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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it coincidence, but when I agreed months ago to do a St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral I didn’t think it would take place in the week the Murdochs returned to the Leveson Inquiry. Having agreed to speak about ethics and the media, I decided it was too big a theme and narrowed it down a little… recognising the context of the Leveson interrogation. (After dinner following the lecture the city hornblower came into the Minster house to blow his horn at the Mayor of Ripon. Surreal, but traditional!)

Here’s the basic text of the lecture, minus the Q & A and all the asides. It is long…

Andrew Marr begins his excellent history of British journalism My Trade with a rhyme by Humbert Wolfe. It goes like this:

You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! The / British journalist.

But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.

It’s easy to be cynical, isn’t it? After all, even Wolfe would be gobsmacked at what has emerged from the Leveson Inquiry so far.

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, we need to begin this somewhat discursive look at media ethics by learning something of the media world in which we actually live and move and have our being. Having done a brief tour of some of the contours of today’s changing media environment, we can then move on to take a look at a couple of ethical issues in particular. And, given the potential breadth of any consideration of the media, I will concentrate most of my observations on journalism rather than, say, film, music, advertising or other entertainment media.

However, if what follows bores you, I suggest you fill the time making a note of two books that help us understand some of the trends and realities in media development, particularly print media. I have already referred to Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade; the other is Nick Davies’s devastating Flat Earth News – of which more later.

In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Even this week we have seen Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and 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 critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson has 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 emerging picture 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. Anyway, we’ll come back to this later, once we have surveyed the landscape. And I can illustrate some of this further when we get to questions later.


The media world is changing. You really didn’t need to be told that. My mother was born in 1932 and last week celebrated her 80th birthday. My dad gave her an iPad. She emails form it, takes photos with it and skypes my older brother when he is working in Kuwait. Five years ago she was struggling with a mobile phone. A true silver surfer, she has seen a revolution in media during her lifetime – a revolution that is speeding up by the minute. From no television in her childhood – and she even cut open the mesh on the front of her dad’s first radio in order to see the little people inside it – she now has hundreds of channels on cable and is adept at social media and googling. Fings ain’t what they used to be.

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. In the last month we have heard that the position of Editor-in-Chief at the Yorkshire Post has been cut. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up.

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 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.

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.

Anyway, it will come as no surprise to discover that online editions of the Guardian are accessed by forty times the number of people who read the paper on paper.

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.

Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of this presentation explaining media businesses or the radical challenges to traditional media platforms. Nor do I think it will be profitable to try to explain how the various contemporary media operate and interconnect. If we want to do media studies we can go to university and do a course. But, we do need to understand something of the real media environment if we are to comprehend anything of the ethical questions thrown up by the demands of this changing environment. Ethics are not abstract and reality impinges on chosen behaviours. I might add, of course, that to understand is not to condone.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Pontius Pilate wasn’t the only person in history to wonder what truth was all about. Truth is elusive. In a relativistic age it is perhaps more slippery than ever. But, if you ask most people what they want from the media – particularly reportage and journalism – they will probably ask for some representation of the truth. And this is where it gets sticky for some of us – where the realities of journalism conflict with the interests of a particular individual. Let me illustrate with a couple of relatively trivial examples from my own experience:

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…)

Nearer to home, I once wrote a book about Christmas. The Sunday Telegraph ran a story about it – or, rather, about one paragraph in (I think) the fourth chapter. The problem came with the headline which, of course, had been written not by the journalist, but by the sub-editor: ‘Bishop says carols are nonsense’. Good story and it travelled the world in hours. According to one newspaper in India I had ‘banned Christmas’ – something Oliver Cromwell tried to do, but failed in the end. For the journalist this was a great story and a good piece. For me it led to fifteen often aggressive radio and television interviews in two days in order for me to try to put the story right. His triumph was my misery… to say nothing of the embarrassment caused to my wife, my colleagues and the church. (I got a barrage of post and emails, one of which suggested ways I might like to take my life and then was signed ‘Yours in Christ’.)

