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.

Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

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?

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

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

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]

 

Five days into August already and still haven’t got through a single one of the books lined up for the catch-up month. Oh well.

It could be this that is narking me; but, on the other hand, it might be that the world is going mad.

Three things for starters:

1. Apparently, the Minister for Local Government is going to write to the bishops of the Church of England today asking us to support longer Sunday trading hours. According to the Daily Telegraph, the letter will say:

The government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.

As the law stands, only the smallest shops are allowed to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, a law which came into force in 1994 after a long struggle by the business community.

The justification (according to news reports – we haven’t actually received the promised letter yet) is that this will limit supermarkets and revive the high street. The aim is noble – consider the action by dairy farmers yesterday: it costs them more to produce milk than they get when it is sold. But, this, once again, confirms that we have become a market society, driven by consumer economics, rather than a market economy, driven by the need for the economy to serve society. In other words, we now define our society in purely economic terms.

The alternative would be to restrict Sunday trading rather than expand it. This would restore to society the notion of a common sabbath and create space for common rest – the possibility for remembering who we are and why we are here. We are not born to shop.

A losing battle, maybe; but one worth scrapping over for the sake of questioning what sort of a society we wish to be, rather than simply (and unquestioningly) accepting the society we have become.

2. In a classic example of loaded reporting, the Guardian draws attention to consideration in Wales for re-shaping the teaching of Religious Education in schools. This is how the article begins:

For a long time, religious education has been about as unloved and neglected as a crumbling old church. Several people and organisations (some, admittedly, with a vested interest in its continuation) have warned in recent years that it has never been more needed, and this week it emerged that the Welsh government is considering an overhaul of the subject.

Huw Lewis, the Welsh government’s minister for education and skills told the Cardiff parliament that RE should be renamed, “[transforming] it into the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum – where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship”. He added: “We really need to allow young people the space and the time, within the school curriculum, to consider fundamental issues of faith and of citizenship and of the meaning of freedom.”

RE, long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects, has suffered over the years. A 2013 report by Ofsted found that more than half of schools were failing to teach the subject adequately

How many untested attestations does that contain? Staggering. How long is “a long time”? Where is the evidence that is has been unloved and neglected? Why compare it to a “crumbling old church” rather than a crumbling something else? Which organisations have a “vested interest in its continuation” – and why “admittedly”?

Is it not conceivable that the “vested interest” might be an intelligent argument or interest for the sake of the common good? Is it not remotely possible that, at a time when we need more religious education in order to understand the world and its people, we should be arguing for better teaching and learning rather than the dilution of it? Does “long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects” reflect simply the rather embarrassing prejudices of the journalist who wrote this stuff? Shouldn’t we expect better (of both RE teaching and journalism)?

If numbers fall because teaching is poor, then, surely, the answer is to improve the teaching and learning. As the media trust I chair keeps arguing in the sphere of broadcasting, we need more religious literacy in this conflicted world, not less. Popularity has little to do with it.

3. Giles Fraser redeems the Guardian by concisely putting his finger on a key question that is – understandably – annoying the government. Migration (inwards only) was a vexed matter during the general election. If media reporting is accurate, then immigration (and how to stop it) is a major concern for ordinary Middle Englanders, and politicians ignore it at their peril. Well, ‘majority opinion’ does not necessarily equate to ‘right opinion’. It is only a generation or two ago that German opinion was happy to see Jews and other minorities as sub-human and expendable.

Fraser recalls the difficult and embarrassing question Jesus put to people who probably didn’t like the implcit answer: “Who is my neighbour?” Those who have done RE in school will know that this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also the title of the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Church of England ahead of the last election – which the government (then and now) deepy resented.

But, the question hangs in the air like a bad smell. Get beneath the rhetoric around immigration and we cannot avoid the fundamental challenge: what is our theological anthropology? In other words, what is a human being and why does he/she matter?

That is the question that underlies all the conflicted rhetoric about immigration.

The other question is one that will not go away: is there a strategy behind policy in this regard, or are we condemned to constantly respond to the latest and loudest voice or situation? And what is the anthropological assumption from which policy emerges? And isn’t it important that someone keeps asking the awkward questions about human significance when justifications for action seem only to be economic?

Sorry, that’s three questions.