A media-friendly media spanking

Ruth Gledhill of the Times of London has done a fine job of condensing the Archbishop of Canterbury's 4,500-word lecture on journalists into a news story of one-ninth that length. As journalists often do -- and I make no claim to escaping this habit -- Gledhill focused on the most pointed language in the archbishop's text, in which he said this about web-based journalism:

Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation -- which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve.

The bulk of Rowan Williams' critique focused on classical media, and he began on the playful note of citing Evelyn Waugh's journalism satire, Scoop: "Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it."

Williams spends considerable time on the idea that withholding information is not inherently malicious and may indeed be necessary:

[As] some recent studies have emphasised (I'm thinking especially of John Lloyd's What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics), there is a difference between exposing deceptions that sustain injustice and attacking confidentialities or privacies that in some sense protect the vulnerable. If we begin by assuming that the question to ask almost anyone -- not just politicians -- is the immortal 'Why is this bastard lying to me?' the effect is to treat every kind of reticence as malign, designed to deny other people some sort of power.

Williams surely has felt this tension as the primates of the Anglican Communion have twice met privately to discuss ethical and moral tensions between the largely conservative Global South and the more liberal churches of North America, Europe, Australia and South Africa.

Williams was one of the more media-friendly bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, which was one of the most media-hostile environments I've ever worked in. The media handlers at that global conference of Anglican bishops instructed the bishops not to grant any interviews that had not been arranged through the conference's media office, and gave special warnings about reporters wearing pink badges. (The media handlers, and those who worked for the conference's house organ, wore gold badges.)

Although many bishops were willing to grant interviews without the approval of the media center, Williams was one of the few bishops who made himself available for impromptu interviews at the media center. He thus worked within the system and challenged its control needs.

Finally, Williams offers this helpful take on why, to cite the subtitle of our weblog, some reporters fail to get religion:

We learn significant things in varieties of overlapping communities; and we learn them at different paces. Some things can be mastered quickly, almost instantaneously, some take significant time. And I suspect that the difficulty most of the modern media finds in handling religion is not simply some sort of hostile bias to belief as such, but the extreme difficulty of representing in an 'urgent' medium experience or awareness that is apprehended in common practice over time. Which is why, incidentally, the recent BBC series, 'The Monastery', succeeded in such a remarkable way; it was about what can be known only by taking time, in company. Perhaps observers of religious broadcasting should concentrate not on the time or space given to simple and static representations of religious views and activities but on how this method of following the 'real time' of religious knowing and experiencing can be fostered.

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