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Ten media tips for the Church

12 October 2011

The C of E needs to raise its communications game. George Pitcher presents some ideas

I must be careful, as I am now old enough to contract Sir Edward Heath syndrome. The most pitiable symptom of this debilitating condi­tion is to sit just below life’s com­panionway, sulking and grumbling as a new generation occupies the front bench of one’s profession — in my case, media and public affairs.

But, having just finished (or just been finished by) such a job in the Church of England, specifically the top flak’s job at Lambeth Palace, I feel not only entitled but rather well qualified to make a few observations. Anyway, I prefer my grapes fer­mented, not sour.

The truth is that there really are some top operators in media and public affairs at Church House and elsewhere, but there are also those who would not last 20 minutes in the public sector, let alone in private en­ter­prise. For these people, journalists and politicians are either mad, bad, or dangerous to know.

They might have Wendy Cope’s poem “Never trust a journalist” pinned to their corkboard. Some of the ordained, shamefully, calculate that three to five years in such a post is worth ten to 12 years of that boring old parish work in their journey of entitlement to a deanery or the Senior Common Room of an Oxbridge college.

On the other side of the wire, religious-affairs journalism echoes this yawningly wide chasm in ability. There are perhaps a dozen first-class correspondents, who retain a genuine interest in the Church of England, way below whom rests a slough of mediocrity which makes the parliamentary lobby look like a bunch of obsessive sticklers for the truth.

The absence of a story means only that one must be made up, the embers of cynicism and dishonesty fanned by synthetic outrage (“Arch­bishop speaks to Muslim!”) and the pretence that every “crisis” is the biggest since the Reformation, although there was invariably one of those last week, too.

The union of these two profes­sional media functions is a marriage made in hell. The pressure on re­porters in national media to deliver something, anything, whether it stands up or not (there has been a marked decline in standards of journalistic integrity over the past two decades), combined with an assump­tion on the Church’s side that no news is good news, fosters a mutual contempt, a chronic lack of proper engagement, and an advers­arial zero-sum equation, in which either side’s win has to be the other’s loss.

So, can anything be done? I carry no brief for national print media whose ethical stock is perhaps as low as it has ever been. They need to sort out their relationship between online competition and the commercial imperative, an unholy alliance that gave us phone-hacking (on which we can be sure there is much, much more to come). As the Augean stables are purged, however, there is an opportunity for the Church to saddle up, as it were, for a healthy hack.

The baton for the Church of England’s media responsibility is passing from the Bishop of Man­chester, the estimable Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, to the well-fancied (for preferment, that is) Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James. It is not just a good moment to review how the Church conducts its media relations, but also how it exercises its pastoral gifts. As in Rolf Harris’s cloying childhood ballad, there’s room on this horse for two, and we should not leave the press, in every sense, lying in the dirt.

So here are ten ways in which the Church can sharpen its media act, and, in doing so, raise the media’s game, too.

1. Define the issues: prioritise the crucial questions with which the Church is faced, and go for them. Civil unrest, poverty, children’s mental health? We need to lead on issues, not be kicked about by them.

2. Stop being a victim: get on the front foot, and stop whingeing about how badly you are treated. This is not Pakistan or Palestine, and you are not being persecuted; so use your freedom. Head-butt the bullies, by which I mean give as good as you get: journalists respect, albeit grudgingly, those who fight back.

3. Be clear on the core offer: we have unparalleled insight into how our society works across the UK, because we are everywhere. Exploit that street knowledge, and tell our stories.

4. Integrate: we are the weft and warp of society, not an institution within it; so weave yourselves into the fabric of the media, instead of lecturing to or complaining about them. That means getting among them. Otherwise, it will always be them and us.

5. Talk the talk: use the vocabulary of the world, not of the Church. Reporters need to know that the hungry are being fed and the home­less sheltered, not that our pastoral ministry is a blessing in deprived areas.

6. Walk the walk: we really are all in this together (unlike the political slogan); so press officers need to step up to the plate and say what they think. Don’t hide behind “The bishop believes . . .”

7. Speak truth to power: this is not just the job of the media. Diocesan directors of communications and press-office heads: are you willing to tell your seniors in the church hier­archy which way is up? Ingratiating yourself with the Bishop does not serve his best interests in the media.

8. Rapid rebuttal: don’t whine that you have been misrepresented. Hit the phone, and tell the journalist in monosyllables. It not only does good, but feels good.

9. Stand by the weak: there are plenty who would deny the poor a voice, especially the political class in this economic climate. Supine media can conspire in that. Stop them doing so by standing alongside the marginalised.

10. Allow access: there are far too many gatekeepers, and too few matchmakers. Let the media in. Some­times you’ll regret it, but that is the price of all the times you won’t.

Most, if not all, of this implies taking a much greater degree of risk in our relationships with the media. Our relationship with risk in the Church is ambivalent. We like to think that our faith is edgy, unpre­dictable, and invasive, liminal and envelope-pushing. In reality, we hide behind medieval walls. Our institu­tions are deeply risk-averse.

When I suggested in my old job that we needed to embrace social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the disdain in some quarters was palpable. It was like the first telephone arriving at Downton Abbey. Similarly, entering public debate is viewed as insufferably vulgar; so opportunities for our narrative are missed.

One example: the right-wing media (hat-tip Enoch Powell) have long banged on that civil unrest would be sparked by our growing Muslim population. But, when the riots happened in August, the only audible Muslim contribution came from a man who had lost his son to the violence, heroically calling for peace. There were some admirable contributions about the causes of and our best responses to the riots, not least from the Bishop of London, although there was too much knee-jerking and hand-wringing else­where.

But where was the voice of the rank-and-file of the Church, raising the wider social issues? We might at least have pointed out that fears that our Muslim communities were the enemy within had proved un­founded, and that, in the media, our Islamophobic, blogging rightards had gone strangely quiet.

So we need to be less afraid of a highly-geared risk/reward ratio, the opposite of which is a still mill-pond and a quiet life, which no one claims they joined up for, but many evidently did. The meek shall inherit the earth, but, in the mean time, they should not run the press office.

WE ALSO need help. To establish a properly effective communications machinery, the Church will need some more champions. Parliament offers greater opportunities in this regard than at any time since 1997. Communities of faith in general, and the Church of England in particular, are increasingly seen from within the Palace of Westminster as being part of the solution rather than the problem. As a nation, we do God again.

The C of E can make its political contribution without elected repre­sentatives’ making for the chamber door, fearful that they will be contaminated electorally by swivel-eyed, irrational bigots, alien to the state’s allegedly secular default position.

Then there are mainstream media champions, outside the incestuous circuit of religious-affairs corres­pond­ency. Jeremy Paxman, in his book The English (Michael Joseph, 1998), acknowledges at length the place of the Church of England in forming our national character. Jeremy Vine, with his flagship Radio 2 news-magazine show, famously claims that “Jesus was who he says he was.”

There are other media champions not called Jeremy. A couple of examples: Ian Hislop of Private Eye is uncharacteristically respectful; and the dreadnought columnist Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail describes himself as an atheist, while cherish­ing the Church’s presence. Such insight and strength of feeling could be marshalled to irresistible effect, although very few communications offices would have any of these pundits on speed-dial.

Finally, while in every sense I am well past using a column as a job application, there are plenty of us wearing clerical collars who are regularly in the media. Several of the names will be familiar to readers of this paper. Our collective media knowledge and experience is rarely, if ever, exploited by the Church, but it could be. You wouldn’t even need to give us lunch, although it helps.

The Revd George Pitcher is Assistant Curate at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, in London, and was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Public Affairs until last month.

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