The moral (and news) authority of Desmond Tutu

An article at on the launch of a United Nations-backed campaign to promote gay rights in South Africa is a perfect example of the kinds of difficulties that mainstream journalists face when reporting on world figures who have left the public eye. The name and the work of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to most educated newspaper readers -- but is a reputation built 25 years ago in the anti-apartheid struggle transferable to the modern debate on gay rights? Why should reporters automatically assume that the words of Tutu are major news?

Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour. The ebullient archbishop will announce he is withdrawing from public life and then pop up again in conjunction with another cause or campaign. On 26 July the BBC ran a story under the catchy headline "Archbishop Tutu 'would not worship a homophobic God.'" The article begins:

South Africa's Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will never worship a "homophobic God" and will rather go to hell. The retired archbishop was speaking at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. Despite same-sex relationships being legal in South Africa, it had some of the worst cases of homophobic violence, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Archbishop Tutu, 81, is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, but has remained the moral conscience of the nation, correspondents say.

While it is tempting to focus on the first line of the story in this post, to do so would breach the parameters of this blog by discussing a religious and cultural issue, not journalism. Thus, my focus is on the last line of the paragraph, the "moral conscience of the nation" line.

Should the BBC be making this claim, or is this editorial advocacy? Is the Corporation making a value judgment that equates a struggle over race and politics with a struggle over sex and politics?

Tutu's role in the transformation of the South African state is part of the historical record, and he is rightly honored for his work. Yet he is not universally beloved. The pull quotes from a story reporting on comments made during a campaign rally this week by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe were unkind -- and not unexpected.

"Never, never, never will we support homosexuality in Zimbabwe," Mr Mugabe said. "Archbishop Tutu said it is nice to be gay, yet he has a wife, he should have begun by getting himself a man for a woman.

"When you are a bishop and cannot interpret the Bible, you should resign and give it to those who can. We will not compromise our tradition and tolerate homosexuality."

For many years Mugabe has played upon the religio-cultural disapprobation of homosexuality in Zimbabwe for political gain. It may be an act -- a way of demonizing or scapegoating an unfavored minority to distract the people from the woes of the country. Sources in Zimbabwe, however, tell me that this is not feigned anger -- he means what he says.

Being the object of Mugabe's invective, however, is a badge of honor and would tend to boost Desmond Tutu's credentials. Yet within the archbishop's church his post-apartheid actions have made him yesterday's man.

In 1998 I attended a meeting of the Anglican bishops of Africa held on the margins of the Lambeth Conference. What played out at this dinner was a contest for the unofficial leadership of Africa -- who would be the paramount bishop. The new archbishop of Cape Town, a protege of Tutu -- who had retired by this point -- had his following. But the mantle of authority passed from South Africa to Nigeria. No votes were taken, nothing official occurred but at that dinner the Anglican churches of Africa moved on from apartheid. The culture wars and homosexuality took center stage.

One thing I took away from these encounters with African bishops was their visceral dislike of breaking ranks and of voicing public criticism of their own. As an American clergyman, I was used to one style of church warfare -- Smite the Amalekites Oh Lord, smite them hip and thigh -- not the African softly softly approach.

Thus when I saw this denunciation of Tutu by the Archbishop of Ghana following the publication of the BBC piece printed above, I was taken aback by its vehemence.

"Archbishop Tutu is respected in the Anglican Church and around the world but this time he has misfired and all Anglican Bishops from Africa, Asia and South America condemn his statement in no uncertain terms," he told Adom News.

The Ghanaian archbishop goes on to say he believes Tutu' is corrupt -- and is now a moral authority for hire.

“We suspect that retired Archbishop Tutu may have collected some moneys from some of the western governments or from gay rights activists to do their bidding but the Anglican Church condemns gay practice,” he said.

This is all by way of background. Desmond Tutu has long been a vocal supporter of gay rights, and it is unlikely he has been swayed by American gold. The question I see is how to inject nuance into a story. Tutu may be a towering moral figure in the newsrooms of the West, but not in the African street or pew. I liken it to the reputation of Tony Blair -- a prime minister beloved by American neoconservatives but despised by the British left. Should the BBC report on the launch of the Free & Equal campaign in Cape Town have focused on Tutu or on the campaign? The quotes make for a fun story -- but are they news?

Newspapers need shorthand ways of explaining issues in order to save space, to use code and symbols readers understand. But it is poor practice to allow historical analogies to frame issues as it distorts the past and does an injustice to the present. We see this sort of thing all the time -- conflating the civil rights movement of the 60's with the gay marriage debate of today, or the apartheid regime of South Africa with the modern state of Israel.

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, stockbrokers tell us. Should not newspapers do this too and inject context and nuance when discussing the contemporary comments of historical figures? Or is this asking too much? Did the BBC allow celebrity to trump news? Did the BBC's moral worldview, its conception of heroes and villains, prevent it from telling the true story? I think so.

Please respect our Commenting Policy