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?

Good grief. The debate about foodbanks continues in the UK media, sometimes getting distracted by stuff that misses the point.

OK, the Daily Mail has no alternative but to ridicule the bishops and bang its particular drum. The Times goes a bit weird by suggesting that the bishops are out of touch with their congregations who, according to a poll, are right behind the need for benefits reform. This raises two points: (a) our congregations are also pretty solidly behind reform of banking and tax fraud by the rich, but that is being missed; (b) bishops aren't there to parrot the views of parishioners, but to tell the truth regardless. There is plenty of debate within the church about such matters, but the bishops are not simply the mouthpiece of particular constituencies.

This has always been the vocation of church leaders. As the Germans found out in the 1930s and '40s, church leaders are there to describe reality and not to collude in whatever view the masses are led to believe.

But, this week's golden exclamation mark must go, once again, to the Independent. Are they employing five year olds to write their leader editorials? I had a go at a silly piece some months ago, and here they are again with the same old brain-dead nonsense. To think this stuff is crass, but to publish it as intellectually credible is unbelievable. I obviously wasted my words last time.

Try this from today's anonymous editorial:

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective… But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

Where to start?

1. Who does have a right to 'meddle in politics'? Unelected newspaper editors? Everyone but bishops? Muslims? Atheists? Every citizen has a right and a duty to meddle in politics. Can the Independent please expose and explain the assumptions (prejudices?) that underlie this repeated nonsense? Who else should be removed from public democratic debate?

2. Bishops do not come by their public podia by dint of historical influence. If the writer wants to bang on about bishops in the House of Lords, then let him/her say so and we can have that debate. But, this latest bash isn't about that and didn't emanate from bishops in Parliament. Does the editor really believe that bishops should simply keep quiet about anything in the public square? What does he/she think a bishop is? And, again, who else should be kept quiet in the public democratic debate? Or does 'secular democracy' really mean that only people with a non-religious world view should be privileged with access to that public square? And who said?

3. Can the writer show us where the bishops made any claim to 'absolute moral authority'? They told a story and argued a case. By all means, knock it down, if it not true or if the story is selective. But, where is the claim to absolute moral authority? This, again, simply amplifies the unarticulated and uncritical prejudice of the writer. A five year old would be embarrassed to still be trotting out this stuff.

4. 'Unassailable moral position'? Which century is the writer living in here?

5. Doesn't a democracy assume that even the tiniest group with the most hesitant voice has a right to be heard, a right to be involved and a right to be thought potentially right? Anyway, bishops do not represent a constituency as an MP represents his or hers. The independent might not like this – and obviously doesn't – but it will have to find a better intellectual ground for its prejudice than this spurious ex cathedra put down.

6. What 'more harm than good' does the writer actually think has happened here? Again, unexplained, unarticulated and worthy of an unelected, morally superior elite who can pass judgement without accountability.

7. When did the bishops assume a 'divine right to be heard'? This is a joke, right? Just journalese gone a bit too far? Surely?

Clearly, more dangerous than bishops telling a story and arguing a case in the public square – on the basis that they can articulate their case effectively (sometimes…) – is a 'neutral' newspaper arrogating to itself everything it will deny of citizens-with-a-religious-world-view. But, really, this is just a joke. The Independent should do better than this. It could start by owning up to its prejudices, subjecting them to informed debate, and identifying who it is who keeps writing this stuff.

I was amused to read today that people are declining to vote because they despise politicians. Or, to use the media wording: “Fury at MPs”.

The numbers of people reading newspapers is also plummeting year on year. I wonder if a similar reason might lie behind this phenomenon (as well as all the digital revolution, multi-platform access stuff). I rarely buy a newspaper now even though I believe in them and think journalism to be a necessary and important profession.

But, is it not remotely possible that we are just getting bored with the must-write-something-about-something pressure that sees a lazy pursuit of controversy where there is none, or the selective generation of a story that is misleading – or simply indicative of the prejudices of the opinion-holder who thinks we care what he/she thinks?

