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Adapting to the media is a must

06 December 2006

by David Self
We no longer hear the preacher at the lakeside, but through a different medium

The one-time owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook, believed it was the job of a journalist to make mischief. Readers of Andrew Brown’s press commentary in these pages may suspect that this is the sole aim of most journalists. If I am honest, I must admit it is the fun part of the job.

Lord Beaverbrook also believed that journalism was a means of satisfying public curiosity — even of spreading propaganda. Many of us engaged in this trade have higher aspirations, and not all hacks deserve to be ranked with estate agents and MPs as members of the least admirable professions. Many of us have a genuine desire to describe accurately what goes on in our patch, and to explain what we observe to our readership. In pursuing these aims, those of us engaged in religious journalism do not always endear ourselves to those whose activities we report.

Twenty years ago, on my way back from a BBC recording, I drove past a church advertising a “gnome festival”. Unable to resist, I stopped and went in. Neatly arranged in the front pews were about 50 garden gnomes. The organiser was present, and agreed to be interviewed for radio. I collected my tape recorder from the car, and she earnestly explained that gnomes were being threatened by vandals, and needed sanctuary. The incumbent arrived for evensong and also agreed to be interviewed. “No one”, he told me in all seriousness, “should be denied the Word of God.”

We broadcast those interviews. Inevitably, they made Pick of the Week. My Bishop later expressed his regret that, as a Christian, I should expose my church in a poor light. I told him my job was to report, not to censor.

Confident Cabinet ministers relish a rough ride from Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys. If the interviewer comes on strongly, even aggressively, the minister can answer vigorously and with conviction. A sympathetic interviewer leaves the politician with nothing to argue. Similarly, a sycophantic local reporter, perhaps unsure of his or her ground, might not challenge a parish spokesperson, and the resulting story would be written pleasantly enough, but without passion.

What the churches also need to take on board is the fact that the future of the press is by no means assured. Online advertising is already threatening the viability of the local press. Regional papers are turning into free-sheets. At a national level, even titles such as the profitable Times Educational Supplement are planning their survival should their lucrative job of advertising disappear. Paid-for journalism may become a luxury.

Today’s society is privatised. We live in self-contained units. New ideas reach us largely through the media. No longer do crowds gather in the marketplace or by the lakeside to hear a novel preacher. Wise church leaders (at national and local levels) have learned to use the media, even if it means adopting its methods, to reach the unchurched. They take care to cultivate and brief reporters in jargon-free language. They know that, if their interviewer has to interrupt them with a supplementary question — “So what you mean by that is . . ?” — they are failing. They also expect to be quizzed robustly, and know that good journalists are not to be bought.

Even such paragons need also to be aware that specialist religious reporters may become an endangered species. If we do, then the churches will need to find their own interpreters. In the mean time, the religious press may seem like safe territory. What needs to be remembered is that part of the special fun of writing for these pages is that many mainstream journalists use the Church Times (and, increasingly, its website) as primary research.

David Self was media correspondent of The Listener.

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