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The Media: Public Interest and Common Good

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech yesterday of the above title has certainly put the cat among the pigeons. Here are one or two thoughts I had on it:

The Archbishop (or henceforth the ABC) probes the issue of journalism and secrecy. He quotes the question that has sometimes been attributed rightly or wrongly to Jeremy Paxman, “Why is this bastard lying to me?”. But he points out that not all secrecy is sinister. We wouldn’t want certain things about ourselves that are rightly kept private made public. So he wants a more sensitive approach to the old ‘public interest’ defence that journalists employ.

Well, quite right, too, and as a minister I know only too well the issue of confidences that must be kept. I only wish that Rowan Williams had at this point applied his ‘brain the size of a planet’ to the question of why we have got into this situation. What about examining the postmodern ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ at this point, the whole difficulty in pomo thinking about truth and power? That would have illuminated a very worthwhile speech.

Also suffering too much from brevity is the section on weblogs. He notes the positive use of blogs to provide quick and necessary rebuttals but sees them as purely ephemeral with no notion of posterity, and often full of wild, unchecked comments and bigotry. Well, there is some truth in this, of course. But the issue of the ephemeral is contentious: are not we bloggers typing our online journals? The Christian spiritual tradition knows much about ‘journalling’, and it is often a very positive reflective process. Granted, in the blogosphere we have to contend with ‘information overload’, but blogging could be the place where the reflective approach begins in our media.

Which neatly brings me on to something else the ABC says. He has a very useful section in the speech where he bewails the contemporary media emphasis on ‘urgency’ with its concomitant features of ‘breaking news’ and ‘instant comments’. He notes how this can marginalise religion, which does not always display ‘urgent’ qualities. So it was difficult for 24-hour news channels to cope with the last days of Pope John Paul II’s life. I would just add that ‘urgency’ has other dangers, too, not least with the phenomenon of ‘instant comments’. Do we not more often need considered reflection? In which case we come back to my argument above about the reflective use of blogs, but it is not limited to blogging.

Having said all that, go read the speech. It’s excellent. In summary I think I’m just saying I wish he had taken his thoughts further and deeper.

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