Press: A marked bias against journalism

06 May 2009

by Andrew Brown

It was news then: the Daily Express revisits the story of the Singing Nun

It was news then: the Daily Express revisits the story of the Singing Nun

IF YOU WONDER what the future of journalism looks like without profitable news­papers, study the coverage of the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica.

None of the national papers has a reporter there. None, of course, has any stringers left in the country, either. So what we’re left with is reports on blogs, none of them from people who are even trying to be neutral. (Why should they?) No one would raise the funds to travel to Jamaica and watch the Anglican Communion at work unless he or she was passionately com­mitted to one side or the other. But they are lobbyists, not journalists.

Those left in London can always try the Gledhill trick of ringing up lobbyists in the meeting and quoting what they say. But unless you believe that Canon Chris Sugden from Anglican Mainstream is entirely dispassionate and neutral about what is going on at the ACC — and not even his worst enemy would claim that — then it is hopeless quoting his accounts without making an attempt to check them, and we just can’t check anything for ourselves from this distance.

You and I notice this lack of news because we have an interest, or feel we ought to have an interest, in what happens in Kingston. But there isn’t any particular anti-Christian or even anti-religious bias at work here. If it is expressive of anything, it is of a bias against journalism. Of course, attending things such as synods is deathly dull for the reporters, but that’s what they’re paid for — or used to be. There is absolutely no substitute for someone on the spot, talking, enquiring, and reporting the results of his or her enquiries.

I run a web opinion site at The Guardian, and we have just won a worthwhile prize for it, beating The New York Times, among others. So I don’t knock opinions; but the point is surely that they are things that people can make for themselves without stirring from their chairs. You don’t need newspapers, or even websites, to have them.


But you don’t get news without reporters; and for all the fuss about “citizen journalists”, you don’t get it from amateurs, either. You may get it from unemployed professionals, but only until they find something else to do.

ONE WAY to find news without reporters is to spend a long time reading and thinking about a single deep subject (though this is for obvi­ous reasons even less attractive to newspapers). But this is what Jeremy Harding has done for a long piece in the London Review of Books about sharia finance. This is interesting both in itself, and as an example of a leftist thinker wondering whether religion might be an ally in the struggle against capitalism.

He writes: “One of the central differences between the Islamic and conventional ap­proaches to finance is that our own cults — which may well see a revision before the end of this crisis — ascribe supernatural powers to money. Cult specialists are at great pains to understand and control how it works, but admit that it does so in magical ways that go beyond the effects of human commerce (for the markets, too, have magical attributes, including innate goodness). Whatever we want from money, we suspect, as devotees, that in the end it will always behave as it sees fit.

“Islamic approaches — there are quite a few — are much closer to Nonconformist and Anglican traditions, where the divinity stands to the side of money, reminding the faithful that he is one thing and mammon another.”

Mr Harding is too scrupulous a reporter not to point out that the effects of an “Is­lamic” mort­gage are scarcely dis­tinguishable from those of a conven­tional one. The rental paid to a bank for its wil­l­ing­ness to share the risk is of course utterly unlike in­terest to the eye of faith; so it is pure coincidence that this rate is regularly reviewed with ref­er­ence to the LIBOR.

ANOTHER ap­proach to news entirely is that taken by the Daily Express, which gave over a whole page to the tragedy of the Singing Nun: “By 1985 Sister Smile was dead from a massive overdose of barbiturates, having been disowned by her Catholic con-vent and lost a battle with alcohol, tran­quillisers and the tax authorities. Singing Nun In Lesbian Suicide Pact — the story was a sensation.”

All this is in the interests of plugging a new film about her. At least it shows how silly we old people were. We always feared we’d grow up into a world where all the news came from Orwell’s 1984 — but see: in the future it will come from 1985.

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