What follows is the text of the Derek Hole lecture (in faith, society and ethics) I delivered at De Montfort University last night. It ends on the same question I posed in the St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral last year. It was merely coincidental that yesterday saw (a) the Prime Minister withdraw from negotiations with other party leaders on a framework for press accountability (post-Leveson) and (b) the arrest of four Mirror Group journalists for alleged phone hacking-related offences.
The big question still remains unanswered: why do those who own/run the press object to legislative underpinning of their regulation when they insist on it for everybody else?
Anyway, here’s the basic text:
The title ‘Faith in the Media’ is, of course, deliberately ambiguous. How the media represent and understand faith is a different matter from whether we should trust the media and the reality (or version of reality) they mediate to us. In this lecture I wish to address both questions, but in a discursive rather than purely analytical way. In doing so I am conscious of the limitations of time and scope, and so might well open up questions I then cannot address adequately here.
First, I will say something about who and what we mean when we speak of the ‘media’. Secondly, I will explore a little how the media work. Next, I will look at how the media handle faith and religion. And, finally, I will pose some ethical questions arising from our survey of media and faith.
Who are the ‘media’?
Did you hear about the Bradford Batman on Monday of last week? I was launching the new Dean of Bradford in the city centre before walking back to my car at the Cathedral. En route I was phoned by a freelance journalist who asked what I thought of the Bradford Batman. I am afraid I was correctly quoted in the Independent: “I think it was dead funny. But, look at the waistline and the tights – I don’t think he’s that fit.” He was later identified as a friend of the guy he’d handed in to police.
The fact that you heard about it isn’t very interesting in itself. It is just a story that is here one day and gone the next. Mere trivial entertainment and it didn’t exactly change the world. But, what is interesting is how you heard about it. I saw it on twitter. Others read about it in the local (or, subsequently, national) newspapers. Others saw it on websites as it flew through the internet’s synapses. Others saw it on the telly or heard about it on the radio.
In other words, the whole world now knows about the Bradford Batman… and they know it because of the media. Media are simply that: means of communicating information, data, opinion, image, analysis, etc. So, when we speak about the media at all, we are, in fact, speaking about the means of communication and not the content.
Yet, the media are not a ‘given’ in this world. Thirty years ago we would have heard the word ‘media’ and thought ‘radio, television and newspapers’. Now, however, some elements of print media – newspapers especially – are struggling to compete in a world of instant news, instant communication, free access to information via the Internet, and a lack of effective business models to enable such print media to survive. If they don’t make a profit as businesses, they must get cross-subsidised from other areas of the business’s operation or they cut back until they bleed to death.
Now, we might want to say “so what?” to this challenge. A good social Darwinian would just mouth ‘survival of the fittest’ and go back to his iPad. But, this change in the world has consequences that go beyond mere economic models and shape how we see the world and live in it. If you want to see what lies behind the events that gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry, you might well start here: to what extent does democracy require a properly-resourced independent press and what happens when profit becomes the ‘end’ instead of the mediation, analysis and comment on how the world is and who makes it that way?
In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Among some of the dramatic and often shocking scenes from the inquiry, it was salutary to see Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and of the nature of the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators ever critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the constantly emerging picture still begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation.
Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.
But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up. On Monday evening I was at a media reception at Lambeth Palace and the Guardian’s Andrew Brown described his profession as ‘dying’. Jerome Taylor, the excellent Independent journalist who was also there, tweeted on Tuesday the loss of a further 80 jobs at the Telegraph and pleaded: “Pay for the news!”
So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR – and it is reckoned that there are now more PR professionals and lobbyists than journalists – output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it, and there is a societal cost.
But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.
Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.
Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.
There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses. All serious newspapers are shedding jobs.
The deficit for society is that we run the risk of diminishing the importance of reflective and critical thought that has had the time and concentration to do the detail that is necessary if power is to be held to account – especially at local level. If, as some exponents of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere maintain, everyone is a journalist today, then pity help us. Information can come at us from any part of the world – and that is good – but who has the time, expertise and accumulated wisdom to order it, scrutinise it, think about it and then present it accurately as ‘news’, argument or interpretation? Again, the social Darwinian will shrug and say it will all just sort itself out; but try telling that to the people and institutions that have been shredded in the process.
