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?

One of the things that winds me up is when people say that it's actions, not words, that matter. It assumes that words are somehow not actions. They are. Much language is performative: it makes happen what it says.

I have been sitting in the decisive House of Bishops meeting in Oxford discussing (seriously, constructively, intelligently and eirenically) the proposed wording of an amendment to the wording of the draft legislation to allow women to become bishops. The consensus on the way ahead was overwhelming and this will be evident in the statements being issued shortly. I don't want to preempt that, but I only have a few minutes to write this and then go to my next engagement. However, we leave Oxford having taken words apart and debated meanings. Words matter – as is evident if you ever get them wrong or use the wrong ones.

But, what shares my mental and emotional space today is not bishops, but Liverpool. The Hillsborough Inquiry has reported (excellent work led by the excellent Bishop of Liverpool) and it is deeply shocking. The gracious and poignant dignity, perseverance and faithfulness of those family members bereaved at Hillsborough stands in remarkable contrast to the cover up by police, emergency services, politicians and others. The then editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, must have made his position worse with a statement of such vacuous blame-throwing insincerity that I read it with incredulity.

The cry for justice has now been heard. But why did it take 23 years?

Simple words of apology from the Prime Minister matter. He has admitted the offence and has, therefore, performed a vital act for the families and the rest of us: he has articulated and set the course for the next period of life. At last.

23 years.

23 years.

23 years for words to be uttered that might just allow the beginning of healing.

23 years.

It is eight years since Boris Johnson commented so helpfully on the Liverpudlian psyche. I suggest a moment's silence while we consider it and await his apology.

More anon.

I am not a fan of the Sun. I have never bought it and I never will. It partly goes back to Hillsborough and the utterly shameful – and never regretted – treatment of Liverpool fansafter 96 of them died. But, it goes deeper.

I was in Oxford last night and missed the Carling Cup Final – probably just as well, given the nerve-shredding result. However, I also missed the arguments in the Twittersphere about the Archbishop of York’s apparent endorsement of both the Sun and it’s new Sunday edition (which was launched yesterday).

In his article the Archbishop writes: “I know there will be those who will criticise me for writing in a newspaper which will be seen by many as filling the gap left by the News of the World. However I am always one for responding to change positively and embracing new beginnings – seeing the best in all people, especially in adversity.

Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’ We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before.”

Perfectly reasonable and I don’t question the Archbishop’s motive for writing his article and engaging with the paper in this way. His objection to the treatment of young people in the current market is strong and vital and I applaud it. I could not endorse the paper myself, not because I don’t applaud the attempt to bring jobs for journalists or new life out of the destructive awfulness of the phone-hacking (and related) scandals.

My problem is that people who ask for forgiveness as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes need, for the sake of their own soul, to be ‘worked with’. Simply moving on is not a healthy option when (a) it helps the guilty avoid facing the reality and consequences of their crime, (b) it ignores the ongoing suffering or grievance of the victims of their crime, and (c) it has the potential to be a carefully worked con on the public.

It is important not to forget that News International not only allowed criminal behaviour to continue – with an arrogance that is still barely comprehensible – but also tried every way possible to intimidate and prevent investigation of its malpractices. Not only were the police corrupted and compromised, but also those attempting to get justice and transparency (Tom Watson MP, Nick Davies of the Guardian, etc) were repeatedly and deliberately maligned, subverted, misrepresented and fobbed off.

In other words, the same owners and business leaders who ran a company that sanctioned criminal and deeply unethical behaviour have not changed. Those who sanctioned every means of obstructing truth and justice only played the humility card when they knew they had been found out and had no other option. It is hard to see that there has been any sort of ‘repentance’ other than a fundamentally pragmatic bit of business management.

As always, I might be wrong and be missing something fundamental here. But, all my instincts lead me to take a different view from that of the Archbishop of York on this one.

Paradoxically the same outfit employs journalists at the top of their game. The contrast between the criminality at News International and the massive respect for Marie Colvin, killed last week in Syria, is stark and poignant.

However, the Sun did once get me to write a couple of hundred words about (if I remember rightly) some awful ‘search for a husband’ programme on the telly. They published a picture of my smiling face right next to the naked pneumatic breast of the said model, Jodie Marsh. It made me laugh and found itself pinned on the notice boards of various ‘friends’…

I remember the days when I could write blog posts almost every day. But there seems to be a limit to how much writing I can do in the time available. This weeks has seen me writing radio scripts, a lecture four sermons and more besides. So, with another week looming and a full day out tomorrow, I simply ask five questions provoked by the last week:

 

1. Does James Murdoch have a future? His dad did a messianic drop-in to News International this week without the boss-boy and with boss-boy’s previously disconnected brother. Is James leaving the building?

