NO ONE could quarrel with the first four words of The
Observer's story about Dr Rowan Williams: "The Archbishop
of Canterbury". Toby Helm and Julian Coman got that bit unarguably
The trouble starts with the next words: "has denounced". "Has"
is technically true. The speech they are talking about was, in fact
made; but 15 months ago, and reported here and, I think, in
The Observer's sister paper, The
Guardian, at the time.
As for "denounced", he didn't. He was very careful not to
denounce it himself, but to say that other people had done so, and
then to give the arguments about why they might be wrong.
Omitting these facts produced a headline and subhead that were
just plain wrong: "Rowan Williams pours scorn on David Cameron's
'big society': Key policy 'comes across as waffle', says archbishop
of Canterbury in valedictory bombshell".
Nowhere in anything that the paper wrote is there any suggestion
that the book being reviewed is a collection of speeches and
articles already made. Mr Helm and Mr Coman write, for example,
that Dr Williams's "critique of the coalition goes much further
than before, arguing that Cameron's supposedly defining concept of
the 'big society' lacks any clear definition and is seen by the
public as a cover for the withdrawal of the state from its
responsibility to the most vulnerable in society".
Again, look at the tense. This is about a speech delivered 14
None of this stopped the piece working as a news story, in the
sense that it was widely repeated as if it were true. It was
followed up by the BBC, the Telegraph (under the rather
more truthful headline "Rowan Williams: Big Society is not just
'aspirational waffle'"), The Guardian, Sky News,
Metro, and so on.
ALL this got me thinking dyspeptically about a Twitter spat that
Ruth Gledhill, The Times's religious-affairs
correspondent, had with Richard Godwin, the Evening
Standard writer whose interview with Dr Williams I praised
last week. Ruth thought it was dreadful. Why hadn't he asked about
"Lots of people with no interest in religion are v interested in
ABC views #gaymarriage. Astonishing that u failed to ask," she
wrote; and later: "I would be truly ashamed if I got an ABC
interview with no p1 write-off."
Godwin responded: "I had been wanting for a long time to speak
to him about mutual interests: London, literature, inequality,
faith, politics." Ruth replied: "Does the editor of your newspaper
know that you hold news in such great contempt?"
This led her to wonder why she has never had an interview with
Dr Williams: "If it is cos he fears I will ask difficult questions,
I hope and pray his successor has more courage. . . I gave up
asking years ago. Looking forward v much to new regime."
Beneath this entertainment is a question that illuminates what
journalism can be about. Are we interested in those moments when a
public figure can tell the truth, or those where they are compelled
to lie? One way of understanding the distinction between news and
features is that, on the whole, news stories are made by getting
people to lie, and features by getting them to tell the truth. Of
course, a good journalist needs to be able to do both at will.
It's important, if you want to understand the media, to see what
is meant here by truth and lying. It's not just a case of saying
things that are untrue in the sense that they are factually
inaccurate. But when public figures speak, they are engaged in
performative utterance even when they seem not to be. That's what
defines them as public figures.
In other words, their words and their actions have to be in
harmony, or else they are lying even when what they say is
factually true. Their words do not just describe the world: they
are supposed to change it.
There is professional pleasure, and skill, in identifying those
questions that a public figure cannot truthfully answer and asking
them anyway. That's one of the definitions of a good question, as
in: "That's a good question. I'm glad you asked that question. Next
It is certainly the job of any specialist, then, to know which
are the questions that cannot be answered with integrity. But I
don't think that it's always the right thing to ask the questions
that both of you know cannot be answered truthfully. In particular,
you should ask the impossible questions at press conferences. When
there is actually a chance to talk to someone more or less
honestly, in an inter-view, it is better to stick to the hard
questions, which might make both parties think.