In the brave new world of social media, the two keywords are: interconnectivity and interactivity. If the Telegraph stitches me up, I have recourse via my blog, Twitter and other media to argue and tell the truth; I no longer have to rely on having a printed apology or a letter printed with the goodwill of the editor. In that sense the media have become more democratic – more open to everyone. But, as I have indicated, openness is no guarantee of accuracy, reasonableness, truthfulness or wisdom.
So, just as, for example, newspapers need other media in order to maintain a voice, so does any organisation or institution now need to avail itself of print, website, social media engagement and interconnected communication. But, the hard bit is that such engagement now demands interactivity: not preaching, but conversation; not propaganda, but attentive dialogue.
A couple of years ago I was in Rome for a communications conference with the Diocesan Communications Officers of the Church of England. During one session at a pontifical university we were introduced to a new web portal called pope2you.com. This was presented as the Vatican grasping the potential of emerging social media in order to connect with a new generation of young people. Except, of course, that it was still the Vatican telling people what to think and believe, rather than an invitation to a conversation that involved the Vatican listening to anyone else. They understood interconnectivity, but didn’t quite grasp the interactivity that characterises social media today.
And at this point we might digress into some thinking about how the media work and where ethics fit in.
Looking through an ethical lens at the media
Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”
So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.
A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.
Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.
Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.
Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.
The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.
So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased. (And he wasn’t at the media reception at Lambeth Palace on Monday…)
This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.
When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”
Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here. Which is why I support the need for legislative back up of any new post-Leveson code.
Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.
In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.
I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)
Now, ‘truth’ is a difficult concept when discussing the media anyway. After all, it is not only the people involved that are complex, but also the technology itself influences and sometimes shapes content. For example, an important news story – and you have to ask who decides what counts as ‘news’ – might get dropped on the television because there are no good pictures; which suggests that the content only matters if it fits a particular medium. Which, of course, is questionable.
So, let’s try to pull some of this together and illustrate what actually goes on here. The notion that the media – as they are collectively known – simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set is at the same time both true and nonsense.
It is utter nonsense because any story or programme or article is written for a purpose and in a particular context; furthermore, it is written or presented or edited in a particular way, with choices being made along the way about what stays in and what gets left out. And these choices are largely driven by unconscious assumptions about how the world is, why it is the way it is, and why anything matters in the first place. In other words, the worldviews of the editors or makers shape not only the material, but also how the material is presented.
For example, a few years ago there was a short series of programmes about the church in Britain today. Every reference to black Pentecostal churches was set against film of a packed congregation on a Sunday morning, everyone dancing and singing to a classy band. Every reference to mainline churches was accompanied by pictures of empty or derelict church buildings. Why not film in a large and growing church instead? Well, the answer is that the visuals were intended to reinforce a particular line.
And context? Well, don’t expect the Daily Mail to tell a good story about the EU or good immigrants – such stories just don’t serve the editorial end to which the stories are the means.
So, if that explains the ‘nonsense’, how on earth can it simultaneously be true to say that “the media simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set”? Well, simply and rather obviously, because the uncritical assumptions that motivate editorial choice and shape understanding of the world and its events – that create meaning – are too often a reflection of that world and its dominant assumptions. And the way in which ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ is treated in the media – particularly broadcast and print media – too often betrays an ignorance about both faith as a motivating phenomenon and how faith works in shaping individuals and communities.
(I have long argued that RE in schools ought to include a compulsory component that deals with what worldviews are, how they are constructed, how they filter ‘reality’, and how they shape community. If the media betray ignorance of some basic tools for understanding how the world and its people operate, then this is not because media people are particularly thick, but because this prejudice-driven ignorance characterizes our society. And don’t get me started on politics.)
I make this point here because there is a rumour around that ‘the media’ are neutral and that certain views about the world and meaning are, therefore, also neutral. What I mean by this is that many in the media assume that a secular humanist assumption is neutral, whereas a religious world view is located somewhere up the loony scale where, being a problem, it needs to be confined to the realms of private opinion and not given space in the public discourse. Of course, this uncritically privileges the secular humanist worldview, but without any recognition that such privileging is the result of selective and uncritical thinking.
