This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Michael Ball:

If you are anything like me, there are times in the day when you just need to switch your mind and give your ‘serious head’ a bit of a break. That’s what the internet is for – social media in particular.

One I turn to simply posts clips from local newspapers or photos of newspaper billboards. I can’t tell you the title because it’s a bit rude – but it always makes me laugh. Try these genuine headlines:

“Dog ate pair of giant knickers”

“Delight as man grows banana in garden” (That’s Surrey for you.)

“Chaos as badgers snub their new home”

Chaos?! Life must be quiet in Macclesfield.

The best of the recent ones – actually from the Somerset Gazette – has to be: “Village People upset at YMCA plans”.

It’s not exactly at the level of North Korea and the threat of nuclear conflict, is it? Or even how many full-time jobs a man can have?

But, for most people the local is as important as the national or the global. What happens in the neighbourhood has an impact on your day in a way that Russian espionage against Hillary Clinton does not. ‘Nude man’s rampage at tea rooms’ might be a bigger story in Cambridge than Harrogate in the same way that windy weather in London is irrelevant to the hardy northerner.

Why does this matter? Well, principally because it reminds us of what a songwriter once called “the greatness of the small”. For Christians this is bread and butter to the way we see our faith and the world: God comes among us, as one of us, at a particular time and in a particular place – in Jesus of Nazareth.

The small matters – just as the local matters. In a world that trumpets greatness, power, wealth and image (if not always truth), I believe we can make a powerful difference to one person by paying attention to what lies before our very eyes. As the proverb goes: change the world for one person and you change the world. Which is the spirit in which to understand Comic Relief this week.

So, today I’ll laugh when I read the hot news that “Puddle splash victim vows revenge” and remember that loving your neighbour starts just here.

There are times when being a news editor must be the worst job.

What ought to lead the news today? What should be the order of priority? Which is most important in its implications for the world?

  • The continuing brutality in Syria and the dangers of a wrong move leading to a regional or global conflict?
  • The apparently uncontrollable brutality meted out in Nairobi, with Muslims being separated out for life and non-Muslims for execution in a shopping centre?
  • The suicide bombings in Pakistan aimed specifically at Christians? (Oops, this one has already fallen off the front pages, so no link.)
  • Ongoing violence in Egypt and violence against Christians there?
  • The latest warnings by scientists about global warming and the debate about human causes of this?
  • Potential rapprochement between the USA and Iran?
  • The re-election of Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political leader in Europe?
  • The continuing oppression and slaughter in Darfur, Sudan? (Oh dear, not on any page – old news.)

The disappearance of Christian communities from Asia and the Middle East might not seem to everyone in liberal Britain to be the most important phenomenon in the world – especially to those who think religion is just a slightly embarrassing matter of mere individual private opinion. Not only is it a scandal, however, but it might turn out to bring a really significant change to the balance of world politics – and human co-existence in parts of the globe where diverse cultures have lived alongside each other for centuries.

The loudest news isn't necessarily the most important.


The last week has been a bit … er … busy. But, that didn't stop the questions flying around my head.

1. How does the press manage (a) to have the brass neck and (b) not to laugh when telling the rest of us that they alone should be accountable only to themselves? Everyone else must be regulated, reported on, “held to account”, but the press must be completely “free” – to shred people's lives with impunity. Leveson's recommendations on statutory underpinning were made precisely because no one trusts bodies that want to run their own regulation. The point of regulation is that it should be independent – and self-selecting bodies don't fit that bill.

2. Would Leveson create a Soviet scenario? Don't be ridiculous. Comparisons with Pravda are utter nonsense and the newspaper industry knows it. If any of these guys had ever read Pravda, they would know that like is not being compared with like.

3. Will the Archbishop of Canterbury ring the changes in and for the Church of England? Who knows? He needs the space to recover from the last couple of days and then get down to business. Tough call, but he will be backed by his bishops as the brown stuff is poured on him.

4. Whose agenda is running when the BBC report his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday and remark at the beginning that he didn't mention women bishops or gay marriage and conclude by saying that he won't be able to escape these issues for long? Remarkable! If he had referred to these issues, the church would have been accused of being obsessed with gender and sex; he didn't, so we are accused of running away from them for a day. It isn't the church that is obsessed with these issues to the exclusion of all else, is it?

5. Why did I sell my best fantasy league players and get stuck with the ones that get injured or earn me no points? Never, ever, take me on as a football manager.

