Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.

 

It’s clearly a truth universally acknowledged (at least by journalists) that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline – especially when, it seems, they have had their Christmas party early.

According to the Daily Mail today, I have claimed “that the TRUE meaning of Christmas is sitting around the telly with the family watching the depressing Eastenders festive special”. The Times and the Telegraph also gave us their take on the article.

Put simply, I wasn't writing about the “true meaning of Christmas”. I also wasn't writing about turkey farming, the origins of the Christmas tree or the ethics of mistletoe.

The Radio Times asked me to write an article for their Christmas edition about the value of families watching tv together. In it, I merely supported the idea that, with the ease with which we can now view programmes on our own, telly still has the power to bring us together.

So, not the “true meaning of Christmas” exactly; but, nevertheless, watching telly together can have meaning, at least more meaning than merely slagging off the outfits, left feet or judges’ remarks on Strictly (for example).

Doesn't Gogglebox (for example) show how it can be a springboard for all sorts of discussions around values and world events – and even the ethical dilemmas raised by EastEnders? Seeing how others react can help us develop our own response and opinions. (And engaging with real people has got to be better than a constant diet of peoples’ perfectly curated lives on Facebook.)

In a world of solo, multi-platform viewing (and even though my own day is punctuated by frequent reference to Twitter), surely shared experience has always got to be more powerful than private browsing.

Here’s the original Radio Times article:

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his series that re-told the Nativity story on BBC One. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years, who has since gone on to create many a small screen hit, most recently Dickensian, the mash up of Dickens stories on the BBC this Christmas. So, when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master story teller. He replied simply: “I know a true story when I read one.”

Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays – to re-live the Story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people clearly watched it together on the television.

Royston Robertson, used with permission

Now, I don't think this is peculiar to Christmas, but there is something about this particular season that encourages us to share our screen-watching experiences with those around us, and not hive off to spectate in splendid isolation.

It isn't all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of the television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place. Well, they have been proved wrong. Despite a plethora of platforms, most of them individualised and personal such as mobile phones and tablets, television has generated renewed capacity for the shared experience. Does anyone watch 'Strictly' all alone? Why do people still talk about Gogglebox and sports games they have watched in company? We really want to do it together.

What I do know is that in a world in which anyone under the age of forty has to be surgically removed from their phone or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents [reported in the Daily Mail last September], watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.

The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim in life is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself, whether being asked odd questions on the telly or watching his team play on the pitch. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.

So, here's a thought: for those lucky enough to have someone to share the remote with this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do. Whether joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative re-telling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian, or the latest relationship catastrophe in Eastenders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and give us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and detox from the solo habits. Live for now with the people who are there with you.

In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus together. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out together where to go afterwards. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.

In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let's hear it for the telly at Christmas. There's life in the old screen yet.

[Cartoon by Royston Robertson, used with permission]

 

How extraordinary?

This morning the BBC Today programme brought together a bishop and a politician to discuss the pastoral letter to be published later today by the House of Bishops. The Daily Telegraph and others tell the bishops to stay out of politics because they are “left-leaning”.

Two problems here: (a) Nadine Dorries began her interview by saying she had not seen or read the document, but would comment and criticise anyway; and (b) the “church stay out of politics” line is so ridiculously silly – at so many levels – that it is heard simply as a tired cliche. If we are going to be criticised, let it be on the basis of fact, and let it be at least remotely intelligent and a little original.

The pastoral letter issued later today does not trot out a party line. It attempts to encourage engagement with politics by Christians and voting by them in the General Election. It specifically states that it is not telling people how to vote, and illustrates how fragile some political judgements can be.

Isn't it remarkable that a politician will admit to not having read something, have no idea what is in it, but still be confident enough to go ahead and comment on it?

And, pace the Telegraph, if bishops and other Christians are to keep out of politics, who else is to be excluded? Politics are about life and the stuff of life – which isn't the concern of Jesus or the Bible or ethics or relationships?

Verily, the mind boggleth.

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

When I have sounded off about the media in the past, one of the journalists to respond with vigour has been Martin Beckford of the Daily Telegraph. Some of his responses have been illuminating and helpful – especially where he took time and trouble to address some of the charges I and others were levelling at journalists. So, despite thinking that the Telegraph has to be handled like a tabloid these days, I do respect Martin and I listen to what he says.

In this week’s Church of England Newspaper he asks why, when politicians and other public personalities don’t whinge about their treatment in the press, the church (or, let’s face it, bishops) does. It’s a reasonable question and, if I was in Martin’s position, one I would pose with a degree of frustration. I am one of the people who exasperates him, but at least I don’t stop getting stuck in with the media on their terms. So, what I am returning to here is a discussion we have had before about expectations of the media.