I intended to write this about today's Times treatment of the Archbishop of Canterbury's preaching. But, Archbishop Cranmer got there first and said it better than I could have done.

Just wondering.

I know this is a bit narky, but try substituting any other brand of human being for 'religious' or Archbishop of Canterbury' in the leader article quoted in my last post. For example, 'newspaper editor' – just for fun:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which this newspaper has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither the Editor's motivations nor his capabilities; as a journalist, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities the Editor is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make his newspaper relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at journalism, but such matters are a private affair, and editors – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics.

Silly, I know. But, I am sitting on a train and wondering if I should simply have done this instead of what I actually wrote a couple of days ago.

 

It is rare that a national newspaper editorial exposes its prejudices so clearly. And, tempting though it is to just smile grimly and let it pass, here goes (again).

Here is how the concluding judgements of Friday's Independent editorial on the Archbishop of Canterbury's involvement in politics went:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which his organisation has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.

The italics are mine. The patronising assumptions about private-public opinions are those of the anonymous author.

First, unlike newspaper editorial writers, the church does have a 'direct involvement' in the issues we bang on about – which is why we bang on about them. We have clergy and people in every community of the country and our intelligence about 'real lives' and the impact of policy on them is rooted and informed. We don't just stand at a distance and pontificate like… er… editorial writers? Since when was child poverty or welfare reform purely a 'political' issue and not a 'human' or 'social' issue? And who else should, on this basis, be kept muted: community leaders, journalists, rabbis, sportsmen, newspaper editors?

Secondly, when I last looked, all the above were unelected. Or is the Independent really suggesting that only elected politicians should have a voice in society and how it is run? Is it really suggesting that there is some neutral ground for a world view that is shared by non-religionists, but not by those who start from a religious world view? How did such nonsense get through the editorial desk? Oh, I see…

Thirdly, yes it is a swipe at religion. Religion is being singled out for silence. And on what basis? That it is a 'private affair'. It beggars belief that this old chestnut still pops up in rational minds. The division into 'private' and 'public' is artificial. On what basis is a politicians dogma to be accepted as relevant, but an Archbishop's as mere opinion? And, even if this were to be seen as remotely valid, why is one opinion to be privileged above another?

The final swipe at the church's involvement in the legislature exposes the real point of the piece – which is not about the validity of the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in using his office to speak about social ills, but about the matter of disestablishment. Well, write a leader comment about that, then, but don't mix it up with nonsense about private opinion, elected voices and ignorance about the church's engagement in the real world of our local communities.

(And I like the Independent. I thought it was a bit brighter than this.)

 

I hesitate before writing this. I have been very critical of elements of press behaviour and had run-ins with various aggrieved journalists over the last year or so. Although the matters I have highlighted (such as accountability) are, I am sure, serious and important, I have sometimes been too quick in reacting and over-sensitive in responding to criticism.

But, in a rapidly changing media environment, some questions do need to be raised and properly debated. Put bluntly (as I have done in the past), one of the most serious questions has to do with the accountability of those who hold the rest of us to account. I am not going to rehearse the arguments here, but simply note the report in the Guardian of a call by the Media Standards Trust to radically reform the Press Complaints Commission.

According to the Guardian report the Media Standards Trust has proposed 28 recommendations that would make press self-regulation “more effective, more accountable and more transparent”. The PCC should, it proposes:

  • be more proactive in investigating potential breaches of its code, accepting third-party complaints rather than waiting for injured parties to get in touch;
  • monitor newspapers’ behaviour on behalf of the public and conduct investigations “where there is significant public concern about wrongdoing”;
  • be renamed the Press Standards Commission
  • ensure no serving editors sit on the commission itself;
  • make publishers found in breach of the code pay for the cost of the investigation;
  • make publicly available minutes of PCC meetings.