Now, I am not complaining… really. The journalist has to get a story and get it as close to the front page as possible. ‘Bishop says carols are quite nice’ isn’t going to do it. But, I learned the lesson at last that the story is the story – not necessarily what I would like to be the story. It caused me considerable grief, but I survived. The question is, however, was the story true? In one sense it was: I had suggested that (as one of the Wesley brothers had said) we learn our theology from what we sing and not from what we hear from a pulpit – so, if we sing nonsense, we will most likely believe nonsense. I linked this to a comment about babies making no crying…

Yet, the story wasn’t true. I wasn’t saying that carols are nonsense, nor that we shouldn’t be singing them. The point is simply that the journalist was hoping for glory and I was hoping to flog a few books. He got his glory, I didn’t flog many books!

As I said, these are trivial examples, but they bring me back to the most frequently ignored verse in the Bible. The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’… or ‘you will not misrepresent your neighbour’s case’. The journalist has a responsibility to represent and not to misrepresent – even if the media game demands a bit of licence here and there. Of course, the problem is that most victims of misrepresentation are more concerned about their reputation and integrity than about the newspaper’s sales figures or the journalist’s career – especially when the latter is won at the cost of the former. The news moves on; the damage to the individual remains. The internet never forgets…

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, once wrote of the terrible effects of the media pressure on him when he said that the resurrection was more than a conjuring trick with bones. Quite depressed, he was taken out for lunch by a rabbi friend of his and the rabbi told him a story. A bishop and a rabbi went in a boat on a lake when the rabbi’s skullcap was blown off his head and away onto the water. The bishop got out of the boat, walked on the water, collected the yarmulkah and returned to the boat. The next day the newspaper headline read: BISHOP CAN’T SWIM!

But, if the examples I have cited are relatively trivial, then what do we do with the sort of thing that Nick Davies exposed in Flat Earth News and then in his relentless pursuit of the phone hacking story? For, it is worth noting, it was good, solid, intelligent and morally courageous investigative journalism that rumbled the scandals at the heart of the Murdoch empire – in the teeth of opposition from that bastion of a free press.

I guess the real ethical question this throws up is that of utilitarianism: do the ends justify the means? Can morally dubious behaviour be justified if the ultimate outcome is exposure of corruption? Was the Telegraph right to pay an individual to break his own commitments and steal data for the sake of a public story? Ultimately it can be argued that the public interest was served; but the story was run in such a way as to titillate the interest of the public, too – drawn out over weeks. So, even if we decide the ends (the public interest) were justified by the means (of obtaining the data), this doesn’t let the newspaper off the moral hook for the means it adopted. Accountability cuts more than one way, after all.

So, we have identified briefly three 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. I think this leads us next to think a little about the phrase used to justify media intrusion into some people’s lives: public interest. Clearly, the publication or transmission of something that is ‘of interest to the public’ is not necessarily ‘in the public interest’, is it? A story that is interesting to a particular community might not be of importance to the wider community addressed by particular media organs. Equally, a matter of real public interest might not be communicable in a form that makes it of interest to the audience. However, ‘public interest’ should not be used as a cover for telling tales that titillate some while destroying the subjects – when the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good. Which brings us back to Leveson.

This must be one of the very few public inquiries to have run for so long and yet still not have lost its power to shock. The fundamental question being addressed by Leveson is: how did a particular media organisation (a) manage to hold such power over public officials, the police and its own industry, (b) develop a deeply and endemically corrupt culture of unaccountable abuse, and (c) have the nerve to pervert the course of justice – allegedly – by attempting industrial-scale destruction of evidence of its wrongdoing? Having addressed these questions, Leveson will go on to draw out the lessons and commend a better way of regulating the press – or, at least, holding the press more accountable not only for its product, but also for its methods and behaviour.