When I worked as a professional linguist for the British government in the first half of the 1980s the colours on the map looked deep and fixed. The mighty Soviet Empire joined in proxy wars with the American Giant and the Berlin Wall looked pretty impregnable. The West was best and the East was a beast… according to the simplistic world view of most of us. China was bonkers – but that was OK because China was closed off from most of the world anyway. India was a bit of a post-colonial basket case.

It’s not very subtle really. We just tend to assume that the ‘now’ is the ultimate and, from the comfort of our relative affluence, we find it hard to imagine our towers cracking. You have to suffer to imagine radical change; it’s hope that imagines difference.

The world changes very quickly. What looks solid and permanent cracks and collapses in a seeming instant. The Soviet monolith dissolved, it’s tanks and guns neutered by popular refusal to be controlled by the taxidermic hypocrites of the incompetent Kremlin pantheon. The Berlin Wall was breached. Just as the British Empire waxed and waned within a period that is a blip of history, so the empires came and went. It is hard to believe today that the Cold War was ever that cold really.

And yet we find it hard to learn from history – even recent history. The USA proclaims itself the ‘land of the free’, but is skating on the surface of unsustainable debt and diminishing power – apparently divided between a polarised populace who can’t see that the world is changing, whether they like it or not.

Empires come and go. That’s what history teaches us. And when they begin to go, we begin to fantasise that if only we could go back to how it once was (but probably wasn’t), all would be well again. Which is why, in religious terms, some would like to take us all back to the seventeenth century rather than create a new world from where we are. Fantasy is the food of the fearful.

Yet, this is not true only of nations. The news is dominated by the on-going hacking scandal in the UK and the latest fear-driven financial crisis. The British tabloid press demonstrated an invincible hubris for decades, setting themselves above the law, seated on the thrones of moral judgement over everyone else. Today they look pretty sordidly feeble – built on criminality and greed. And the smell is spreading across the media and across the Atlantic. This probably isn’t a good time to set up a private detective agency…

Europe itself, like the USA, is walking on the thin ice of economic and financial hubris: massively in debt, manufacturing too little, too used to living off the fat. And we are finding it hard to choose change. We want it all – even when we know we can’t afford it. Amy Winehouse wasn’t the only one to find addiction too hard to reject.

We like to think that we would be the little boy who declares the emperor to be naked – when, actually, we would be colluding in the imperial fantasy. We like to think that we would defend Jesus from the demands to crucify him – when, actually, we would be joining in. After all, it’s not that hard to argue the case either way, is it?

The prophets of the Old Testament basically had a single simple message: if you claim to love God, then live in such a way as to incarnate his character. As Micah put it: “Love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God.” No hubris, no fantasy, no tyranny of any kind. Refusal to heed this led to exile and the loss of everything that spoke of God’s favour.

Empires are falling – some faster than others. It will be challenging to see what colour the world and it’s money will be by the end of the next decade… which is a mere blip of a slightly bigger blip of a history from which we rarely learn anything other than how to repeat it.

Today I’ll be celebrating an icon of hope: the wedding of my godson in London. More anon…

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Just a quick break between meetings (of which there are currently shed loads). A quick look at the BBC website:

  • The News of the World story grows seedier by the minute. Not only was Milly Dowler’s phone allegedly hacked, but the parents of the murdered Soham girls have also been visited by police in this respect. And the editor at the time, Rebekkah Brookes, expresses a displeasure lacking the venom with which her paper usually reserves for its targets in public life. Still no resignation – or, as we usually think of it, ‘taking responsibility’?
  • Footballer Rio Ferdinand is in court against an allegedly unfounded story of an extramarital affair in the Sunday Mirror.
  • Two national newspapers are deemed in contempt of court for their reporting on a man who turned out to be completely innocent of the murder of Joanna Yeates. Because he looks a bit odd, he was damned as guilty before being allowed to be proved innocent.
  • Johann Hari recently gave new meaning to the word ‘Independent‘ (of the actualite) when he was alleged to have ‘plagiarised’ on an industrial scale.

Is there a common thread here? Something around the need for accountability? Something about sifting good journalism from the bad by refusing to allow these travesties to continue?

Just one day in July.

Just back from Zimbabwe where ‘living on rations’ has had a certain accuracy in the last couple of years and here we are in the silly season with an MP getting pilloried in the London papers for an inappropriate remark. I probably should be as ‘angry’ as the rest of the country apparently is (how do the newspapers know these things?), but I’m not. Instead, I’m watching England get embarrassed by Holland in the football friendly and dreading the inevitable ‘angry’ critique in tomorrow’s papers – written by people who probably couldn’t run to catch a bus.