The press made loud claims about the absurdity of MPs setting their own rules, regulating their own expenses, monitoring their own performance. If independent scrutiny of MPs is so important for the democratic culture we want to enjoy, then surely there should be no problem for the press to be monitored by an independent body.

This is not to threaten the freedom of the press (which has to be protected), but to ensure accountability and to facilitate justice for those who have been unjustly aggrieved. There is much to debate about the MST’s proposals, but they would go some way to satisfying the concerns of people like me who want the best press for a better society.

Following yesterdays’ response to Sly Bailey’s rallying call to kill council-produced local newspapers, some interesting comments were made and I thought it worth spreading them. But first I should add what I intended to say about Pravda, but forgot before posting…

Isn’t it time we stopped using ‘Pravda’ as a symbol of blind state propaganda? I started reading Pravda, Izvestiya and Neues Deutschland (among others) during the 1980s. In those days Pravda was used as toilet paper in the USSR for reasons that demand little imagination: there was usually a large picture of the President on the front page and there was a shortage of toilet paper…

The Pravda of today is a very different beast. It is no more a propagandistic state organ than our own newspapers that are owned by people of very definite political persuasion. (Are the values and power of Murdoch or the Barclay brothers – for instance – to be preferred to those of some poilticians?) Pravda has to be read today with the same discrimination as one would bring to a reading of The Times – which is not to diss the Times, but to encourage intelligent reading and questioning of why we are being fed a particular line on anything.

So, will someone ask Sly Bailey and others to move on in their references?

But, perhaps that is the point: the world she inhabits has changed beyond recognition in recent years. As one comment on yesterday’s post says:

The broadcast and printed media are twitchy about the whole area of blogging, free publications, etc just as the music industry is twitchy about downloading, file sharing etc. But being twitchy about it isn’t going to make any difference to the fact that times have changed.

It’s quite ironic really, I remember a few years ago the newspaper proprietors were incredibly sure that times had to change and new technology which destroyed specialist jobs in the printing trade was a good thing. Now the technology is threatening their profitability all of a sudden the news is a specialised field for which we should be made to pay a premium.

The point here is that either local newspapers will have to find new, collaborative or creative ways of engaging with other ‘producers’ of news and comment or they will die a whingeing death. Moaning about the proactivity of local councils won’t change anything – unless Bailey and co really do believe they have a divine right to protected territory.

Darryl posits four positive guidelines for councils that wish to publish and distribute their own newspapers. Read the full post here, but, in brief, they are:

  • They are governed by an independent editorial board, to maintain impartiality.
  • They should not publish more than once a fortnight unless there is a clear and demonstrable case of market failure.
  • Space must be allocated for a variety of political and editorial viewpoints.
  • Any council newspaper must offer training to young people or any other local wanting to pursue a media career.

I would want to go a (daring) step further and ask if Trinity Mirror (or any other owner of local newspapers) would consider pioneering a new collaborative way of running their business that brought together council (with guidelines similar to those Darryl cites), journalists and local communities/bloggers/ etc.? Would they venture even a conversation along these lines? Or do the dictates of competitive business mean that the ground is not for ceding – even if refusal to move onto new territory is the only way to prevent a miserable demise?

Further to the furore over the Sun‘s handling of the Jamie Janes hand-written (by the Prime Minister) letter saga, I can’t quite believe I have just heard what I think I have just heard.

I was driving down the M40 on my way back from Liverpool to Croydon this evening and listening to BBC Radio 4’s PM news programme. Tom Newton Dunn, the new Political Editor of the Sun, was being interviewed by Eddie Mair. In response to the statement that the Sun was trying to deter voters from voting for Gordon Brown in the next General Election, he said this:

I’m not sure we’ve ever said we don’t want people to vote for Gordon Brown. All we do is offer our readers an opinion. We don’t make or break governments. We simply report what happens and give them the benefit of our opinion, if they want to read it.

