I very much hope he will continue to speak his mind.
The journalist (rightly) is not responsible for dealing with the aftermath of what they write. But, they will get more outspokenness if those speaking can trust the intelligence and integrity of those doing the writing. Most people who have contacted me about the Archbishop’s views derived their understanding (and frustration with him) not from his original words, but from the Telegraph’s reporting on them. Having read the original, several were cross about the latter. And this mirrors my own experiences in similar (but less serious) circumstances.
The conversation will, no doubt, continue. However, if the written-about are to understand the nature and business of the writers, is it too much to ask the writers to understand the experience and perception of the written-about?