I think this point sets us off:

[George Pitcher] should know, as should everyone who reads newspapers, that the bottom line is that they are businesses and they sell copies by finding stories that are new and interesting. Of course that doesn’t mean making things up or distorting them, but at the same time they are within their rights to interpret what public figures say and highlight the parts that are new and controversial.

I couldn’t agree more. With every point. But, what Martin misses here is the perception of some of us on the receiving end that ‘making up’ and ‘distortion’ are precisely what has gone on. Hence, the story is not about the core substance, but about the journalist’s perception of or spin on it. That’s why I pointed out in this blog that justice should be done to the subject of the story even if the content of what he says then gets roasted on the spit of analysis. In this respect, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on politics are game for all the inflated and angry comment they provoke. But, the context in which his views were expressed must dictate the nature of theme addressed, the register of his language, and so on. An editorial that introduces a series of guest articles debating precisely the issues he opens up in his editorial surely has a certain status as interrogative or provocative; but, it can’t be seen in isolation from those later articles and their context. That is where – rightly or wrongly – some of us feel stitched up.

Martin goes on:

I don’t think the reason clerics [complain] more than politicians is because they are other-worldly or naive, I just think MPs are much more realistic about the nature of the press and appreciate that we are overall a good thing for democracy even if occasionally we go a bit too far. After all, reporting is not a science and there is never just one way to write a story.

The implication of this is that we must simply accept the nature of the press as it is, rather than express some desire that it should be better than it currently is. My personal issue with this is both ethical (the role that the media play in the democracy Martin wants to defend gives them enormous power and influence and, therefore, affects behaviour as well as discourse) and professional (as a former professional wordsmith I would have been very uncomfortable about putting a spin on a story in order to create a story when I knew I was distorting the original). Surely a democracy that needs a free and bold press is one in which its citizens have the right to demand that its journalists do justice in their role as ‘players’ and not just ‘observers’ of the democratic substance? Accountability works both ways.

Martin writes that he had originally intended to write his piece about how Rowan Williams “was the sole survivor of what was once a large group of outspoken figures in the C of E”. Is it not just possible that many of the current ‘figures’ see what happens to their outspoken counterparts and decide (a) you can’t win and (b) it isn’t worth the hassle? I am not defending that response, but I do think it is understandable.

Martin goes on to observe that the Archbishop “knows exactly how his words will be received; he just doesn’t crave positive headlines like most public figures.” He concludes:

For the sake of the church, as well as those who make their living reporting on it, I very much hope he will continue to speak his mind.

The journalist (rightly) is not responsible for dealing with the aftermath of what they write. But, they will get more outspokenness if those speaking can trust the intelligence and integrity of those doing the writing. Most people who have contacted me about the Archbishop’s views derived their understanding (and frustration with him) not from his original words, but from the Telegraph’s reporting on them. Having read the original, several were cross about the latter. And this mirrors my own experiences in similar (but less serious) circumstances.

The conversation will, no doubt, continue. However, if the written-about are to understand the nature and business of the writers, is it too much to ask the writers to understand the experience and perception of the written-about?

When I posted Lesson 1 the other day, it clearly slipped the notice of one or two people that my target was readers, not writers. I have given up hoping that journalists are driven by anything other than the clamour for column inches. And that is OK by me. I wish it was otherwise, but we have to live in the real world and get on with it. Anyway, I have added to it in the Guardian.

But, just as we have to get on with it, so do journalists have to get on with having their work critiqued by readers. Jonathan Wynne-Jones got a great scoop with his Southwark story and should be demanding royalties from all the other journalists who have simply lifted his story and his words, put them under their own name and given his story legs. And that brings us to the first part of this lesson in media literacy.

As I discovered for myself last December (when I ‘banned’ Christmas – apparently), the initial story is taken as accurate, embellished in repetition and broadcast without question or critique. So, JW-J’s article on the Southwark saga has been lifted wholesale by other journalists who have asked no questions, checked no facts, done no further critique. The response, therefore, is to the story as presented and not necessarily to the facts of the case. My point is simply that readers need to be aware of what they are reading, where it has come from and at least think that some of it might be based on questionable assumptions.

We need a reality check here. JW-J says on his blog – with reference to me and one other bishop:

Then there are the bishops who have decided to put their heads in the sand by blaming it all on the media. Yawn. Why not blame the weather for the rain? Whether they are deluded or deliberately disingenuous, it is a sad indictment of their failure to face the real issues at the heart of the story. In an attempt to shift the focus, one bonkers bishop suggested that the initial story was written “out of ignorant mischief-making”. Talk about condemned by his own words. If anyone looks ignorant here, it is the bishops who have lost touch with reality and are happy to point the finger anywhere rather than at their Church. Because the truth is that the Jeffrey John saga has once again exposed the mess it’s in, but they’re just too blind or embarrassed to face it.