In his Orwell Lecture in November 2011, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, reminded us of the context in which the phone hacking story broke. He said: “… I think Orwell would have been deeply interested in the broader story – not of how you regulate the press, but how one man and one corporation came to have such sway over British political, commercial and cultural life – and how we came within days of allowing him a position of even greater dominance.” You will remember that the new coalition government had decided that there was not really a problem in James Murdoch’s News International taking a major holding in BskyB – thus giving him and his business a staggering degree of ownership of a range of media enterprises. James Murdoch was being defended as a fit and proper person, despite the protestations of many of us who were alarmed for a number of reasons. The relentless rise of Murdoch only began to falter at the last minute when the extent of phone hacking began to emerge – challenging previous dismissals of the extent of any wrongdoing and putting a large question mark over the probity of previous refusals by the Metropolitan Police, Ofcom  and the Press Complaints Commission to investigate further.

July 2011 – as Rusbridger recalled: “a month that saw revelations that plumbed new depths in journalism. There were resignations, arrests, a death, parliamentary debates, corporate high drama; family feuding; multimillion-pound payoffs, the closure of a newspaper … and the climax: the “most humble day” in the life of the most powerful media tycoon of this, or of any other, generation.” Yet that was not the beginning and it certainly wasn’t the end of the story. Within weeks the number of people suspected of having been hacked had risen to 5,800. Arrests have continued, prosecutions are now being considered, and Murdoch Junior has had to resign from two of his most prominent positions. Father and son have been summoned and grilled again. They have become the story – a disastrous position for the storytellers to find themselves in.

Yet, what is staggering is that July 2011 followed eighteen months of obfuscation by News International and politicians, intimidation by News International (claiming in print that the Guardian had ‘deliberately misled the British public’ over its allegations of widespread phone hacking), and negligence by a police force that now appears to have been complicit in corruption at different levels. As Rusbridger put it: “… fascinating in what it said about Britain and the settlement so many people in public life had made, over two generations or more, with Rupert Murdoch.”

How did we as a society allow such power and unaccountable freedom to Murdoch’s organs? How did we allow such intimidation to continue for so long? Why did we find it so hard to believe the extent or probity of the allegations against the News of the World and its parent? For, if corrupt journalistic cultures were allowed to grow for so long, they did so with the complicity of a public that gobbled up its product with a voyeuristic passion that now looks shameful. Someone was buying the papers in huge numbers when vulnerable people (the McCanns, for example) were being turned into entertainment commodities for the voyeuristic judgmentalism of a public that surely had lost its own moral bearings.

Yet, nothing should distract us from the ethical mire into which this particular media organisation has dragged us. Not only was there allegedly a culture of bullying in which journalists were compelled to indulge practices they clearly thought were dubious. This company generated its own private intelligence operation – “one that outsourced the dirtiest work to criminals and which, according to people in a position to know, had a formidable private investigation capability.” Intrusion into the private lives of huge numbers of individuals became routine – which suggests that these people were assumed to be dehumanised commodities, depersonalised and to be denied their privacy. Remember the imago Dei?

A brilliant illustration of this to be found in 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.

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? 

Was it just a matter of days ago that politicians were too fearful of the consequences of taking on Rupert Murdoch? The News International debacle has been so fast-moving that we easily lose track of time. Yet, until very recently our politicians – with very few exceptions – were unwilling to hold the press to account.

Unlike any other institution, the press were allowed to self-regulate. MPs weren’t to be trusted with such an obvious nonsense. And any MP stupid enough to take on the press were likely to find themselves a target. My personal experience is trivial, but having blogged about media acountability on one occasion I received a comment in which an anonymous journalist told me “we will get into every corner of your life and take you apart”. However bizarre, that sort of threat gets under your skin. So, it is perfectly understandable why public figures try to minimise the risk by either avoiding or schmoozing with the press.

So, just how bizarre was it today when we hear Labour leader Ed Miliband triumphantly proclaim that today the politicians have “held power to account”? Hang on a minute, the politicians hold the press to account – something they could have done for years, but were too compromised or afraid to do – and this is articulated as ‘power being held to account’?

First, it is the politicians who are supposed to be the ‘power’ that the press hold to account. This admission (was it a slip?) hides a confession of previous neglect of duty. The politicians had the power and gave it away out of fear. Or that, at least, is what it looks like.