2. Is Rupert serious about the Sun on Sunday? Probably. It all makes sense and was predicted when the News of the World shut down. But, the loin-girding bravado of Rupert’s presence and journalist-endorsing email might sound tough and supportive while being drowned in the swamp of arrests, suspicion and public outrage. Will the Sun survive?

3. Does anyone have any idea what is likely to happen with Iran as they send military ships through the Suez canal into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the revolution in 1979? Western policy in relation to Iran has not been… er… exactly inspiring during the Ahmadinejad years. In fact, Iran has been handled weirdly (in my humble opinion) ever since the revolution – especially when we backed Saddam Hussein’s ethical fight against Iran and in favour of democracy and human rights during the 1980s. What next for Iran – especially with Syria and the Falklands kicking off (in different ways, obviously)?

4. I am writing this while half-watching Keanu Reeves being persuaded to save the world in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). But, my real question is whether Arsenal can be saved – along with the career of Arsene Wenger. I find this hard to say (as a Scouser), but I like Arsenal and admire Wenger. They were hopeless against Martin O’Neill’s resurgent and exciting Sunderland in the FA Cup today. But, Wenger hasn’t suddenly turned into a bad manager. I hope, for football’s sake, that he survives. Am I a romantic optimist?

5. Will I make any sense at all of the need for religious institutions to be open to change and challenge when I do my ‘Faith and the City‘ lecture at the University of Bradford on Monday? Entitled Questioning Faith: Religion, change and challenge, I manage to get Rowan Williams, Dostoyevsky, Critical Muslim and the Church of England into a questioning of ends and means, language and fearlessness. I’ll let you know after Monday.

The Keanu Reeves film has just finished. It was rubbish.

Three stories penetrate the work-ridden last few days.

Yesterday Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor and former political editor of the Sun had the nerve to accuse the Metropolitan Police of wasting time and resources on their investigation of criminality at the heart of News International. He described police tactics as treating suspected journalists like “members of an organised crime gang”. He objected to dawn raids and intrusive searches of journalists’ homes.

Forgive my naïveté, but why does he think the police are doing this at all? Would he or his newspaper have had any patience with police ignoring criminality on an industrial scale in some other area of society? Did he consider the handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal as a waste of time and money – a gross overreaction? Does he really think that investigations into corruption and criminality at the Sun is ‘disproportionate’?

I usually find Trevor Kavanagh interesting, but this has left me staggered. Is he so out of touch that he still doesn’t get the public outrage at this enormous corruption? The irony of his choice of words is that the need for expensive and thorough police investigation arises directly from crime that looks distinctly ‘organised’. Or is it just that it is OK for ordinary mortals to have their lives intruded upon, shredded and dumped – their reputations rubbished and their families disturbed – but somehow wrong for journalists to suffer the same treatment? I am boggled.

Richard Dawkins is at it again – although Giles Fraser rattled him on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. As Dawkins mocked respondents to his poll who couldn’t name the first gospel, Fraser embarrassed him by exposing his inability to remember the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. His latest evangelistic campaign is just silly. In danger of confusing atheism with secularism (they are not the same), he perpetuates the pretence that he occupies neutral space whereas religious people are somewhere up the loaded loony scale. What makes him think that his world view is to be privileged above all others is still unclear. Anyway, his survey proves little – and certainly not what he thinks it proves.

Baroness Warsi has complained to the Pope about rampant and aggressive secularism that is marginalising religion in general and Christianity in particular in Britain today. Not having had time today to read all the reports of this, I remain unclear why she needs to tell the Pope what he already thinks. But, the question is really whether or not she is right. I just hope she doesn’t slip into the language of ‘persecution’.

The most interesting two responses I have seen to Dawkins and Warsi are by Giles Fraser and Julian Baggini. Rational atheist argument is fine and secularist campaigning acceptable. But, where does the mindless aggression come from? Why the irrational evangelism that doesn’t even pretend to be tolerant of any world view that differs from it’s own fundamentalism?

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? 

It was announced yesterday that a new independent panel has been appointed to oversee the release of documents related to the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster.

