media


This year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival was given by Dorothy Byrne and it is brilliant – sharp, incisive, important and very funny. It is a must-read for anyone interested in media, politics, the lack of democratic accountability enjoyed by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (to say nothing of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ such as Dominic Cummings).

Compare the utter lack of scrutiny or accountability by Boris Johnson – to Parliament, let alone the media – with Macron’s two and a half hour press conference yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn’s absence also gets a serious dig. This is not about political sympathies or partisan claims; rather, it is about democracy, accountability, integrity and the culture we are creating … and the important role of the media in exposing dishonesty, lying, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Even if you don’t agree with Byrne, it is a romp of a read.

I knew I shouldn’t have done the interview with PA the other night. That said, I did, and I take responsibility for what followed.

For the record (unlike the Daily Mail’s rather selective quotation which is now getting further transmitted and re-shaped – I haven’t seen the original PA copy), what I said in answer to questions was this, the nuances being clearly too subtle:

There are Christians who worry about whether they can or cannot speak about their faith at work. This is a fact. There are Christians who worry about it. However, that is not to say that their concern is justified. Furthermore, we cannot – and should not – extrapolate from (for example) one media report of a Christian being disciplined for doing so to a judgement that all Christians are concerned. This is patent nonsense. Theresa May was following a report that said we should grow up and use common sense.

I did not use the word “scared”. I did not “slam” (as I am being reported to be doing) anyone. I also said clearly that this is not a concern for me and that we should get on with it with confidence.

The bit about secularists was simply that there is too often an assumption that there is a potential tension between the faiths and that others might be offended by Christians talking about their faith or the content of Christmas. This also is nonsense. However, there can be an illiberal element to some liberals who are tolerant only of those who consent to their understanding of liberalism or tolerance. That is true. However, it is not to say that all liberals are illiberal.

Not quite how the story has run, is it?

It’s clearly a truth universally acknowledged (at least by journalists) that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline – especially when, it seems, they have had their Christmas party early.

According to the Daily Mail today, I have claimed “that the TRUE meaning of Christmas is sitting around the telly with the family watching the depressing Eastenders festive special”. The Times and the Telegraph also gave us their take on the article.

Put simply, I wasn't writing about the “true meaning of Christmas”. I also wasn't writing about turkey farming, the origins of the Christmas tree or the ethics of mistletoe.

The Radio Times asked me to write an article for their Christmas edition about the value of families watching tv together. In it, I merely supported the idea that, with the ease with which we can now view programmes on our own, telly still has the power to bring us together.

So, not the “true meaning of Christmas” exactly; but, nevertheless, watching telly together can have meaning, at least more meaning than merely slagging off the outfits, left feet or judges’ remarks on Strictly (for example).

Doesn't Gogglebox (for example) show how it can be a springboard for all sorts of discussions around values and world events – and even the ethical dilemmas raised by EastEnders? Seeing how others react can help us develop our own response and opinions. (And engaging with real people has got to be better than a constant diet of peoples’ perfectly curated lives on Facebook.)

In a world of solo, multi-platform viewing (and even though my own day is punctuated by frequent reference to Twitter), surely shared experience has always got to be more powerful than private browsing.

Here’s the original Radio Times article:

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his series that re-told the Nativity story on BBC One. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years, who has since gone on to create many a small screen hit, most recently Dickensian, the mash up of Dickens stories on the BBC this Christmas. So, when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master story teller. He replied simply: “I know a true story when I read one.”

Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays – to re-live the Story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people clearly watched it together on the television.

Royston Robertson, used with permission

Now, I don't think this is peculiar to Christmas, but there is something about this particular season that encourages us to share our screen-watching experiences with those around us, and not hive off to spectate in splendid isolation.

It isn't all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of the television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place. Well, they have been proved wrong. Despite a plethora of platforms, most of them individualised and personal such as mobile phones and tablets, television has generated renewed capacity for the shared experience. Does anyone watch 'Strictly' all alone? Why do people still talk about Gogglebox and sports games they have watched in company? We really want to do it together.

What I do know is that in a world in which anyone under the age of forty has to be surgically removed from their phone or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents [reported in the Daily Mail last September], watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.

The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim in life is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself, whether being asked odd questions on the telly or watching his team play on the pitch. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.

