How do you respond to a smear? If you are the Independent you respond with a smear of your own, it seems. The London-based daily has picked up a story from the web and without doing any investigation of its own, has concluded that what it reads on the internet is true. One would hope that they would know better than that. Or, might this be a British example of the Dan Rather school of journalism -- a story that is so good that even though it is false, it should be true.
The left leaning newspaper published an article this week entitled "UK evangelist says Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died'". (Tom Daley is a British sportsman who recently announced he was bi-sexual.) Reporters are seldom responsible for the headlines placed atop their stories, but this title does set the tone for the journalistic errors that follow.
An evangelist is different from an evangelical. The subject of this story, Andrea Minichiello Williams, is an attorney by trade -- not a cleric or lay preacher -- and the founder of Christian Concern, a conservative Christian evangelical advocacy group. Confusing evangelist and evangelical is a common error, but it presages the troubles that are to come.
The lede states:
The head of a British evangelical Christian lobby group has angered gay rights campaigners by urging Jamaica to keep same-sex intercourse illegal and reportedly suggesting that Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man because his father died. To the dismay of mainstream church leaders Andrea Minichiello Williams, the founder of Christian Concern, spoke at conference in Jamaica to lobby against the repeal of the Caribbean island's controversial law banning gay sex.
Let us unpack this. Mrs. Williams, is the head of evangelical group (not an evangelist), who "apparently" urged Jamaicans not to change their country's sodomy laws. Her words have led to "dismay", not in Jamaica, but among gay activists -- no surprise there -- and "mainstream church leaders", e.g., more than one and not just activists on the margins. We need to wait and see who these "mainstream" leaders are, but cognoscenti of Anglican affairs will see an allusion here. One of the chief conservative evangelical lobbying groups is "Anglican Mainstream." Is the Independent being clever? Are they suggesting a rift within the conservative wing of the church?
The editorial voice of this article is that it is somehow beyond the pale to oppose the reform of sodomy laws. While this may be the received wisdom in the offices of the Independent, the world does not march to that tune. From this month's ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right to gay sex, to Judge Antonin Scalia's dissents in Bowers v Hardwick and Lawrence v Texas, there is an intellectually respectable body of opinion that disagrees with the innovations endorsed by the Independent.
This is not to say the Independent must raise the objections to its thinking each time it goes off on this issue, but a degree of self-awareness on the part of the newspaper would prevent it from making the silly errors found in this story.
After laying out the controversy, the article then goes on to quote Mrs. Williams. But the quotes are followed by the caveat that they have been taken from BuzzFeed. They are further hedged about with phrases such as "reportedly illustrated" and "she is said to have added ...".
The Independent provides a hyperlink to the BuzzFeed story, but cites no other sources. It does include a quote from Christian Concern saying Mrs. Williams was "unavailable due to a private matter."
The story then moves to commentary and provides a "mainstream" critic, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt. Rev. Martin Warner. Perhaps bishops count as multiple sources? What the Independent implied the bishop said is at odds, however, with the statement released by the bishop. It wrote:
Yesterday Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, where Mrs Williams was elected to the General Synod in 2011, condemned the comments.
He told the Independent that they had "no sanction in the Church of England" and that they "should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable".
Bishop Warner did not condemn Mrs. Williams or her comments -- he condemned incitement to homophobia. He said:
The comments by Andrea Minichiello Williams about the decriminalisation of same sex intercourse in Jamaica have no sanction in the Church of England or the diocese of Chichester. Insofar as such comments incite homophobia, they should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable.
The Christian Church is widely perceived as homophobic and intolerant of those for whom same sex attraction is the foundation of their emotional lives. It is urgent, therefore, that Christians find legitimate ways to affirm and demonstrate the conviction that the glory of God is innate in every human being, and the mercy of God embraces each of us indiscriminately.
Note the use of the word "insofar" -- The Independent is shading the bishop's words here. It has either misconstrued what was said, or cherry picked phrases from the statement to support its editorial voice.
We see this shading of facts in the use of comments. Quotes condemning what the Independent concedes are alleged statements made by Mrs. Williams are offered, but there is no voice offered in support for retaining Jamaica's sodomy laws. As most of the article is taken from the press release of a gay lobbying group the lack of balance is understandable -- why do the hard work of reporting when someone else hands you a press release you can reprint?
Now to forestall comments from the perpetually outraged, this post is not about the rights or wrongs of Jamaican sodomy laws. It is about journalism. And as journalism this article stinks. What we have is a re-written press release passed off as original reporting. The Independent will not stand behind the quotes it says might have been said by Mrs. Williams, but is happy to reprint the comments attacking her.
And when a quote is not sufficiently rigorous for its tastes, it improves it by omitting key phrases that put the words in their context. This story is an embarrassment to the craft of journalism.