According to the Home Office, the panel’s job will be to make sure the Hillsborough families and wider public receive the maximum possible disclosure of governmental and other agency information on the events that occurred and their aftermath. The panel will also produce a report illustrating how the information released adds to public understanding of the tragedy and advise on options for establishing a designated Hillsborough document archive.

It will also consult with the Hillsborough families, to ensure their views are taken into account.

The Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, has been appointed as chair, and the rest of the panel will be appointed early in the new year.

This is very good news for all concerned. Will disclosure finally lead to a public apology from the Sun for their disgraceful coverage of the events that day?

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?

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun. Actually, that is an understatement. I have nothing but contempt for the way people are treated by the British tabloids: dehumanised fodder in ratings wars.

The SunThe big news yesterday was about the ‘scandal’ of the Prime Minister having written an inadequate letter to the mother of a young soldier who died in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Prime Minister wrote by hand a letter of condolence in poor handwriting – a letter that was then found to contain spelling errors. The outrage of the bereaved mother was then caught in newspaper print and in the broadcast media. Gordon Brown was put onto the defensive, having to explain to a watching world what should have been a private matter.

And this is where the Sun comes in. It appears that this ‘newspaper’ has generated a story in order to put political pressure on the Prime Minister and the Labour Government. In other words, this is a political maneouvre aimed at causing embarrassment to the party the paper has decided to oppose in the next election.

So, what happened next? Well, the Prime Minister phoned the bereaved mother – beyond the call of duty? The Sun had provided her with the means to record the private conversation – and now the recording has been made public, is being picked over in the media and yet might invoke sympathy for Brown.

Why do people buy a newspaper that so blatantly abuses a bereaved woman such as Mrs Janes? She is being cynically exploited for the Sun‘s gain. As another bereaved mother put it on the BBC news earlier: this is a private matter and bereaved people should be directing their anger where it is due – not by making political capital for a newspaper by allowing her privacy to be compromised by people you can’t trust.

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown or his Government or his policies in respect of Afghanistan, this behaviour cannot be condoned. The Prime Minister didn’t simply send out a standard letter of condolence with a brief hand-written sentence at the end to ‘personalise’ it; he writes an individual letter to each bereaved family. That should be recognised and applauded … and then left to the confidentiality it deserved.

No one will fail to sympathise with those bereaved through the horror and violence of this conflict. But the Sun is behaving exploitatively and with a dehumanising contempt for the people involved as well as for any notion of privacy or confidentiality.

Can’t the great British public see what is going on here – and how they/we are being manipulated by this stuff?

There is a place where the Sun don’t shine…

The current expose of MPs’ expense claims continues to drive the headlines. Today a Government Minister has resigned (the freebie newspapers in London used the word ‘axed’) and we are told that public outrage has increased. I have not yet heard anyone support corruption of the sort being exposed, but I still remain concerned about other elements of the way this business is being worked out. Before going on to them, let me re-emphasise the following:

  • public service corruption and misuse of money, power or influence are not defensible;
  • public servants have a responsibility not only to appear to be ‘clean’, but to be clean – no wonder the bankers are beginning to re-visit what MPs said about their greed several months ago.
  • many people agree that the Daily Telegraph was right to buy the leaked information on the grounds that the ends justify the means. But, apply this maxim to other circumstances and we soon become unstuck. More later.

I heard on the radio yesterday a variety of people saying variations of ‘off with their heads’. Fine sentiment and very understandable. Two questions cry out, however:

(a) How else should anyone respond to a question about MPs’ scandalous expenses? Is anyone really going to reply to a journalist with words to the effect of, ‘I support MPs’ corruption and wish the matter would simply go away’? The question put has only one possible answer: outrage. So, we don’t necessarily learn a lot from the voxpops.

(b) How do we critics now suggest that Parliament should resume its important business? Or do we prefer a political vacuum on the grounds that ‘none of them can now be trusted’? I haven’t heard any solutions offered – just the criticism. But we all have a vested interest in and responsibility for what happens next.

newspapersThis, I think, is where I want to come back to the comments made in response to my earlier posts on this matter and, in particular, to the contended issue of media accountability. The media are not neutral observers merely reporting what they see ‘out there’. Their handling of the matter makes them active agents in the story and, therefore, brings upon them a moral responsibility to not only ‘pull down’, but ‘build up’. They shape reality as well as perceptions of reality and cannot be objective observers, free to walk away once the demolition is complete. Destruction of reputations (however justified in essence and, possibly, necessary in practice) is easy; construction of – or permission to reconstruct – a reputation is also essential. So, how does the Daily Telegraph in particular propose to play its part in the reconstruction of Parliament’s image and authority once the destruction phase is over? This is a question that merits an answer if we take democratic responsibility seriously.

