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]

 

I know Dresden well. I know people in Dresden well. The devastation visited by Allied bombing on 13/14 February 1945 was horrendous. That is a phenomenological fact – apart from any moral consideration of the event.

It is shameful that a so-called free press, so often “defended” by the so-called “popular” press, sees fit to celebrate the freedoms gained by the sacrifice of so many 70 years ago by stooping to lies, misrepresentation, slander and brain-dead ideological nonsense. Is the Dail Mail going to have the courage and integrity – values demonstrated by those who sacrificed so much during World War Two – to apologise for the scandalous headline and story published a couple of days ago? There is no way that a half-thinking sentient being could read from the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, to a headline that accuses him of apologising to the Nazis.

There are no words adequate to describe the shamefulness of that front page. Is this the free press we fought a war to preserve?

And what was the Daily Mail's motivation in publishing this headline and story on the front page? What was its moral drive?

When can we expect the apology? Or will the absence of an apology be left to speak for itself?

Edited at 23.29hrs: a paragraph was missing from the version that I posted. I add it here:

“Read for yourself the Archbishop's speech in its context. Then read his subsequent blog post and the earlier statement. His sermon in the Frauenkirche today is here. Then tell me this wasn't just a nasty headline looking for a story.”

 

I wonder if the Daily Mail has finally succeeded in opening the eyes of its apathetic readers to the true nature of its anthropology (that is, what they think is the intrinsic value or meaning of human beings in society).

The Miliband saga has intensified, with expressions of anger from some unlikely people.

What interests me most is how this feeds into a more general problem in the public discourse: the conscious and deliberate corruption of language. It is disingenuous of the Deputy Editor of the Mail to say in yesterday's Newsnight debate with Alastair Campbell that “headlines have to be read in conjunction with the text of the article” when the world and his wife knows (a) that headlines often mislead (deliberately?) and (b) that deliberate association goes beyond the literal text or juxtaposition.

Repeated use of simple phrases makes a powerful appeal to the subconscious that goes beyond the specific words. At the Conservative Party Conference this week the word 'hardworking' hung over and behind the stage on which speeches were made. The word dripped into the rhetoric of many speakers and commentators – as if we all understood what was meant by it and who was included in it. Or assumed to be included in it. Poor hardworking people (in multiple part-time and low-paid jobs and who are increasingly using foodbanks) are clearly not included.

Aren't stay-at-home parents 'hardworking'?

To go back to the Daily Mail furore for a moment: why was it illegitimate to recall the Daily Mail's antisemitism, support for fascism and affection for Adolf Hitler at the same time as deeming it (obviously) legitimate to quote from Ralph Miliband's teenage diary?

As I have argued many times on this blog, the corruption of language is deliberate and very dangerous. It is used to suggest and associate – working at a subliminal level and categorising people without always spelling out what is going on here and why. It is something George Orwell understood very well and articulated very clearly.

“Arbeit macht frei” is a simple and 'true' slogan, isn't it?

The heart can only despair. The Daily Mail has a low enough view of humanity, but its piece on Ralph Miliband is execrable. Its decision to print the original hatchet job alongside Ed Miliband's response – standing by every word of its nasty 'critique' – unbelievably crass.

Apparently, Miliband Senior wrote in his diary when only seventeen years old:

[the English were] perhaps the most nationalist people in the world… you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are.

The paper then goes on to suggest there might be a link between father and son. Suggestive innuendo and ridiculous association. (I hope no one ever quotes stuff I wrote/said when I was a teenager…)

If the Daily Mail's association is valid, what conclusions might it draw from this screaming headline from its own adolescence?

When Ralph Miliband was escaping the fascism beloved of the Mail – and then fighting against it – this is what the Mail's owner was doing:

Perhaps it is time to recall this:

 

Having a brief holiday, I thought I'd give my blog a miss for a week. Then I belatedly saw the Daily Mail's front page judgement on the appalling Philpott story.

I rarely get shocked by anything. In various life and work contexts I have seen and heard and read too much. And I can't bring myself to do 'mock shock'. But, this I do find shocking.

The Philpott story is dreadful. But, to use it shamelessly to categorise and damn people who receive from the welfare state is in itself shocking. Why? Because we have seen this sort of generalising categorisation before. I remember reading it in Der Stürmer. Even those who think the welfare reforms are right and justified should be worried about the language and approach of the Mail and the new direction it takes us in: generalised categorisation and vilification of certain groups of people.

Try this from the headline: 'Vile product of Welfare UK'. So, the welfare system produces utterly corrupt people – without distinction?

Or this: 'Man who bred 17 babies…' – as opposed to non-welfare recipients who 'have' children rather than 'breed' them? Animals breed…

Philpott's lifestyle is indefensible. His morality is damnable – although people not in receipt of welfare might also share some of his values. Yes, there are people who take welfare for a ride. Yes, the system needs reform – as does the system for rewarding the wealthy at the other end of the scale. But, something deeply corrupting is going on in our culture if the language of Osborne and the Daily Mail become common currency.