Now, I am not saying that all media representation of religion is negative; that, clearly, would be nonsense. And there are signs that broadcast programming, at least, is beginning to show evidence of more imaginative and adventurous coverage of religious themes. I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and our remit is to promote excellence in religious broadcasting – actually, a rather narrow remit in a rapidly changing media world. Although we have seen a reduction by commissioning editors of programmes with religious or moral themes, this year the quality of such programming has been excellent.
Think, for example, of BBC2’s remarkable Goodbye to Canterbury on New Year’s Day in which the reputedly uncommunicative outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, effortlessly took his audience through history, geography, philosophy, theology, architecture, art, music, literature, languages, spirituality and poetry as he paid close attention to the building of Canterbury Cathedral – opening our eyes to how ancient stones and relics can become signposts in the modern world. And they say he couldn’t ‘do media’…
Or consider Tom Holland’s slightly repetitive and controversial exploration of the emergence of Islam in Channel 4’s Islam and Empire. What began as an attempt to make sense of the death-throes of antiquity ended up running an enquiring finger over the fault-line that reverberates through the contemporary world: between science and religion, between history and faith.
Or, finally, the guaranteed entertainment of watching Professor Richard Dawkins dig philosophical holes for himself as he enters discussion with people who have acquainted themselves with science, but who easily expose his ignorance of anything but science. BBC1’s Science v Religion, although assuming a conflict that most of us reject – on the grounds that science and religion address different questions – brought the erudite former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks into conversation with Dawkins, Baroness Susan Greenfield and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Intelligent, searching, cultured. Mostly.
The point is that there are good examples of the media taking religion seriously. And part of the remit of the Sandford St Martin Trust is to encourage such programming, trying to persuade commissioning editors and programme makers that religion is fertile ground for good, interesting, entertaining subject matter.
Now, this matters today more than ever. Faith is not merely a worldview – a set of private beliefs that shouldn’t be given access to the public sphere because it will only cause trouble when it gets there. Faith is also about praxis – how people live their lives, shape their societies, order their priorities, work and play, build communities, and understand the value of how and where they live their lives. Faith is about stories of people and their communities, of living and dying, of love and loss, of triumph and defeat.
And some of us would go as far as to claim (which I haven’t got time to develop here) that even the atheists and secular humanists have worldviews that need examination and testing… on the grounds that even the fiercest rationalist lives to some extent by faith.
What I am arguing for here, however, is not simply that the media should learn to understand religion and faith and then privilege it with greater airtime, but that they should see religion as more than an irrational private belief system that is only interesting when it forms the backdrop for images of conflict. And what this reveals is the need for the media to be open to the need for intelligent interpretation of religion in the world. Hence, the argument put by Roger Bolton and others that the BBC, at least, should appoint a Religion Editor – just as they have a Politics Editor, Economics Editor, Arts Editor, Business Editor, Sports Editor, and so on. The role assumes the need for interpretation (not propagation) and we continue to press for this. This is not special pleading by religious numpties who want to protect Songs of Praise for ever, but a cultural argument raised by people who think intelligence matters. Much that goes on in the world cannot be understood at face value without an intelligent and informed understanding of the religious dimensions.
Well, that’s that, then, I guess. For society properly to be understood, we need media that take religion seriously and interpret the world in the light of it… as well as interpreting it in the light of world events.
So, we have identified briefly several ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business.
And this leads me to suggest that people of faith need to shamelessly look at, report on, interpret, argue about, represent and question the world as they see it… but always in ways that fit the medium they wish to work in and communicate through. During the Bush Junior administration in the USA, Americans worked through some of the inarticulable dilemmas of private and public life through the characters and contexts of The West Wing – which might be deemed better ‘religious broadcasting’ than Songs of Praise.
The commodification of people for entertainment is pernicious and morally dodgy. Which imposes on all of us who consume media output a moral responsibility for what we consume, how we consume it and what we do with what it does to us. A brilliant illustration of commodification is to be found in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.
If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.
The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.
In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.