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Is anyone out there listening?

01 November 2013

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ONE of the reasons why there is so little religious news in the papers this week came in a side chapel of a Belgravia church, where six people - two retired bishops, three middle-aged members of the clergy, and the wife of one of these - addressed three journalists on the subject of the schism. No one else turned up. After 20 or 30 years of writing about splits in the Church of England or in the Anglican Communion, it turns out not only that the thing is hopelessly split, but that no one any longer cares.

In the long run, students of Evangelical self-importance will be interested in this moment, because, when the movement started, it was with the confidence that the culture and the great mass of Anglican churchgoers were on their side in a rebellion against the liberal dons who were presumed to have hijacked the Church. Now they realise that their concerns are simply incomprehensible to the outside world. What used to be typified by a pressure group called Action for Biblical Witness to Our Nation is now all about clinging on in someone else's nation.

One of the saddest moments came when Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said that, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury had not been able to attend the GAFCON II conference (the original invitation to the press had said that the conference "will be opened by the Archbishop") because of his prior commitment to going to Iceland. I dare say he had to wash his hair that day, too.

FULL MARKS, then, to Steve Doughty of the Daily Mail (absent from this, since Mail readers no longer care about the politics of the Church of England, and had never noticed that the Anglican Communion existed) for picking up a story from the Icelandic trip. I present it without comment:

"The Archbishop of Canterbury has risked inflaming the debate over Scottish independence by saying the English had mistreated the Scots for centuries.

"The Most Reverend Justin Welby painted Scotland as a victim of English oppression, and claimed Scottish people were reluctant to work alongside their southern neighbours.

"While his remarks appear to have been intended as a light-hearted aside, they run the risk of being seized upon by nationalists in the run-up to the independence referendum in September next year. Mr Welby was speaking in Iceland about his scheme to challenge payday loan companies with low-interest, co-operative credit unions."

Let this stand as a warning to anyone who thinks that they can determine what part of their message will make it through to the public. It is an extreme example of the completely dehumanising effect that journalism has on conversation.

This is because the media generally do reflect the attitudes and interests of their readers, and the vast mass of the readers care nothing about any particular story. There are always some who care passionately about every one. But most Mail readers would rather contemplate the pleasurable spectacle of upset Scotsmen than the distressing one of poverty and debt-servitude; so that is what they get to read about.

THE TIMES seems to have resumed online the kind of news stories that were once a staple of Ruth Gledhill's blog: reports of speeches and small news stories that will not make it into the paper. This is an intelligent kind of niche marketing.

I was struck by her report of the case brought against the Revd Stephen Sizer by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (News, 25 October). This was not so much because of the fact of the complaint: all is fair in the internet wars between Israeli and Palestinian partisans. It is because Mr Sizer's offence consisted not so much in what he wrote as in what he linked to on his blog.

It is an interesting kind of hate-speech - if that is what in fact it is. The question whether we endorse the people whom we quote from does not arise in normal journalism. Perhaps it should do more often, but for the most part, the ethical problem lies in the fact that to quote someone at all suggests that their views matter, and this is sometimes done with the deliberate intent to mislead, however accurate the quotation.

Yet the complaint against Mr Sizer appears to be slightly different - that there are some websites to which no one should link because parts of them are cesspits. This is almost certainly true. But suppose they are significant cesspits?

On television, there is the opposite problem. Mobs shouting with as little inhibition as if they were on the internet make great pictures, and so they tend to be over-represented. On the web, though, the opposite principle applies, as if the act of clicking through makes you sympathetic to what you will see. I don't think that this makes sense. My own policy is to link to anything, however vile, if it is central to the argument.

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