The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister. This profundity came to me late last night as I perused The Guardian's report on the political and civil debate over same-sex unions in Greece. As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on gay marriage. The article "Bishop threatens to excommunicate Greek MPs who vote for gay unions" is unbalanced with only one side of the debate presented.
That is a commonplace of European-style advocacy reporting and The Guardian is not shy in proclaiming its leftist credentials. However in this instance the reporter's desire to preach overcame her news gathering skills. Presented with a golden opportunity of promoting the rightness of the cause of gay marriage in the face of intolerance, The Guardian neglected to do its home work. It did not ask basic questions that would have provided essential context.
But first, let us turn to the canon of journalistic scripture. Reading from episode 19, series 3 number 5, of Yes Minister, "The Bed of Nails" recounts Jim Hacker's acceptance of the gift of "Transport Supremo" from the prime minister. Hacker is delighted to be offered the job of developing an "Integrated Transport"' policy for Britain. The episode recounts his discovery the Supremo post is fraught with peril and might end his career. Sir Humphrey and Bernard urge the minister to think through the implications of what he has been offered as danger lies ahead.
Hacker: Furthermore, Sir Mark thinks there may be votes in it, and if so, I don't intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister that you are looking a Trojan Horse in the mouth.
Hacker: You mean, if I look closely at this gift horse, I would find it's full of Trojans?
Bernard: If you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside.
Odd look from Hacker... Bernard: Well, the point is it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan Horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn't a Trojan Horse at all, it was a Greek Horse. Hence the tag timeo Danaos et dona ferentes which you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or doubtless, you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.
Hacker: Yes well I'm sure Greek tags are all right in their way, but can we stick to the point, please?
Bernard: Sorry. Sorry, Greek tags?
Hacker: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I suppose the EEC equivalent would be Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus!
Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister!
Bernard: Ah. Oh. Well, the point is minister, that just as the Trojan Horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It's obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one could use such a participle, 'bewaring', that is. And it's clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in -o, because the Greek first person also ends in -o. Though actually, there is a Greek word ?????, meaning 'I honour'. But the -os ending is a nominative singular termination of the second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course. Though actually 'Danaos' is not only the Greek for Greek, its also the Latin for Greek, it's very interesting really.
The moral of the story is that sometimes something that is too good to be true, is too good to be true. This can be seen in The Guardian story about Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus.
The Guardian reports:
A leading Greek bishop has warned lawmakers that they risk incurring the wrath of God – and will be excommunicated – if they vote in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships. In a letter lambasting homosexuality as "an insult to God and man", the Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, pleaded with the country's deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions.
The article discusses the content of a public letter released by Seraphim, whom The Guardian describes as a "57-year-old former monk, a prominent personality in Greece's powerful Orthodox church" and offers a response from liberal critics. True to form, the article is one-sided. We hear from a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who likens the bishop to the Taliban, and from a gay activist. The Church of Greece is offered a chance to say they are against same-sex unions, but no argument is proffered against gay unions -- save for Metropolitan Seraphim's jeremiad.
The article then closes out with references to European court rulings endorsing gay unions and a slam at the country's backward stance on gay issues. All rather predictable from The Guardian and pretty much as one would expect. But there is more to this story that The Guardian did not report, or did not know.
Who exactly is Seraphim? How influential is he? How should we weight his words? These questions are not asked nor answered -- leaving the impression that Greece is a priest ridden small-minded country. A little research, or knowledge of the Greek religious scene, would reveal that Seraphim has form. In 2011 I reported:
Jews are to blame for a host of the world’s ills, from homosexuality to the Holocaust, a Greek Orthodox Church leader told an Athens television programme last month.
In a Dec 20 interview broadcast on the MEGA television network, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus laid the blame for Greece’s financial meltdown on an international Zionist conspiracy and a cabal of Jewish bankers who sought to “enslave Greece and Christian Orthodoxy.”
I grant you The Church of England Newspaper is not a must read for journalists. Sadly the paper's circulation has not changed in recent years. When it started in 1828 it numbered around 12,000 subscribers and I think its current numbers are about the same --perhaps we should prune the circulation list. Nonetheless Seraphim's views on Jews, (he believes Hitler was a tool of a Zionist conspiracy), have been reported in the New York Times and other English-language outlets.
Would it have put Seraphim's letter in context if readers knew of his fantasies about a Jewish world conspiracy? Would his views on Freemasons and the nefarious influence of secret societies seeking to create a new world order provide context to his views on civil unions?
Presented with a golden opportunity of a crazed cleric denouncing politicians who would support same-sex unions, The Guardian ran an advocacy story that boiled down to its essence said: "See how opponents of gay marriage think. You can dismiss all objections to gay marriage because the argument does not rise above Seraphim's silliness."
I am not seeking to address the question of the rights or wrongs of gay marriage in this post. What I am discussing is journalism. What a good newspaper should have done in this case it to note Seraphim's other controversial views in its description of the cleric. Context is key and the omission of important information, whether through ignorance or editorial design, colors a story.
In short, readers you cannot trust The Guardian's account to give you a full and balanced picture. If you are looking to reinforce preexisting prejudices, you have something here that will do quite nicely. But it is not journalism.
Reporters -- a story that is too good to be true, should be investigated -- as it may well be too good to be true.