When I have sounded off about the media in the past, one of the journalists to respond with vigour has been Martin Beckford of the Daily Telegraph. Some of his responses have been illuminating and helpful – especially where he took time and trouble to address some of the charges I and others were levelling at journalists. So, despite thinking that the Telegraph has to be handled like a tabloid these days, I do respect Martin and I listen to what he says.

In this week’s Church of England Newspaper he asks why, when politicians and other public personalities don’t whinge about their treatment in the press, the church (or, let’s face it, bishops) does. It’s a reasonable question and, if I was in Martin’s position, one I would pose with a degree of frustration. I am one of the people who exasperates him, but at least I don’t stop getting stuck in with the media on their terms. So, what I am returning to here is a discussion we have had before about expectations of the media.

I think this point sets us off:

[George Pitcher] should know, as should everyone who reads newspapers, that the bottom line is that they are businesses and they sell copies by finding stories that are new and interesting. Of course that doesn’t mean making things up or distorting them, but at the same time they are within their rights to interpret what public figures say and highlight the parts that are new and controversial.

I couldn’t agree more. With every point. But, what Martin misses here is the perception of some of us on the receiving end that ‘making up’ and ‘distortion’ are precisely what has gone on. Hence, the story is not about the core substance, but about the journalist’s perception of or spin on it. That’s why I pointed out in this blog that justice should be done to the subject of the story even if the content of what he says then gets roasted on the spit of analysis. In this respect, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on politics are game for all the inflated and angry comment they provoke. But, the context in which his views were expressed must dictate the nature of theme addressed, the register of his language, and so on. An editorial that introduces a series of guest articles debating precisely the issues he opens up in his editorial surely has a certain status as interrogative or provocative; but, it can’t be seen in isolation from those later articles and their context. That is where – rightly or wrongly – some of us feel stitched up.

Martin goes on:

I don’t think the reason clerics [complain] more than politicians is because they are other-worldly or naive, I just think MPs are much more realistic about the nature of the press and appreciate that we are overall a good thing for democracy even if occasionally we go a bit too far. After all, reporting is not a science and there is never just one way to write a story.

The implication of this is that we must simply accept the nature of the press as it is, rather than express some desire that it should be better than it currently is. My personal issue with this is both ethical (the role that the media play in the democracy Martin wants to defend gives them enormous power and influence and, therefore, affects behaviour as well as discourse) and professional (as a former professional wordsmith I would have been very uncomfortable about putting a spin on a story in order to create a story when I knew I was distorting the original). Surely a democracy that needs a free and bold press is one in which its citizens have the right to demand that its journalists do justice in their role as ‘players’ and not just ‘observers’ of the democratic substance? Accountability works both ways.

Martin writes that he had originally intended to write his piece about how Rowan Williams “was the sole survivor of what was once a large group of outspoken figures in the C of E”. Is it not just possible that many of the current ‘figures’ see what happens to their outspoken counterparts and decide (a) you can’t win and (b) it isn’t worth the hassle? I am not defending that response, but I do think it is understandable.

Martin goes on to observe that the Archbishop “knows exactly how his words will be received; he just doesn’t crave positive headlines like most public figures.” He concludes:

For the sake of the church, as well as those who make their living reporting on it, I very much hope he will continue to speak his mind.

The journalist (rightly) is not responsible for dealing with the aftermath of what they write. But, they will get more outspokenness if those speaking can trust the intelligence and integrity of those doing the writing. Most people who have contacted me about the Archbishop’s views derived their understanding (and frustration with him) not from his original words, but from the Telegraph’s reporting on them. Having read the original, several were cross about the latter. And this mirrors my own experiences in similar (but less serious) circumstances.

The conversation will, no doubt, continue. However, if the written-about are to understand the nature and business of the writers, is it too much to ask the writers to understand the experience and perception of the written-about?

I have been out all day visiting clergy and parishes in Airedale. Time was tight and I wasn’t able to get stuck in to the Rowan Williams media frenzy – although I did manage to do two quick radio interviews in-between meetings. Having read the actual article in the New Statesman, I am wondering if the media are actually feeding from the wrong menu. If Rowan wanted to attack the government, he could have done it better than this. But this isn’t the purpose of his article. It clearly suits the agenda of the media to look for conflict where there is only debate.