Alan DuncanBut back to dodgy MPs. I have never been a fan of Alan Duncan – he’s in a party I don’t trust and has been playing the camp/risque jester ever since he came out as gay. I think I probably preferred him when he was trying to be a shockingly right-wing but serious politician. He comes over as the sort of smug politician who probably deserves all he gets – but I don’t know him and he does have a reputation for being charming.

But, I really dislike the way he has been stitched up today. He was secretly recorded on the House of Commons terrace making a serious point (whether we agree with him or not) about the calibre of people likely to want to enter Parliament in the future and making a not-very-good joke about MPs now ‘living on rations’. Of course, this has been picked up and milked for all it is worth – telling us that we must be shocked by this MP’s arrogance.

Andrew MarrWhat worries me about this is the likelihood that no MP will want to say anything in future that might be funny or not ‘fully formed’. Andrew Marr, in his excellent book My Trade: A Short history of British Journalism, comments as follows about the danger of forcing politicians to keep their real thoughts to themselves and not take the risk of rehearsing arguments openly in order to test or move on their own thinking:

If serious, difficult arguments are misrepresented by the media, then the whole point of political debate – which is that bad arguments are answered, and driven out by better ones, and so good governance advances – is destroyed. The twisting of politicians’ views by hostile newspapers infuriates them but, more to the point, persuades them to keep their real thoughts to themselves and so robs the rest of us of thoughts we may need to read about… Instant publicity can kill honest argument. Government requires full frankness; and frankness can look bad in print.

Now, Duncan’s silly remark was hardly a matter of State importance, let alone direct governance. But Marr’s point is apposite. He continues:

If you are in charge of a business, or part of government, or even if you are talking to a partner about your future plans, you need to be able to think and talk a little wildly, to test extreme positions and unlikely ideas, to speculate and joke, before you settle on a course of action. Almost all of us say things in private which we would be aghast to hear loudly quoted among our friends and neighbours… Without speculation there can be no good decision-taking: yet such is the authority and importance of government that its speculation, if revealed, can cause people to riot, foreign governments to protest, and ministers to seem very foolish indeed. The ill-considered private joke becomes a deadly headline. The wild surmise becomes a plan. The nose-tapping warning becomes a public libel. If we were all publicly judged on our private, intimate conversations, we would dry into inner silence, and the same is true of governments. (p.137ff)

Andrew Marr - My TradeMarr’s observations about governments are well worth reading for its own sake, but the point here is simply that we seem to have created (or be in the process of creating) a culture in which arguments can only be articulated when fully formed and that public people cannot be seen to change their mind because, having tested an idea or argument, they have learned from the process and moved on. The risky spontaneity of the joke is suppressed for fear of how it might be reported if overheard. Speech becomes constrained by fear. This cannot be healthy. Would it not be healthier if public servants such as politicians (and bishops, for that matter – which is what I think my blogging is all about) were to model how serious people can develop or change their mind by open consideration of arguments. Instead, a politician who changes his or her mind is pilloried for being inconsistent, unreliable or stupid.

Alan Duncan has never had my sympathy for anything and he perhaps should know better than to let his guard down the way he did. But the wider issue behind the lack of a private space for letting the guard down is also worrying.

I don’t want to flog the point ad nauseam. But I feel the way the Anglican Communion is dealing with some of its conflicts reflects this problem: when the battle lines are drawn, where is the space for people to be persuaded by another argument into intelligently moving or moderating their position, testing the arguments by articulating them?

Perhaps we just need people to stop playing the game, hang the consequences and try out their developing views anyway. I think such an approach would be evidence of what might in other spheres of life be called ‘maturity’.

Morgan-TsvangiraiIran is in a turmoil that was inconceivable even a month ago. Today Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, was shouted down at Southwark Cathedral whilst urging expatriates to return to their homeland despite a lack of reassurance about their personal safety or prospects for the rule of law. In just over one week I will be back in Kazakhstan for a global inter-religious congress – a country that has moved in under two decades from being a disastrous republic of the Soviet Union into a successful and competitive world player – where admiration for British democracy might be a little tempered by the goings-on at Westminster in recent weeks. And the joyful humiliation of MPs continues in the UK, watched with incredulity from outside and embarrassment from within.

And here I am, at my desk, with Bruce Cockburn angrily singing his critique of western political and militarysupport for dodgy Central American regimes in the 1980s: They call it democracy.