The Mail follows George Osborne's division of people between 'strivers' and 'skivers', shamelessly categorising people without for one minute questioning the basis for it – most welfare recipients work and work far too hard for the good of themselves or their families.

Do the Mail journalists take any responsibility for the remaining children of the Philpotts who, presumably, will now have to continue to live with the stigma generated by this reporting? Haven't they already suffered? But, the current onslaught against 'welfare' pays no attention to the children, making them suffer for the sins of the parents the children didn't choose. 'Suffer the little children', said Jesus; it looks like we read that wrongly and will make damned sure they suffer.

One day we shall be ashamed of this period in our history.

(Having written this, I then read the Guardian's intelligent and apposite editorial and Zoe Williams' excellent and pointed response to the Mail.)

There is nothing like coming back from Africa to realise how pathetic is some of the stuff that goes for ‘culture’ in England.

This morning the Daily Mail has a whole report on a total non-subject that illustrates only how the writer of it must be illiterate. Which begs the further question of how the editor let it through. Here’s the link. And here’s the header:

Church of England’s official Twitter feed sparks row after ‘offensive’ joke about gay marriage and Katie Price

  • User asked what Church thought of Katie Price marrying for the third time. Church of England replied it didn’t have an official policy on Katie Price. But added that: ‘Jordan gets quite a few mentions in the Old Testament’.

Can the reporter tell us who thought the comments were ‘offensive’? Who and what were offended? And about what? And where might we find the ‘row’ that has been ‘sparked’?

Unbelievable.

Then, just to show how reporters like this think how stupid and media-illiterate the audience is, he adds:

Apparently recognising that offence had been caused, the Church’s Twitter feed then posted to Just Skippy: ‘Glad we could be source of joy as well as – sadly – disquiet for you. Blessings.’

‘Offence’? ‘Recognising’? Good grief! Go back to school and learn how to read. Isn’t the response simply recognising that someone who disagrees with the Church of England’s stance on gay marriage isn’t happy?

This is actually a good story of how someone in Church House is engaged, has a sense of humour, and keeps things in perspective. It’s also a story of how crass the Daily Mail is in trying to make a story out of it.

 

It is almost funny to see how the media are running scared of the judgements by Lord Leveson next week. The Daily Mail ran a scandalous preemptive strike last week aimed at undermining the credibility of Leveson and his colleagues.

Yes, there are important issues at stake here to do with press freedom and responsibility. But, if anyone else was trying to preempt the outcome of such an inquiry, you can bet your life the press would be questioning their own integrity or motives.

We should be simply content to await Leveson's report and then see where we go from there – and why.

In the meantime, this is the best I have read ahead of the report – and it comes, not surprisingly, from a philosopher. Dame Onora O'Neill nails the key issues – far clearer than some of the self-interested manoeuvrings of those who fear Leveson's conclusions.

 

Just got back from a great trip to our link diocese in the USA – Southwestern Virginia – and trying to pick up what has been going on while I was away. Both the BBC and the Guardian websites were re-shaped into US sites while I was over there, so some domestic news seemed to slip by.

So, what strikes me on my return?

1. The Leveson Inquiry continues, but things are getting worse as four more journalists have been arrested – this time not from the defunct News of the World, but from the Sun. I can’t weep for those who have (a) indulged in unethical or criminal activity in the name of ‘the freedom of the press’ or (b) shredded other people’s lives before simply moving on to the next cash-generating scandal. However, I do weep for good journalists who now find themselves tarred with the brush of corruption – even if they now know what it feels like to face a situation of personal injustice that they cannot resolve by themselves… an experience familiar to victims of their tabloid colleagues. Not to forget also that it was excellent investigative journalism (and considerable nerve) that exposed this apparent web of corruption in the first place. A good democracy and a good society need a good, free, intelligent, accountable and ethical press.

2. While we spent nearly four hours on Saturday night with a couple of hundred others in Roanoke packing 176,000 food parcels for Sudanese refugees and displaced people (the remarkable and motivated young people of Southwestern Virginia raised the $35,000 it cost – and did so explicitly in the name of Christ), questions were being raised here about the viability of the new state of Southern Sudan. The challenges are huge, but they extend even more precariously in the north (Sudan itself). Christians there continue to be persecuted, expelled, attacked, dispossessed and dispersed. At least one British newspaper keeps this in the news (others may be doing so, too, but I have only had time to check the one).

3. Lord Carey, former Archbishop for Canterbury has bashed the bishops for being so feeble as to defend the poor in the face of the governments welfare cut proposals. Actually, it is clear that the bishops in the House of Lords have not opposed cuts per se and do take seriously the need to re-calibrate who gets what in the future. With the caveat that I have lifted this from the OUTRAGED Daily Mail report, this is what Lord Carey said about the bishops’ amendment regarding Child Benefit:

‘Considering that the system they are defending can mean some families are able to claim a total of £50,000 a year in welfare benefits, the bishops must have known that popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers,’ he writes.

‘Yet these five bishops – led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds – cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.