First, it is clear that some commentators haven’t actually read the original article, but are responding to the second-hand articles produced by others. Good for a story and venting a little spleen, but not terribly useful.

Second, whatever answers people want to give to the questions he articulates, is anyone seriously suggesting that the questions aren’t the right ones?

Third, aren’t some of the attacks on him simply a form of distraction therapy for people who find his questioning embarrassingly on target?

One of the more bizarre elements of this business is the suggestion that the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t interfere in politics. That view assumes that either politics is the preserve of those who think they have a right to occupy a fantasy ‘neutral’ space or that politics has nothing to do with real life. At least David Cameron acknowledged the right (if not the imperative) for the Church to speak out on such matters. However, his response seems to be to reporting on the Archbishop’s article rather than the content of the article itself.

It is worth noting also that the article is the leader written by Rowan as guest editor of this edition of the New Statesman. It introduces articles by several politicians who go on to address the questions raised in ways which the Archbishop might find unconvincing. In other words, the leader has to be seen in the context of the whole and read as an introduction to what is intended to be an intelligent discussion of the very themes the Archbishop thinks should be raised more widely.

I would love to ask some of the screaming commentators when they last trod the pavements of some of the poorest communities in our cities and rural areas. When did they last encounter people who are genuinely bemused by what is going on with the economy, education or the NHS? When did they last listen to the stories of those who constantly lose out and for whom the future looks hopeless?

David Cameron (interestingly) was heard to say that he disagreed that people whould be paid to stay out of work. I have no idea to which question that was deemed to be a relevant answer. Identifying the consequences of economic and other policies on poor people is not to say that they should be kept in perpetuity by the State. But it is to ask what sort of society we wish to shape, how we will cope with the dispossessed or the disaffected (who won’t simply disappear quietly into the ether), and which values should run through that society. Indeed, the Archbishop is asking politicians – not just the government, but those failing to state a credible alternative – to articulate the values and philosophical assumptions underlying their  determined policies.

Why is that request deemed inappropriate or odd? Do we not think that our democracy is impoverished if we simply accept electoral apathy, political disconnectedness or lack of engagement with the public discourse on those values that will shape us – wittingly or unwittingly? Do we really not need a more diligent and intelligent debate about which values we wish as a society to espouse – or do we just accept uncritically the notion that pragmatism should be unchallenged? Shouldn’t the electorate have been given an opportunity to know where any potential goverment might take education or the NHS – or are we just to accept that elections are to be seen as a sort of shadow boxing after which the lights can be changed and the shadows ignored in favour of some other substance?

When the frenzy has ended and the calmer commentators are picking over the bones of this matter, I dare to think that the questions and challenges put by the Archbishop will be seen to be the right ones – prophetic in the best sense of the word. As he says towards the end of his article:

… a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Forgive me for being amused, but it does seem quite funny that people who get so worked up about God in general, religion in particular and Christianity in particular particularity can’t stop talking about it all. They have done a remarkable job in reviving and keeping alive the discourse about God when their deepest desire is to eradicate God and all talk of him.

wilsonLast week’s New Statesman focused on religion (prior to Easter) and brought a number of people into the conversation. The most interesting by far was the interview with AN Wilson who, a couple of decades after having declared himself an atheist, is now back in the theistic and Christian fold. He is not stupid, illiterate, ill-educated or morally weak and in need of some intellectual or emotional crutch with which to limp through life. He is honest and open and has clearly irritated those who can’t comprehend that anyone with half a brain could possibly be a Christian. Instead of arguing, they sneer.

AN Wilson has followed this up with a fuller explanation of his journey back to faith in an intriguing and sharp article in the Mail written last Saturday. In it he points to the embarrassment of being a known to be a Christian – on the grounds that it isn’t ‘sexy’ or cool. I know exactly what he means: try sitting on a train in a clerical collar and watch the eyes…

But Christians can take heart and be confident. Unlike some of the evangelists for atheism, people like AN Wilson are simply telling their story and not imposing it on anyone who doesn’t want to hear it. He does not come over as being evangelistic about his re-found faith, but simply open about it in all its simplicity and complexity.

Perhaps the New Atheists should just relax a bit more. In the meantime, we should thank them that their aggressive evangelism keeps the language of God alive in the street, in offices, in pubs and just about everywhere else. I think they call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’.