Second, the statement removes the pretence from the press that they merely observe or expose – guardians of truth and defenders of integrity; now even the politicians are admitting that the press, as shapers of society and public opinion, have enormous power and need to be accountable. But, what a turn-around since they were scared witless by the expenses scandal (for the record, not exposed by News International) and Fleet Street reigned without challenge?

There was something unseemly about the parliamentary feeding frenzy today. Hindsight-blessed MPs stuck every knife available into someone they protected until only days ago – don’t forget the Tory defence of Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. Murdoch deserves to be exposed, but the politicians need to tell us why it took them so long. I guess the answer is that the bandwagon only came along last week.

So, the News of the Screws is closing. I doubt if there will be a great deal of sadness around. But, two questions arise:

First, despite the language of contrition used by James Murdoch, is this anything more than a brutal business decision to protect a brand (News International)? This is the man who stated without embarrassment at the 2009 Edinburgh Television Festival that the only value that matters is profit. I have critiqued that value system elsewhere. The language of contrition appears to hide what is a simple brand/business decision and we will need to wait and see what sort of beast replaces the NOTW in the News International stable.

Second, I cannot remember a time when the tabloids did not call instantly for the head of a government minister who presided – wittingly or unwittingly – over some misdemeanour in his or her department. The buck stops at the top. Why is it different at News International? Is this not a matter of principle rather than personality? James Murdoch’s defence of Rebekkah Brookes is breathtaking in its arrogance. Were she simply the current Chief Executive at a time of criminal revelation, that would be serious enough. Were she top dog of an organisation in which people misled her (and her bosses) over the extent of criminal and corrupt activity in her business, she would at least be guilty of rank incompetence – not having an appropriate grip over her employees. On both counts she could expect to go. But, having been in charge of the NOTW when all this stuff was going on, it is inconceivable that she can remain. She admits ignorance (and, therefore, incompetence) and the price to be paid is that 200 other people lose their job.

While writing this David Cameron has cut Andy Coulson loose and announced two inquiries: one into the hacking  business and one into how to clean up the press. Why has it taken until now for the impotence of the Press Complaints Commission to be recognised? Why until now for the scandalous behaviour of unaccountable tabloids to be stopped?

This is obviously a tough moment for Cameron himself and one that raises questions about his personal judgement in respect of what has influenced his decisions regarding Rupert Murdoch, Rebekkah Brookes and Andy Coulson. Loyalty is noble, but the Prime Minister’s primary loyalty is to the people and the rule of law – not to friends. If you have to ask someone if they are criminal, it is probably not very wise to employ them anyway.

If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this it is probably a simple one: expediency will always be called to account eventually.

I only hope that this mucky business sets good journalists free to do their work in a more clearly defined ethical environment and with the renewed confidence of a public that has confidence in their remit.

Closure of the News of the World might be sad for the good people who now work for it, but it isn’t a sad day for British culture or the media in general.

So, Silvio Berlusconi is finally going to court. The abuse of power charge apparently relates to his procuring of prostitutes, some of whom were under-age.

What is amazing about this is that it is his sexual failures that have brought him to book (unless he manages to exert his usual patronage and power to escape once again) and not the big stuff about power.

For example, his massive ownership of media organs in Italy and the way this has enabled him to mediate information to his own benefit. This would be worrying enough were it not for the fact that someone in his position can occupy the position of ultimate political power in Italy. I worry about Murdoch, but at least he isn’t running to be Prime Minister or Queen.

Why does sexual misdemeanour count so heavily when other abuses of power are far more serious? This is not to say that his sexual life is irrelevant – and using power or money to buy teenagers for sex is a massive abuse of power. But, it seems that the value system is not too … er … ‘rightly balanced’ here.

Shouldn’t we be more alarmed by concentrated media ownership and its collusion with political power and patronage than about what Silvio does in bed (or to his remarkable hair)?

Just wondering.