Victoria Coren responded effectively in the Guardian, defending the right – nay, the obligation – of Christian bishops to speak on behalf of the poor, whether or not they win the eventual vote. But, my question really has to do with the insinuation that the bishops should not go against ‘popular opinion’. This cannot be serious. Since when has ‘popular opinion’ been the singular guide to ethics, Christian thought and action, or prophetic wisdom? Coren put it like this:

But I’m not a bishop. It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

Lord Carey might have an opinion on the government’s handling of the debt, but to suggest that the bishops should be guided by popular opinion (as opposed to, say, the Bible?) is just weird.

Or have I missed something? 

The News Corp saga involving (a) the much-contested bid for control of BSkyB, (b) the sacking for reasons of sexism of key sports presenters on Sky, (c) the social canoodling of David Cameron with Rebekkah Wade and James Murdoch during the Christmas holidays, (d) the unravelling of the phone-hacking habits at the News of the World (but clearly not a monopoly practice by News Corp), and (e) the arrival in the UK of Rupert Murdoch to sort out the mess, have been too easy a target for comment in the last few weeks. Other commentators have said what needs to be said and anyone with half a brain is left to draw their own conclusions.

Andreas Whittam-Smith summarised it in his scathing critique in the Independent.

It would also be too easy to shoot arrows at the moral inconsistencies of the self-righteous Daily Mail – too much like shooting fish in a barrel. Yet one blogger has pulled it together in relation to the bizarre one-man organisation Christian Voice – which is a predictable shriek rather than a voice and not noticably Christian or representative of the Christian Church. ‘A Christian Voice’ would be a little more accurate, but this doesn’t stop the press from quoting the man behind the title, Stephen Green, or consulting him as if he represented anyone other than himself.

When will journalists and media researchers drop Christian Voice from their contacts list on the grounds hinted at in the description above?

Taking on the Murdochs is not a bsuiness for the fainthearted. Having a government in bed with James or Rupert is dangerous for more than democracy – although the current government seems to be carrying on a tradition begun earlier. Taking seriously much (but not all) press comment on religion in general or Christianity in particular is worryingly naive. It is like accepting that the fulminations of Christian Voice are either Christian or needing a voice.

There are informed exceptions (notably Ruth Gledhill and correspondents from the Guardian and Independent in particular) – although the speed (or judgement) and the need (for speedy stories) means that even they get it spectacularly wrong sometimes (in the same way I and the Church sometimes cause them great frustration). But, the reading/viewing public needs to be better educated in how to read/see what is reported and ask fundamental questions about what distinguishes informed reality from the rubbish.

Good journalism identifies the questions to be asked if reality is to be judged. It is not simply about telling a particular story to back a particular narrative in a way that closes down the questions and purports to deliver a definitive judgement.

A good society and a good democracy demand good journalism based on good research and a good understanding of the subject matter with informed comment from people who can be relied upon to actually represent the views of the community they purport to represent. Good journalism needs to be supported and encouraged – and the consumers need to learn to discriminate.

Steve Richards concludes:

This is a story about journalists losing control. The response to MPs’ losing control was the introduction of an almost comically tough external regulator. In this case I doubt if much will change. Some journalists and newspaper empires are more powerful than puny elected representatives.

Where to start?

  • 29 miners dead in New Zealand.
  • South Korea bombed by North Korea and now this most dangerous part of the world likely to be inflamed.
  • Education about to be mucked about with in England (again).
  • Pope saying something about condoms, but still not clear whether a tweak or a revolution.
  • An extra day off for the forthcoming Royal Wedding.
  • Thousands of families about to find their lives changed by government cuts in England.
  • A really interesting debate opening up under the ‘Big Society’ umbrella about values, vision and the shaping of a different sort of society – both opportunity and threat.

So, what do we find ourselves occupied with? The non-‘suspension’ of the Bishop of Willesden for being rude and unepiscopal about the Royal Marriage.

It’s absolutely clear: Pete Broadbent was wrong to say what he said in the way he said it. No question. Nothing is private any more and Facebook certainly isn’t. Pete apologised unreservedly and then was asked to ‘withdraw’ from public office until further notice (whatever that means). And now two things have happened: (a) the Twittersphere is alive with charges that a dying story has been given new life, and (b) a campaign has been launched to get people to boycott the Daily Mail.

Isn’t it just conceivable that anyone who would wish to boycott the Daily Mail for this latest expose of a good bloke might already be boycotting the organ because of its shrill racism, ideological hard edge and willingness to destroy people who don’t share its own prejudiced complexion?

I understand the response to the bishop’s predicament. But, in the grand scheme of world events and the enormity of the Daily Mail’s offensiveness, there might be better reasons for choosing not to pay into the Mail’s coffers than their personal stuffing of the Bishop of Willesden. (Is their coverage of the Synod debate about the ‘Big Society’ useful?)

I hope Pete’s purdah will end and he can continue his excellent and valued episcopal ministry. I also hope the Royal wedding will be the beginning of a great marriage for William and Kate (but I seriously fear for their fate at the hands of the same media who are now defending their honour). And I hope we can recover some sense of proportion about all this stuff. As soon as possible.