Press: What I ‘learnt’ at Lambeth

30 July 2008

by Jim Naughton

Different in England: at the Buckingham Palace garden party ACNS/ROSENTHAL

Different in England: at the Buckingham Palace garden party ACNS/ROSENTHAL

FOR AN American church flak like me, learning to work with the British news media has been similar to learning to drive on British roads. The enterprises are fundamentally similar, and yet one’s reflexes need reconditioning to avoid accidents.

As a former journalist, I was struck first by the difference in the ways that American and British journalists attribute (or don’t attribute) the information in their stories. The British press is freer in its use of anonymous sources than its American counterpart. One is constantly reading that a paper “has learnt” something. Well, how, exactly?

Perhaps this wink-and-nod approach makes a certain sense in the cosy world of the Anglican Communion, but it’s open to abuse. A friend of mine recently found her fondest hopes transformed into the hidden agenda of the Episcopal Church by a reporter who assumed that my friend had much more influence that she has.

IN American journalism, the articulation of almost any idea is followed automatically by the articulation of its opposite. This formulaic objectivity isn’t especially helpful, but it beats letting the Bishop of Durham take potshots at people, as The Sunday Telegraph, The Times, and The Guardian did on the same weekend late last month. (For those who missed the articles, Dr Wright said that the Lambeth Conference was a mess, and that the consecration of Gene Robinson was an example of American unilateralism, just like the war in Iraq.)

I suggested to a reporter who wrote one of these stories that people who were having their competence or character trashed might appreciate a chance to respond. I was informed that an article about a bishop rubbishing other bishops played better than a story about church leaders disagreeing. Besides, if Dr Wright’s comments did any real damage, they would necessitate a follow-up story; so everyone would be happy.

The knowledge that their papers consider stories about the Anglican Communion worthy of sequels is what truly separates British religion writers from their colleagues in the States. American writers typically parachute into the Anglican saga, file a burst of stories, and then rush off to see what the Presbyterians or Southern Baptists are up to.

The English environment is more competitive, and yet more collegial, than the American religion beat. The reporters know one another well, and participate in a shifting network of friendships, collaborations, and rivalries, while the American reporters live hundreds of miles from one another, and see each other almost exclusively on assignments.

It is impossible to imagine Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times “betraying” Daniel Burke of Religion News Service, because they barely know each other. But the London-based reporters know about each other’s relationships and families; they compare notes on who has the most troublesome editors; they know who among them skates on the thinnest ice. . .

Half the fun of sitting in the media centre is watching personal narratives unfold. How are Riazat Butt of The Guardian and Martin Beckford of The Daily Telegraph holding up as they attempt to fill the shoes of their well-respected predecessors? Will the nugget of news Jonathan Wynne-Jones unearths on a Tuesday stay fresh until Sunday’s Telegraph? How have Ruth Gledhill’s interactions changed since she has expanded her interests and sympathies beyond her previously conservative base?

I NEED these people to take my phone calls; so I hope you don’t expect me to answer these questions. I will say that when it comes to religion coverage, the ideological identities of the papers I have just mentioned seem to have blurred in recent weeks. The cynic in me suspects that institutional pressures will necessitate a return to the status quo, but until that time, a flak’s morning read will be full of surprises.

Some of these surprises are pleasant; some — such as the conservative Bishop Keith Ackerman’s blasting his colleagues for the sin of receiving media training in the pages of The Guardian — not so much. Still, I scour the British papers with avidity, because, increasingly, they are the only ones that matter. Not a single serious US daily has sent its religion reporter to the Lambeth Conference.

For those of us hoping to shape the coverage of communion, then, relationships with British religion writers are essential. In that spirit, let me conclude by saying that each and every one of them is a stunning and original talent, whose work is grossly under-appreciated by the Philistines who carve up their copy. And if God is just, there will be raises all around.

Call me, OK?

The Revd Jim Naughton is the Canon for Communications in the diocese of Washington, and editor-in-chief of the website

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