So, here's a thought: for those lucky enough to have someone to share the remote with this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do. Whether joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative re-telling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian, or the latest relationship catastrophe in Eastenders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and give us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and detox from the solo habits. Live for now with the people who are there with you.

In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus together. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out together where to go afterwards. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.

In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let's hear it for the telly at Christmas. There's life in the old screen yet.

[Cartoon by Royston Robertson, used with permission]

 

This is the text of an article requested this morning by the Yorkshire Post in relation to the decision by cinema advertising bodies not to show an advert about the Lord's Prayer in their cinemas before Christmas this year. The decision has provoked a spat in the media and on social media – some of it even polite.

So, the major cinema chains have banned a one-minute advert from being shown in their theatres on the grounds that people may be offended. God, give me strength. (Which is a prayer.)

If you don't pray, then you are almost certainly in a small minority of people on the planet. Even people who claim no faith seem to admit to praying in certain circumstances.

In the last couple of weeks we have seen hashtags and posters, banners and even football scarves, emblazoned with 'pray4paris'. Why? As I said on last Friday's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, “it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom?”

The fact is: people pray. Billions of people across the globe pray the Lord's Prayer every day. For some Christians in some parts of the Middle East and Africa, the utterance of this prayer can amount to a death sentence. Yet, it is a prayer I have seen uttered by those committed to other faiths, but who see in this prayer – taught to his friends by Jesus – a fundamental recognition of human being, human need, and the realities of human experience. We are not God, but we live in relation to God; we have daily physical needs and we get tempted to go the wrong way; if we don't forgive those who wrong us, then how on earth do we expect to be forgiven and reconciled by God and others?

In the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes. Prayer is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.

So, why do the cinema people think prayer is so dangerous? And who exactly is going to be offended by a one-minute advert that consists of a pile of people saying a phrase of the Lord's Prayer in sequence? No propaganda. No coercion. No pressure. Just an encouraging invitation. What is the problem?

Well, the problem is basically the illiteracy of a liberal culture that thinks itself to be intellectually mature and culturally sound. This culture assumes (I choose the word carefully) that secular humanism is neutral – and self-evidently 'true' – and that, by definition, any religious world view is somewhere up the scale of irrational and loaded madness. A five year old child could demolish that one. There is no neutral space.

Secondly, as an irrational reflex, religion gets widely connected inextricably with 'problem', 'trouble' or 'conflict'. Therefore, it has to be neutralised. The five year old would be on a roll by now. Just this morning a Muslim tweeted that, rather than ignoring Remembrance Day and the poppy appeal, his group had actually raised more than £400,000 for the Royal British Legion this month. Has anyone actually asked who might be offended by this and why? This phenomenon has echoes in seasonal appeals to empty Christmas of its name.

Thirdly, this religious illiteracy goes deep. Last week the Daily Telegraph reported on the debates that nearly saw the word 'Abbey' removed from 'Downton'. It seems that there was no reference to church (although, for good or ill, church would have been an integral part of the life of those characters), and we never got to see them sit down for a meal because that would have meant seeing them say grace. Really.

There is still time for the people who run the cinema chains to change their mind. They might even invite a conversation about reality 'out there' in the world. But, even if they don't, they have exposed yet again the intellectual and cultural redundancy of a dominant knee-jerk assumption about religion and the world. It would be funny if it weren't so common.

(Of course, the word limit meant I couldn't ask how advertising actually works, if it isn't to get inside our heads and promise to meet our deepest needs by selling us something. Which, apparently, is unproblematic.)

 

I chair a media trust that goes by the name of Sandford St Martin. We reward excellence in religious broadcasting and advocate for the same in a range of different ways.

One of the most important decisions to be made in the UK in the next year or so will be about the future of the BBC as its Charter is renewed.

The Sandford St Martin Trust submission to the BBC Charter Renewal consultation can be read in full here and focuses particularly on the public service remit, seeing religious broadcasting as a touchstone of how this remit is fulfilled.

The Trust's submisison can be read here.

 

Tomorrow evening I will be chairing the 2015 Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace. These annual awards are prestigious and pull in some amazing examples of excellent programming.

The re-shaped Trust has this year attracted an enormous number of entries in three categories: television, radio and – for the first time – children. Our short listers did a brilliant job, and the winners will be announced tomorrow evening. (The list is too long, so go here to see the full set.)

The first prize of the evening will go, as always, for the Radio Times Readers Award – the only one voted for by the public.

