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.

Back in July 2007, following the furore over her spat with Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother house, Jade Goody had  a miscarriage at 12 weeks. Subsequently she told Closer magazine: “After the miscarriage I did ask: ‘Why is all this happening?’ I thought it was God’s punishment for something I’d done… This year it’s been one thing after another. But after losing the baby I thought I’d never recover.” A statement went out from the Church of England in my name, aimed at questioning Jade’s dubious theology, but primarily as a pastoral response to a vulnerable woman.

jade-goody-1Today the newspapers are full of reports that Jade Goody now has only months to live. She intends to ‘wed before she’s dead’ as the Star delicately puts it. Her cancer is now terminal and she is sorting out her affairs in order to provide for her two young sons.

When the report of my response to her 2007 remarks hit the news websites I had a quick look to see how people were commenting. I am not easily shocked, but I could hardly believe the cruel, nasty vindictiveness of some of what I read. One I remember clearly suggesting to Jade that she and the world would be better off if she was dead. Because of her apparent publicity seeking, she was deserving of no sympathy, no kindness and no respect.

Assuming the people who typed such bilious stuff at the time are human and have some degree of sensitivity, I wonder what they feel about their earlier remarks now.

Jade Goody did not have the best start in life. She escaped the poverty (understood in more than one sense) of her childhood and adolescence when, against the odds, she won Big Brother. I wonder if she was ready emotionally and psychologically for the onslaught on her life that this would now permit. She entered a different world – the focus of thousands of camera lenses and the subject matter for a million commentators whose job in life was to tear apart the life of anyone who dared to ‘succeed’ at anything. No doubt she also courted the attention, but that in itself doesn’t justify the abuse (born of jealousy?) directed at her.

This morning’s headlines made me want to scream. The same tabloids which make their money and garner their readership from repeated exposure of people like Jade Goody now make her dying into a spectator sport. The audience can sit there smugly pouring judgement on her and attempting a mock ‘sympathy’ aimed only at selling more papers through celebrity grief. It seems we can now be encouraged to watch the change in her appearance and join in the soap opera of her demise – a sort of spectator sport that needs no justification. It stinks.

It seems sometimes that the tabloid editors are the new priesthood. They pour moral judgement on whichever victim takes their fancy, shredding their life and then moving on – all under the pretence that they are merely ‘reporting’ real life. They readily accuse politicians and clergy of hypocrisy, searching out the inconsistencies between word and action. Yet, these same people stand under nobody’s judgement, vulnerable to no charge of hypocrisy should their own private life contradict the judgemental preaching of their ‘news’paper. An untouchable priesthood behaves with reckless insensitivity, evokes all sorts of vile cruelty from the readership and then launches campaigns complaining about the nature of modern Britain with its crime, lack of respect and loss of moral compass. And the irony is lost on them.

Tabloid journalists have a tough task. They have to convey sometimes complex ideas or phenomena in short sentences with a limited vocabulary in a style that millions of people will read and absorb quickly. This is much harder (I suspect) than writing for the Times or Guardian where argument is expected and intelligence assumed. So, I admire those who manage this task and I offer no reproach for the skill they develop. My problem is with the editorial policies that drive the sort of ‘story’ they are required to follow.

Jade Goody has only months to live. I hope that Christians at the very least and others also will re-learn the power and value of kindness. One day her boys will grow up to read what has been written and said about their mother and we will wonder why they might grow up to be cynical or angry about the inhumanity they encounter.

I hope that people will pray for her and them. I hope people will consider what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of the sneering opprobrium targeted at Goody. I even dare to hope that people will consider what it would be like for their own children if they had – even by their own fault and invitation – been subjected to the public attention and shredding that has been levelled at Jade Goody.

Is there a chance that people might dare to be kind and generous?