Edit 21.09: The point I should have made clearer above is that there is no hierarchy of abuse – his sexual exploitation of girls is damnable. But it is clearly easier to get him nailed on this rather than the other stuff. That’s what is challenging.

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.

Vince Cable might be out of a job soon – despite the decision to keep him on as Business Secretary for now. His injudicious remarks to posing-as-constituents undercover journalists from the Telegraph might well be enough to get him the push eventually. You can’t afford to tell the truth in politics, after all – even if you think you have the power to bring a government down and win a ‘war on Murdoch’.

Clearly, the revelation of Cable’s ‘war on Murdoch’ makes it difficult for him to claim impartiality in making the ultimate judgement on News Corp’s take-over of BSkyB. So, it is right that this judgement has been removed from him. But, it should not be inferred from this that Murdoch’s bid is somehow validated – or that it should now get an easier ride – despite the cries of righteous indignation that will (inevitably and justifiably) emanate from the Empire. The bid is questionable on a number of grounds and needs to be examined on impartial grounds if the eventual judgement is to have the credibility that really matters in the fast-changing media environment.

But, the ethics of journalists pretending to be constituents and secretly recording Cable are also questionable (at the very least). The same people who complain about dissembling politicians seem not to be able to understand why public figures feel compelled to dissemble in the first place. We create a vicious and unedifying circle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thinking aloud for a moment, what are the alternatives? Would we applaud a government in which every individual Minister said publicly what they really think about every issue? Or would we deride such a government for being ill-disciplined, ego-driven and hopelessly inept? We (the media and the public who love the drama of scandal and the schadenfreude of seeig th mighty fall) seem to want it both ways.

Cable got it badly wrong. But, he wasn’t the only one who should be questioning his ethics.

Postscript 22 December: If Vince Cable is compromised in being the adjudicator of the Murdoch bid by the partisan comments he has made, why is Jeremy Hunt not compromised by the same? http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/22/jeremy-hunt-news-corp-bskyb?CMP=twt_fd

At last. After several years of hearing the BBC and its public service remit being picked away at by the people who hope to benefit (financially, at the very least) from its decline, the Director General, Mark Thompson, has struck back with a powerful defence of the culture, ethos, purpose and performance of the Corporation.

In the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last night he talked tough and he challenged those who wish to see the BBC weakened. Predictably, the instant response from representatives of Sky and other independents was to claim the lecture amounted to little more than ‘a plea for the licence fee’. Why predictable? Because it is easier even for professionals to sneer than to engage with the debate on reasonable terms.

First of all, Thompson was not defensive about the BBC (in a protectionist way) and openly described the challenges facing the organisation in the next few years. One of these challenges is the deliberate negativity within the media industry (and politics) regarding the BBC:

The purists have spent a generation making the free market case for abolishing the licence fee and the British public agrees with them less now than they did when they started. Nor is there any evidence that the public have any enthusiasm for the privatisation of Channel 4, the Arts Council of the Air or any of the other schemes which the hardliners have come up over the years. But of course you wouldn’t know any of this if you based your assessment of public attitudes to British broadcasting on the evidence of most of the UK’s national newspapers. Systematic press attacks on broadcasters, and especially on the BBC, are nothing new of course ⎯ the first hostile campaigns began back in John Reith’s day ⎯ but the scale and intensity of the current assaults does feel different.

He then goes on to ram the point home:

Often the reporters freely admit to us that they know the story they’re working on is going to be ramped up, distorted or just plain nonsense. But as one journalist said to one of my colleagues recently: ‘It doesn’t matter about the facts, they just want to trash you.’ Now that’s what I call refreshing honesty. Not the public interest. Not accountability. We just want to trash you.

Now, hurting the feelings of BBC leaders is not the issue here. The issue is why there is such a strong agenda of negativity in sectors of the UK media against an institution revered around the world and (as every poll seems to suggest) loved by the public? (Read the report – he quotes figures.) By the time he has a go at Sky and the Murdoch Empire, it is clear that he is suspicious of the motives behind criticism from certain quarters.