I propose a minute’s silence for (a) the death of journalistic integrity (at the Sun) and (b) the scornful mockery in this statement of the readers’/electorate’s intelligence.

I got into a lively debate over the Telegraph‘s handling of the MPs’ expenses business – a debate that ended up quite informative and helpful. One of the sticking points, however, was the difference in perception between the ‘reporter’ and the ‘reported on’. I then responded to James Murdoch’s outrageous speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival – especially his assumption that the ‘Market’ is the only god (especially if dominated by him and run in his interests). This latest stuff leads me to ask the following questions and I invite journalists (many of whom have my deep respect) to respond:

  1. Does anyone really still think that newspapers simply “report what happens” dispassionately?
  2. Is it even remotely credible that the Sun would waste a penny of its money publishing a word on anything if its owners and journalists thought they were doing nothing to shape the world, influence debate and change people’s thinking to the extent that they might vote differently?
  3. Would the Sun retain any journalists if all they did was to offer a casual opinion on the events of the day and not seek to change people’s behaviour?
  4. If the Political Editor is right, then why did the Sun go to such lengths to advertise its power of persuasion in previous elections and publicise its change of allegiance for the next election?

And an extra question – riding on the back of the Press Complaints Commission’s latest failure in respect of phone-tapping allegations against the News of the World: when will the profession take the lead from the reluctant MPs and propose outside regulation of the media? (In the ‘expenses’ debate on this blog one of the arguments against MPs was – rightly – that they set their own rules and regulate themselves and that this is intolerable. I asked why the same didn’t apply to journalists. I’m still waiting to hear a cry for justice here.)

Go anywhere outside Britain and ‘our’ red-top tabloids are a source of incredulity and embarrassment in media, political and other circles. Why do we tolerate this rubbish?

In my last post (as it were) I offered a brief suggestion of what question it is that the Bible is answering. I did so in relation to an incarnational representation of political argument by giving that argument a character and placing it/him/her in a story. This is what, in a form of shorthand, I wrote:

Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’: “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).”

Andrew Marr - My TradeI was provoked into thinking about this by a number of factors, one of which was an observation by Andrew Marr about newspaper columnists in his excellent book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism. Writing about the art of writing a good column, he says:

Every column is … an argument, a case, a piece of logic. In general, it needs to be about something that can be expressed in a single headline-sized phrase or sentence. If the columnist cannot say [it] concisely, … then it is likely that the column will be confused, and therefore dull. If it isn’t a statement, it’s a waste of time. (p.371)

What Marr says of good writing is also true of any good communication. The purpose of good communication is not to reveal how clever or well-informed the writer/speaker is, but to enable the reader/hearer to grasp simply and clearly the essential thrust of the argument. It isn’t about making complex matters simplistic, but making complex matters simply comprehensible. Which brings us back to the Bible and communicating what it and Christian faith are about in ways that can be understood without needing a dictionary, a degree or a thick book.

Rothley Parish ChurchIt seems to me that whenever we pick up any sort of book, we do so with an unspoken question at the back of our mind: whodunnit? who is this character? why did these events happen the way they did? When we come to the Bible, the basic question we should be asking of the text(s) is: who is this God and what is he like? At least, that is, I think, the fundamental question being addressed by the text. The answer given is: God looks like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and you see who and how God is in the world.

But – and here is the sticky bit – that same Jesus called his followers and friends to be like him, to look and sound and feel like him. The New Testament writers – particularly Paul – grasped this and called the body of Christians the ‘Body of Christ’. The logic is that the Christian body should reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels (that is, incarnate him) in the ways we live, the ways we speak, the ways we listen and hear, the priorities we set, the habits we cultivate and so on. Hence the ‘formula’ I offered in my last post.

I cannot see any other way of understanding what the church exists for.