Yawn. I thought we were past this sort of stuff. There are worse places to put your head – such as up the backside of your own hubris. But for JW-J to confuse critique of his story with delusion about the facts underlying it is … er … disingenuous at best. Let’s be serious:

  • The Church of England is not a papal autocracy, so we have open debate about serious matters and the resulting conflict is a scandal for the church and a gift for the media;
  • The ways in which these debates are handled is sometimes appalling – people are too ready to jump to a microphone on the basis of reportage rather than truth;
  • The Church does damage to itself without help from the media and it is the Church that has to address this.

However, that is not all. Journalists who tell our stories are not disinterested, objective observers. They are part of the story and, indeed, shape it by the way they tell it. They do not occupy neutral territory – hence the importance of the words they use (‘frontunner’, ‘favoured candidate’, ‘blocked’, etc.).

Is that really so hard to grasp?

JW-J needs better advice on choosing examples: we don’t blame the weather for the rain – but we do know that the rain is part of the weather. And it is clear that to at least some of the 3,000 people who have read my last post that the shaping of the Southwark story itself begged questions – questions JW-J avoids with a dismissive yawn.

Life is a bit busy at the moment and there doesn’t seem to be much time for blogging. However, despite watching Germany play Spain in the company of German friends (who are not happy…) and reading about the reality of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (66% cuts in Croydon’s voluntary services budget – of which more anon…), my real surprise is how easily people believe what they read in speculative (mischievous?) media reports.

Recently – in relation to World Cup prayers – Ruth Gledhill described me in the Times as ‘one of the favourites to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury’. By the time this reached the other side of the world, I was ‘the favourite to succeed…’. It doesn’t take long to be made an object of ridicule.

Now, apart from the obvious silliness of this suggestion (among other things: Rowan Williams isn’t leaving, I’m not a diocesan bishop, I lack the gifts, academic qualifications and experience … and would prefer to boil my head), the obvious question the reader should be asking is simply: favourite among whom?

Did the journalist do some research? Did she ask a few mates in the pub? Did she ask the House of Bishops or a scientific sample of clergy around the Church of England? No. It is baseless and meaningless. Fortunately. So, the reader should look at such stuff and dismiss it as baseless fabrication. It might add colour to a piece in the newspaper, but it should be dismissed by the reader as nonsense.

I have ignored this until now. But, reading the mischievous speculation last weekend about the nomination of the new Bishop of Southwark, I thought I’d have a fresh look at the language. (Linguistic analysis of texts isn’t just the preserve of under-occupied pedants; it can be useful in shining a light on reality – as we discovered when training in it at university.)

According to the Telegraph last Sunday, a particular person was ‘understood to be the favoured candidate’. What does that mean? I have served on one of these commissions and there is no such thing as a ‘favoured candidate’. There is a longlist which gets reduced to a shortlist and from that a series of votes comes up with the final name(s). To speak of a ‘favoured candidate’ is nonsense – the most that could be said is that a particular person favours a particular candidate.

Then the article goes on to say:

Members of the Crown Nominations Commission, the body responsible for selecting bishops, will vote this week on whether Dr John’s name should now be put forward to the Prime Minister for final approval.

Er… the CNC will vote on which of half a dozen names should be put forward to the PM. That’s different.

And if that isn’t enough, the piece goes on to state (as if fact) that ‘the overwhelming majority of clergy in the diocese are believed to be very keen’ to have a particular candidate as their bishop. Really? How does he know? Has anyone asked ‘the majority of the clergy’, let alone the ‘overwhelming majority’? This is speculative nonsense dressed up as statistical fact. It should be dismissed as such by anyone who can read with their brain engaged.

And don’t get me started on the way in which disconnected observations are associated as if they were intimitely connected.

In today’s update (again, speculative) the language has shifted interestingly from Sunday’s edition. On Sunday the Crown Nominations Commission is a ‘confidential meeting’; now, apparently, it is a ‘secret meeting’ which took place at a ‘secret location’. How sinister. Confidentiality is something we respect (allegedly), but secrecy implies something to hide. Yet this is purely in the mind of the writer. Clergy are said to be ‘furious’ – really? Who? How many? And the candidate was ‘considered the frontrunner’? By whom? The journalist who was making the story?

The point of this ramble is to encourage a closer questioning of what we are being fed. The words matter. Journalists might want to tell a story and raise temperatures – that is fine, that is their job. But the readers should engage brains and not take seriously this sort of language without seriously questioning it first. This isn’t knocking journalists – I am more interested in how the readers read rather than how the writers write.

And if you are wondering why I am not commenting on the person at the heart of the speculation, the answer is simple. He could do without this stuff and I have no intention of commenting on what I don’t know about – the conversations or decisions of the CNC in which I wasn’t involved and about which I know nothing.

After all, it was confidential. Wasn’t it?