So, how should I respond to the comments articulated clearly and helpfully by Andrew Carey‘s comments on my last post? I’ll take a couple of them in turn and then add a few:

1. “…it’s not simply the awfulness of only some MPs’ behaviour, because the system itself is one that is designed and policed by MPs.” I could not agree more. It is absurd to have self-regulation on disciplinary matters such as this. So, will the press now accept the logic of their argument and allow regulation and discipline of journalists and newspapers by an outside and independent body (unlike the Press Complaints Commission)? Ask anyone who feels misrepresented by the media – or, indeed, whose life has been destroyed publicly by media agencies – how easy it is to get any form of redress and see what grief emerges. Responses so far to my earlier (Andrew calls them ‘simplistic’) observations on the current business indicate that many, many people are as outraged by what is seen as an unaccountable media as they are by MPs on the fiddle. I don’t think this is understood by all journalists.

2. “However debates of this kind are vital (though in the context of this entirely justifiable media coverage somewhat strange) because in a free society it’s pretty much impossible to legislate in this area without the unintended consequence of muzzling a necessarily free press. So the only way forward is for the public to punish the press when it steps out of line (The Sun’s reputation in Liverpool springs to mind), and for journalists and editors to have ethical concerns constantly before them.” I agree until I come to the words ‘free press’ and then I start to question.

Having observed daily press output from places such as the Communist Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I know a fair bit about propaganda, misrepresentation and how the media can be used for political ends. The irony of calling the Soviet organ ‘Pravda’ (‘truth’) was always lost on those who believed in the system. But it is clear that most of the consumers also knew they were being fed rubbish and treated it appropriately. (Don’t get me started on sources of toilet paper in the Soviet Union.)

The problem with the bald concept of a ‘free press’ is two-fold: first, it purports to present reality despite the fact that someone (with their own worldview and assumptions/preferences about the world) is deciding what is ‘news’ and what has priority; secondly, it does not seem to say anything about the ‘freedom’ of those it reports on. The first point is simply a fact and I am not decrying it – I just want it noted. The second point is more serious and an example might help illustrate the problem.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury did his stuff on Sharia in early 2008 one of the tabloids ran a campaign to ‘get this idiot out’ (or words to that effect), inviting readers to sign up to their campaign to get Rowan sacked. A week or two later and nothing further was heard about it. A bit of fun? A way of selling papers? An irrelevant ploy with no real consequences? Or deeply irresponsible and sneeringly disrespectful of the readers: winds them up… then walks away to find another thing to get enraged about – but with no account for the damage to anyone involved?

During that particular episode I was interviewed by a national broadsheet journalist. He didn’t ask me questions; rather, he put statements to me and invited me to agree with him. I asked him if he had read the text of Rowan’s address (which a year later is not regarded as contentious by most people). He said he hadn’t because “Rowan writes in a complicated way and it is just too hard.” I seem to remember responding with a question that went something like: “You are paid a nice salary to write hundreds of thousands of words every year, telling us how to think about the world and what you think matters. But, even with the job and the salary and a university degree behind you, you find a crucial text ‘a little bit hard’?!” Are we to respect that or should we (and the editor) expect better?

A week later I did a forty-five minute interview with German radio (in German) explaining the Archbishop’s speech, its context and the polity of the country in which it was made (very different from Germany with its Grundgesetz and different history of Muslim immigration). They clearly learned as we went on, asked intelligent questions and treated the whole matter with intellectual respect. I was astonished.

I want to encourage and support an intelligent ‘free’ press that does not see its own ‘freedom’ as a right or licence to trum or trample upon other people’s freedoms (to speech, to expression, to privacy, etc.) without accountability. That accountability is simply not there. The responsibility to build as well as pull down is strong, but I am not sure I see it. If I am wrong, tell me. (Liverpool would not shun the Sun just because someone had been misrepresented and their life ruined by poor or wrong reporting – the Hillsborough example is unique and does not impinge on the matters I am raising here.)

So, I conclude and invite further responses to what I hope will be seen as a serious discussion.