Hymn singingYet, in saying this, I will probably be criticised for being selective. Yes, there may well be other ways of describing the role and purpose of the church in the world; but no single pithy phrasing will be all-encompassing. The fallibility of any ‘headline’ or metaphor should not, however, prevent us from trying to communicate who and why we are in ways that can be grasped simply and quickly by most people. After all, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and with images and stories. And it is why Paul used the picture of a human body.

The pithiest ‘headline’ I have come up with is: ‘the task of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.’ And that is the beginning of the matter, not the end. I fear that too often in the church we go to the complicated end and forget that most people haven’t yet got as far as the beginning.

I have banged on in this blog a number of times about Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News in which he describes the death of journalism as we have known and loved it for centuries. His is not a lone voice crying in the developing wilderness. Several thousand jobs in local journalism have disappeared in the last twelve months alone – 1000 last week from the Daily Mail’s regional/local organs. The response to the outcry from journalists against the loss of their jobs and the death of their newspapers has mostly been some version of:’ What’s so special about journalists anyway? They just have to cope like the car workers, financiers and everybody else who is finding the world has changed, but not in their favour.’

In today’s Guardian Polly Toynbee hits the nail on the head when she exposes what is happening to notions of ‘local belonging’, of which for generations local newspapers have been vital agents. She writes: ‘The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all. Before the end of the year, every local paper will be into heavy loss: money unlikely to return in the good times. So how can they be saved, in print and online?’

She goes on at the end of her article to say: ‘Bring in the money available from awful ITV local news. Add in some BBC money: their local news is shamingly bad too, partly because the area covered is too wide. Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets, and to buy space in clearly defined zones in their local news trusts. It might need a small subvention from council tax, too. Roll all this into a local trust with an obligation to good reporting, fair rules and open access, and you could have independent local news across web, print, radio and television offering a genuine community service. It is on the table.’

She ventures a final appeal: ‘But this is an emergency. Battalions of journalists with local knowledge are being sacked and newspaper expertise lost. Does the government have the imagination and capacity to create an environment where small, locally run independent trusts could flourish?’

sitenewspaperimage1Local journalism has until relatively recently provided the main way in which local people could find out what was happening in the place where they live. Local newspapers would be filled with names and faces and the possibility that ‘you’ might be in the news. But these same newspapers have increasingly become ‘scandal rags’, playing the same games as the tabloids in the search for sales and revenue. Here in Croydon we sometimes wonder if the local newspaper can ever bring itself to celebrate anything here rather than knock it or pick out the dodgy stuff.

But the loss of the local newspaper also takes with it the loss of local accountability. Councils can be slagged off for their spending or inconsistencies, but rarely is the local council meeting fully reported and decisions analysed intelligently. So, the loss is more than jobs and paper; it is also a serious loss of accountability and informed opinion forming.

It will be argued that this role has been overtaken by online journalism. But this is not the case. Internet journalism is usually driven by motivated individuals who bring their own subjective ‘spin’ to their comment (which is what a blog is, surely) – there is no wider accountability involved and ‘information’ can be recorded as fact when there is no check on it and possibly no foundation to it.

Several years ago I heard a national newspaper editor confidently predict the end of newspapers as we know them. He claimed that within five years no newspaper would be paid for, but that newspapers would be free in paper format as they advertised the online content which would be supported by online advertising. He might be right. But it seems to me that we are now going through yet another revolution which could have unintended consequences: not just a shift in the way ‘news’ is brought ot those who wish to hear it, but the potential loss of a common sense of place or belonging or community or accountability.

I strongly warm to Polly Toynbee’s suggestion that local money is put into local news organs with local accountability run by local trusts set up to ensure good reporting of things that matter to a community. The money that currently goes into councils providing their propaganda to every household could go into local newspaper communication, thus encouraging local people to read it (the main source of such information) and demonstrating local commitment to it (subsidised through Council Tax).

The idea of the ‘local’ might have to be redefined and rediscovered in the next couple of years. It must not be lost.