Secondly, Thompson talks up the wider broadcasting field and stresses the need for a strong Channel 4, a strong ITV and a strong independent sector. Yet, he sees that strength lying in the commissioning of and investment in excellent British creative programming. Why? In order that all people have access to the best  and that we are not reduced to a lowest common denominator culture in which we simply buy in – regardless of quality – what everybody else is making abroad:

Exceptional per capita investment in new production has meant that we have a far bigger position in the most expensive forms of TV drama, comedy, landmark factual not a sufficient condition for producing the best TV in the world, but it is a necessary one.

As everyone knows, much of that investment derives from direct and indirect public intervention. Free market purists claim that, if you reduced or eliminated this intervention, the market would simply fill the gap. But look around the world. There are plenty of countries where public intervention is on the wane – licence fees cut, public broadcasters in decline – but in no country anywhere has the market stepped up to replace the lost programme investment.

But do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC’s funding could be magically made up from somewhere else. It just wouldn’t happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone forever.

Thompson makes his case strongly, but the speech needs to be read as a whole and only then addressed critically. The BBC faces significant challenges, but it needs people at the top who believe in it, are not afraid of fighting for it and can articulate a vision for its confident role in the emerging digital world. It feels to me like we have heard a strong first strike. We need more.

I didn’t realise I felt so strongly about the value of the BBC in this competitive world until I heard James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture last year. The brazen amorality of his case and the deliberate omission of anything that confounded his argument (News Corp says it wants competition, but actually wants to be dominant across the media platforms, eliminating the competition it doesn’t like…) was shocking. The massive progress led by Murdoch Senior in changing the way the media operate were undermined (in my view and that of some others who are interested in media policy) by Murdoch Junior’s arrogance – the arrogance of those who have power and know they have the money to increase their concentration of power. As Thompson observes:

Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.

According to Enders analysis, it will be a concentration of cross-media ownership which would not be allowed in the United States or Australia, News Corp’s other two most important markets.

Compare the ethical assumptions behind these two statements:

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.


People say to me ⎯ ‘aren’t you afraid that Sky is going to start spending more on original British programmes and will therefore be competing head-to-head with you?’ But that’s what should happen. It would be good for the BBC. It would be good for the industry. It would be good for the public… What would success look like? Strong creative and commercial revival at ITV, 4 and 5. A Sky which was as proud of spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new British programmes as on the HBO archive. British producers succeeding in international markets, not at the expense of quality but because of it.

The former was James Murdoch’s conclusion, the latter Mark Thompson’s.

Mark Thompson has taken the debate to the nay-sayers and has raised the rhetorical stakes. There are interesting times ahead.

rupertmurdochI woke this morning to the news that journalists on a national newspapers have been systematically and repeatedly bugging people’s private phones.

I also am wondering if I should ever go for meetings at Church House, Westminster, again. According to the Bishop of Fulham at last week’s FCA launch, ‘Satan is alive and well and resides at Church House’.

And I am intrigued that the Queen has been dragged into the FCA business.

So, I have three areas of questioning running round my head:

1. Will the News International publish a list of every person whose phone was hacked? And, picking up another theme of recent bloggings, will journalists now push for an independent Press Complaints Commission – having insisted on such scrutiny for MPs?

2. Will the Bishop of Fulham tell us which bit of Church House is home to Satan – and give us names? I want either to avoid the said person or tackle him/her. I think we should be told. (And why did Archbishop Jensen or anybody else not question this bizarre statement at the time?)

3. It is clear, now that Anglican Mainstream has published the correspondence with Buckingham Palace, that the ‘letter from the Queen’ was no such thing and did not offer support to FCA. Why, then, did Chris Sugden (when being interviewed about this specific point on Sunday on BBC Radio 4) not simply deny it rather than leave the question of royal support open – suggesting that this would be revealed at the launch the next day and, therefore, setting off speculation and reaction?

I wonder if any of these questions will get answers? I have to admit, however, that the only one of importance to the real world is the first.