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.

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

One week on from the General Synod's vote on women bishops and the story has fallen off the radar of most of the media. The sound and fury has moved on – for the time being, at least – to the next batch of 'stories'.

Here in Vienna I have been asked by people from all faiths and from all over the globe about what happened. I have been rather surprised by the sympathy offered! It has also offered an opportunity to try to explain how the Church of England works – not easy in any language. But, even here it was a matter of curiosity rather than concern or passion. (Although two people from two different countries asked what credibility our politicians have when they couldn't manage to reform the House of Lords – i.e. themselves – and have questionable electoral democratic legitimacy… which I thought was interesting.)

The big story occupying the media mind now is the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday. As with the announcement of the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the General Synod's vote on women bishops, we can't imply wait for a fact to be revealed; no, we fill our time and energy with speculation, pre-judgement and attempts to head off outcomes that might just make us feel a bit wobbly. Patience is not a virtue valued by a 24 hour media monster hungry for any sort of feeding.

Well, I couldn't find any mention (in my cursory digital search of the UK media) of the good news that last night saw leading Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus from across the globe sitting together at the launch of a new International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. Religion is frequently portrayed as the source of a host of problems in the world; images of genuinely warm relations between religious leaders clearly isn't news. It doesn't fit the 'conflict narrative'.

Yet, last night was genuinely remarkable – even to veterans of the international interfaith circus. At the Hofburg we listened to sharp speeches by (among others) the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria; the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, the President of the Muslim World League, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. They didn't duck the challenges and they mostly said something worth listening to.

It is easy to take for granted a warm handshake between a Saudi minister, a Chief Rabbi and a Cardinal, but just a few years ago such an image would have been unthinkable.

Now it isn't even worthy of a mention in the news.

I am not moaning about this – just pointing it out as a phenomenon. If anything, I guess I think we just ought to be a little more media literate – just as some of us wish the media were a little more religion literate. So, when Leveson reports on Thursday we should be a little cautious about the special pleading of the press when they find their integrity questioned and their trustworthiness doubted. The preemptive strikes are almost embarrassing – best satirised in Roy Greenslade's Guardian column today.

An intelligent debate about press freedom (and associated matters) would be really welcome. But, I am not holding my breath. Too much self-interest, too much self-protection, too much special pleading – not unique to the press, but powerful factors nonetheless.

Oh well. I'll just get back to good news stories about religious harmony and cooperation. This morning I had breakfast with a Jewish academic, a Muslim statesman and a Shinto priest. How weird is that?

Back to Blighty tomorrow.

 

Just in case we think the matters being addressed by Lord Leveson are original or uniquely British, I have just dug out Heinrich Böll‘s scathing attack on (what we refer to as) ‘tabloid’ excesses in Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katherine Blum). Published in 1976 – one of the first German books I ever bought – it deals with how a tabloid newspaper destroys a young woman’s reputation and life.

Exaggeration, intrusion, misrepresentation, abuse, commodification of a person as entertainment: it is all there.

The disclaimer in the German edition is biting (Bild being the German equivalent to the Sun or News of the World):

Characters and events in this story are invented. Should the description of particular journalistic practices betray similarities to the practices of ‘Bild’, such similarities are neither deliberate nor accidental, but merely inevitable.

 

Three stories penetrate the work-ridden last few days.

Yesterday Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor and former political editor of the Sun had the nerve to accuse the Metropolitan Police of wasting time and resources on their investigation of criminality at the heart of News International. He described police tactics as treating suspected journalists like “members of an organised crime gang”. He objected to dawn raids and intrusive searches of journalists’ homes.

Forgive my naïveté, but why does he think the police are doing this at all? Would he or his newspaper have had any patience with police ignoring criminality on an industrial scale in some other area of society? Did he consider the handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal as a waste of time and money – a gross overreaction? Does he really think that investigations into corruption and criminality at the Sun is ‘disproportionate’?

I usually find Trevor Kavanagh interesting, but this has left me staggered. Is he so out of touch that he still doesn’t get the public outrage at this enormous corruption? The irony of his choice of words is that the need for expensive and thorough police investigation arises directly from crime that looks distinctly ‘organised’. Or is it just that it is OK for ordinary mortals to have their lives intruded upon, shredded and dumped – their reputations rubbished and their families disturbed – but somehow wrong for journalists to suffer the same treatment? I am boggled.

Richard Dawkins is at it again – although Giles Fraser rattled him on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. As Dawkins mocked respondents to his poll who couldn’t name the first gospel, Fraser embarrassed him by exposing his inability to remember the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. His latest evangelistic campaign is just silly. In danger of confusing atheism with secularism (they are not the same), he perpetuates the pretence that he occupies neutral space whereas religious people are somewhere up the loaded loony scale. What makes him think that his world view is to be privileged above all others is still unclear. Anyway, his survey proves little – and certainly not what he thinks it proves.

Baroness Warsi has complained to the Pope about rampant and aggressive secularism that is marginalising religion in general and Christianity in particular in Britain today. Not having had time today to read all the reports of this, I remain unclear why she needs to tell the Pope what he already thinks. But, the question is really whether or not she is right. I just hope she doesn’t slip into the language of ‘persecution’.

The most interesting two responses I have seen to Dawkins and Warsi are by Giles Fraser and Julian Baggini. Rational atheist argument is fine and secularist campaigning acceptable. But, where does the mindless aggression come from? Why the irrational evangelism that doesn’t even pretend to be tolerant of any world view that differs from it’s own fundamentalism?

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?