Apparently, everybody in the UK is furiously angry with our profligate, dishonest and greedy politicians. That might be true – in the same way that everybody in the UK is a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty. Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles (ordinary people in ordinary places – this morning with a group made up largely but not exclusively of pensioners), but I don’t see the anger we are being told we are feeling. I do hear expressions of wishing we could move on and wondering about who is doing the really important political stuff at Westminster while the feeding frenzy continues.

ParliamentNow, I realise that I will be told (very firmly and without hint of possible contradiction) that I am out of step with the public mood. Again, that might be true – but who says? And how would they know? If I am out of step with the ‘public mood’, then I am not going to apologise. I hadn’t realised until recently that the ‘public mood’ was the ultimate arbiter of morality and public truth – that to dissent from the ‘public mood’ was to be, by definition, wrong and suspect.

The ‘public moood’ would have lynched suspected paedophiles in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. The ‘public mood’ voted Hitler into power in the 1930s. The ‘public mood’ is probably the least trustworthy guide to moral decision-making that could possibly be found. Ask a random sample of the public if they are angry with MPs and there is little alternative but to concur; ask what people think or feel about MPs and the answer might be a little bit more nuanced.

I am worried about all this, not because I think MPs have behaved well or deserve special treatment outside of normal financial ethics. Abuses of expenses are indefensible – but so is inaccurate and sensational pillorying of particular MPs without adequate explanation of the criteria being cited. For example, do we really expect to be well served by MPs without providing them with office back-up (PA, secretary, stationery, phones, etc)? Yet when these figures are deducted from some of the huge numbers featuring in reports, the figures look less offensive. I object to being told that an MP is ‘a scandal’ for claiming half a million pounds in ‘expenses’ over the last five years when the charge is made in complete ignorance of what is needed by way of office support for our elected representatives to do their job. This is mere sensationalism.

I said I was worried. I am. I am worried about the effects of all this on the sort of people who might now put themselves forward for public office. (There is an awful lot of smug self-righteousness around in propsective parliamentary candidates right now.) Are we going to get the best quality of people (of ability and integrity) to put themselves forward for an office that will evoke scorn, suspicion and potential humiliation?

Is now the time for MPs to have their expenses scrutinised by an independent body, be asked to repay any anomalies, commit to investigation by the police any criminal activity – and then let Parliament get back to doing what we need it to do: govern the country and have MPs scrutinising legislation rather than scrutinising their expenses sheets? Hasn’t the feeding frenzy now gone far enough?

women violenceOr is it just easier to be part of the baying mob, directing our imputed ‘anger’ at someone else, prolonging the embarrassment of ‘privileged’ people and ignoring the consequences to our democracy and its institutions?

Oh, and by the way, is there not something ‘morally dubious’ about my local ‘newspaper’, The Croydon Advertiser, standing on its moral superiority in relation to MPs while taking advertising money from pimps engaged in trafficking women and exploiting them for sex? Just asking…

ParliamentWell, it seems that MPs have committed the terrible sin of allowing their expense receipts to be published with all the juicy bits blacked out in order to preserve privacy (entirely reasonable) or for reasons of security (er… bizarre). Let’s all join in the great game of baiting and castigating the greedy little beggars. After all, they’ve all been milking the system Thatcher invented for them (to avoid a different problem – not being able to pay MPs properly because such a suggestion would have been a PR disaster back in the 1980s) and deserve all the humiliation we can lay on them.

Or, do they?

According to every MP I have heard on this matter since the disastrous publicationof their expenses by Parliament yesterday, it was not MPs who did the censoring. In fact, they didn’t even see what would be published and were not consulted on what should be blacked out. I have no idea who did sanction this censorship, but it clearly wasn’t the MPs.

Expenses formSo, although in the current febrile atmosphere this might seem a mere bit of pedantry, doesn’t it matter that we are (a) told who made the decisions on what should or should not be published/censored and (b) only attribute to MPs the responsibility which rightly lies at their door? In other words, don’t attribute blame to them when it rightly belongs elsewhere – otherwise we are all in danger of confusing reality and further damaging the democracy we seek to defend by allowing sloppy and misdirected accusations (i.e. ‘falsehoods’) to be propagated willy-nilly.

Or am I missing something here?