It has also been announced this week that this year's Trustees Award will go to the BBC's wonderful Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet – an award that will be presented to her by James Harding, head of News at the BBC.

Exciting, or what?

Anyway, before then I will be doing Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 and then rushing off to the House of Lords for the State a Opening of Parliament and the Queen's Speech (and other meetings). More anon, if I get time to think and write.

 

A couple of days ago Katie Hopkins wrote a piece in the Sun newspaper in which she called migrants on the Mediterranean “cockroaches”. The Sun saw fit to publish this. She would prefer to send gunships to desperate migrants rather than rescue ships.

Today it is reported that up to 700 migrants might have drowned in the latest tragedy on the sea many of us think of as somewhere to swim on holiday.

Twitter was alive with criticism of Hopkins, in some cases inviting readers to go back to the 1940s and replace “migrants” with “Jews”. You don't have to go back that far: Rwanda's more recent genocide grew out of a demonisation of the rival tribe that dehumanised them as “cockroaches”.

Which editor at the Sun thought this would be acceptable in a newspaper? Is there no editorial control over language and sentiments that dehumanise – even during an election campaign when questions of immigration demand an intelligent debate and not this sort of inhumane diatribe?

What is going on in the mind and soul of Katie Hopkins to generate this sort of stuff?

And what responsibility does the Sun take? Or does it endorse such writing?

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

Has British journalism really improved? Or was the Leveson Inquiry just something to entertain us until business returned to normal while no one was looking?

I guess we are about to find out. The Minister for Civil Society announced on the eve of the Conservative Party conference that he was resigning because a Sunday newspaper was about to publish allegations about his private life.

This had all the hallmarks of a sting, and I wondered what might be the public interest that would justify such an action on the part of a newspaper. We soon found out.

I imagine most observers are more embarrassed than hostile to the ex-Minister. Sending intimate pictures of yourself over the internet is naïve and shows poor judgement.

But the journalist who stung Brooks Newmark had been phishing, had invented a character, lied in e-conversation and illicitly used photos of other women to pretend to be the woman he was pretending to be.

If this doesn’t count as entrapment, then what does? And to have such a ploy used to uphold a purist moral stance is at least questionable.

The defence used in such cases – and which got a bit of exposure during the Leveson process – is that the information derived is somehow in the public interest.

Of course, this assumes that the public interest is being served… rather than the prurient interest of the public being entertained. How would society be the poorer for not knowing what we now know as a result of the sting?

Well, following the Leveson Report, the body that has replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) now faces its first serious task.

By publishing the sting on Brooks Newmark, is Trinity Mirror in breach of the code agreed by the Press? The newly-established Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is still run by the Press – one of the criticisms of its predecessor.

The Press continues to be judged by its own, and the ‘independence’ in its title does not yet convince sceptical observers or victims of press abuse. In the case before it, we will see how independent the new body really is.

The tragedy of all this is that the behaviours that led to the Leveson Inquiry being set up in the first place do not seem to have gone away.

The closure of the News of the World and the prosecution of prominent newspaper leaders seemed to offer an opportunity to clean out the stable. But, read Hack Attack – Nick Davies’s disturbing book on the phone hacking saga – and one questions whether drama and gesture actually changes behaviour and culture.

Set against this domestic business, however, is the crying need for good journalism in Britain. The bad cases hit the headlines (eventually), but we too easily take for granted the importance of excellent journalism.

We only know about what goes on in some parts of the world because journalists have the nerve to go to where the action is and report – in language and images that are comprehensible to the appropriate audience – what is going on. And many pay with their lives – 71 journalists have died as a result of reporting on the Syrian conflict alone over the last three years.

The sort of courage that compels individuals to risk their lives in pursuit of the real story (for example, potential genocide) is admirable and defies the comfortable cynicism of those who sit in armchairs complaining about the world.

Yet, this sort of reporting is not the norm, is it? We might want to ask where this sort of work sits in relation to the human interest gossip stuff that seems to sell newspapers and magazines at home.

Journalism cannot be identified solely in terms of foreign or crisis reporting – fast-moving, often dangerous, always provisional. Seen in this context, stinging an MP looks a bit cheap and easy.

It does, though, bring into sharp relief the need for good journalism at every level.

Social media allow immediate and unmediated reportage from everywhere. Except, of course, that all reportage – even images on Twitter from Tahrir Square – are mediated by the preferences, context, priorities and subjectivities of the person who posts it.

