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?

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?