Yesterday I posted twice on basically the same subject. Ruth Gledhill of the Times responded pretty fiercely to my first post and I was happy to accept that what I had written could have been handled without having a go at the press again. I accepted her rebuke (contributed to, I suspect, by earlier spats I had regarding the Telegraph‘s handling of MPs’ expenses and issues arising from that), but responded as follows:

You are right to issue a corrective. But I would also ask you to recognise the sheer frustration that many of us (and I don’t mean just bishops) feel in having constantly to disabuse people of impressions they have got from poor media representation. I am not convinced, however, that it is adequate to tell us to be grateful for whatever we get – I think journalists deserve to be taken more seriously than that and held to account as I am. You might not believe this, but it is my concern for the media and my commitment to media engagement that makes me respond as I do.

Ruth GledhillI am glad Ruth picked me up on this because it made me ask why I feel so strongly when journalists ‘get it wrong’. So, not wanting to stir up another hornets’ nest, but wanting to open up a less heated and more intelligent discussion, I offer the following points:

  1. A good democracy needs good media. This requires of the media a sense of responsibility in informing the public mind, analysing public policy and praxis, provoking public debate – all the while attempting to report honestly.
  2. Journalists need to be respected and supported when they engage in this rather bruising and competitive business.
  3. Journalism and journlaists are to be taken seriously – which means that failure to report or write accurately must be exposed and challenged. To do otherwise is to say that what journalists do doesn’t matter.
  4. This also requires of journalists a willingness to admit when they have got it wrong – as well as being celebrated for what is done well.

I think the root of my personal twitchiness (as exposed on various blog posts) is experience of injustice and misrepresentation that simply damages people, their relationships and their reputations – and all this without the possibility of adequate redress. Journalists need to understand what it feels like to be on ‘this’ side of the fence.

Ruth Gledhill was right to pick me up, but I would be interested in journalists’ response to my conviction that journalism and journalists are so important that, being taken seriously, they must be subject to the same scrutiny they apply to the rest of us. Perhaps a more respectful relationship between the media and the public might then be possible.

As the Government’s Digital Britain report is published today, these questions will become even more acute. (I’ll comment on the report later.)

Any views?

Baroness ScotlandThe Churches Media Conference is taking place at Swanwick and there is an impressive line-up of speakers and contributors. We began this afternoon with an address on Faith in the Public Space by Baroness Scotland, the first black and first female Attorney General. She was impressive, but left a lot of questions hanging – especially about the supposed neutrality of non-religious government ministers and the need for individual ministers/politicians to have to decide for themselves how comfortable they are ‘doing God’. Why should ministers who hold a religious world view be subject to a dilemma to which holders of other world views are not subject?

But, following a video appearance form Tony Blair, she did give us some good quotes: ‘Public policy that turns its face from faith turns its face from the public’ – noting that faith is not an optional add-on (but runs through a life like ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock) and is held by the vast majority of the population in one form or another. She further noted what has become abundantly clear today: the BNP took a reduced number of votes but got two MEPs elected because of the ‘stay at home’ policy of thousands of people who normally vote. Recalling Martin Luther king, she observed that for evil to succeed it only required good people to do nothing. (The consensus here seems to be that the church needs to engage seriously with the BNP and not just leave them out and hope they will go away.)

John Lloyd of the Financial Times made a very good contribution to the conference, celebrating the ability of politicians to compromise. Compromise is often thought of as a negative and weak word/concept; but this is misguided. He pointed out that David Cameron has urged young entrpreneurs to join the Conservative Party and stand for election to public office. The problem with this is that the young entrpreneurs don;t want to dilute their ideals once in office. But, politics is the art of compromise – not of fundamental values, of course, but of priorities and praxis. ‘The only ones who don’t ever compromise are Communists and Fascists,’ he said.

(He later made us laugh by interjecting to a statement by another contributor who asked why young people are always said to be in ‘gangs’, but old people are not. Lloyd suggested that old people form not ‘gangs’, but the ‘House of Lords’.)

Mona SiddiquiMona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, made a strong case for the media  carrying a moral burden because of the nature of their business: communication. The media, she asserted, affect strongly the way we talk about God and yet regularly succeed in diluting ‘faith’, failing to subject it to the same intellectual rigour as politics and economics or culture.

What is interesting about all this is that over a hundred media professionals and veterans are wrestling with serious matters relating to faith, broadcasting, integrity, creativity and the moral weight their profession imposes upon them. ‘Telling the truth’ is not always straightforward because it isn’t always clear what the truth is (about an event, a person, etc.); but the journalist still has to produce something for public consumption that (a) the public will want to read about and (b) will sell the medium. And that brings with it particular challenges – both professionally and ethically.

And this brings me back to questions raised in an earlier debate on this blog about the moral responsibility of the media in a civil society. Not an easy one.