So, where is the place for intelligent and informed critical reflection on events? Contrary to popular assumption, not every opinion is valid. A good democracy needs a good, free Press.

The problem seems to be that the great British public prefers to read tittle-tattle about relative trivia, creating moral scapegoats that make the rest of us feel morally superior. We get the Press we pay for. If we want good journalism, we will have to pay for it.

When the phone hacking scandal erupted a national print journalist tweeted something like: “Go on, Nick, launch the feeding frenzy!” Because I have a very high view of journalism and the media – which often means that I think we deserve better – and have been critical of some journalism, it was assumed that I would be pleased by the attack on News International.

I wasn't. But, I did think that at least some journalists would now experience what some of their victims had been forced to endure. That feeling of helplessness and injustice you get when the wider narrative has run away from you and you are all getting tarred with the same brush. One corrupt journalist … and all journalists get slagged off for being corrupt or criminal or just hopeless.

Well, try being a priest!

Yet, when the media gets handled this way, somehow it is a gross injustice. My complaint all along is that some newspapers tear people's lives apart in pursuit of some 'public interest' headlines, then move on, leaving behind them a destruction for which they take no responsibility.

Well, Andy Coulson now faces prison. Rebekah Brookes has had her life and her affair with Andy Coulson exposed to the world – to say nothing of her husband's porn habits. Andy Coulson says he fought the courts to prevent his affair being made public in order to protect his young children? And where was such protectiveness when it was other people's children who deserved what they got because the parents were dodgy and deserved to be exposed and ridiculed? 'Public interest'?

So, when the phone hacking trials began I guess I should have been happy. But, I wasn't. If I object so strongly to ordinary people having their lives and reputations shredded by newspapers, how can I then be pleased when it happens even to those who have done the hypocritical wrecking? I can't. I have no respect for Andy Coulson or Rebekah Brookes and their (until now) unaccountable and destructive hypocrisy, but I still dislike a culture that revels in exposing them and their children to the horrors they have inflicted on others.

Andy Coulson should go to prison, but he is only the one they caught. Nothing really changes, though. People are still turned into commodities whose problems and inconsistencies are exploited and exposed for the entertainment of the public. The voyeuristic culture in which we are only able to feel better by belittling others has not changed – probably because this is not a media issue, but a human factor. And Coulson was taken into the heart of government without proper checking, so his demise inevitably has a public element to it – an accountability that demands public justice and recompense.

But, like all victims of media exploitation and deeply unattractive public voyeurism and judgmentalism, we cannot rejoice at the public humiliation of a husband and father whose life is shredded and whose children will pay a heavy price.

Justice may be done. But, I still feel tainted by the culture that loves to grind another person down, feeling morally superior in the process. Justice may be done, but I still feel grubby and sad.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (following last night's Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace):

If truth be told, I'm a bit on the tired side this morning. Last night I was presenting awards for excellence in religious broadcasting and my head is full of great stories. We had some brilliant examples of radio and telly that got under the skin of how people live – and why they live the way they do. After all, religion is about life, not a niche for weirdos.

And perhaps that's why when we get to anniversaries of momentous events, some sort of religious celebration stands at the heart of the remembering. This week is particularly poignant as it ends on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day – a day of triumph, but a day of blood.

But, this week also sees a musical anniversary. Today is the thirtieth birthday of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. I can't believe it is thirty years since the Boss attacked my ears and got me hooked on music that gave words to memories and took seriously the importance of place for human beings. We need to know where we belong – that we belong somewhere.

I wasn't born in the USA – surprisingly. I was born in Liverpool when the Beatles were getting together and Merseybeat ruled the airwaves. I know where my cultural roots are and they partly tell me who I am. And what Springsteen did was to open up to everyone – wherever they come from – the need to remember. As a rabbi once pointed out, when a generation dies out, memory becomes history – and when that happens – inevitably – history becomes a commodity over which people fight.

The point is we need to know who we are. Way back in the Old Testament the people had to divide the year into rituals that compelled them to remember where they had come from – that when they prospered, they recalled that once they were slaves and had nothing. This was supposed to root within their consciousness a sense of humility and generosity that shaped their politics and economics as well as their culture.

Anyway, Bruce Springsteen isn't that old. But, Born in the USA invited us to do the same task: to remember who we are and that all of us were born somewhere.

 

 

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