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End of the line at The Times

16 May 2014

Contrast: treatments of the homophobia story in The Times and The Daily Telegraph (whose reporter also covers social affairs)

Contrast: treatments of the homophobia story in The Times and The Daily Telegraph (whose reporter also covers social affairs)

THE TIMES has abolished the post of Religious Affairs Correspondent, and with it, its incumbent, Ruth Gledhill. It is tempting to say that this is the first time it has happened since the Reformation, but, as so often, that turns out to be not quite true.

In fact, there were only two people to hold that post: Ruth, and Clifford Longley. Before Clifford, there was a "Churches Correspondent" who largely ignored everything that happened outside the Church of England.

Now there is not a single full-time religious-affairs correspondent in the British press. There are still very good journalists writing religious stories, but none has it as a specialism. This is paradoxical, in that Christianity has become more of a specialist subject as it becomes more distant from the quotidian culture in which the readers live.

Part of the job of a specialist is to avert misunderstandings. Part of the job of a news reporter is to seize on misunderstandings avidly, and this Ruth always did enthusiastically. Much of this, I think, was encouraged by her news desk. Provided a story was sensational, the paper could not have cared less if it looked ridiculous a year later, or even, to some people, ridiculous at the time.

When relieved of the pressure to spin stuff, though, Ruth was an enormously energetic reporter whose quotes were accurate. She was also one of the earliest people to grasp the possibilities of digital media - filming and recording events that she would earlier simply have written about. The blog that she ran for some years was an indispensable resource for people wanting to know what the news about the Church of England might be, but the decision of The Times to bring it inside the paywall killed it off. It turns out that no one will pay for straight church news, even when it is accurate. [There are exceptions. - Editor]

IT IS hardly original to say that the religious beat needs now to be done as if it were a foreign correspondent's job, but it gets truer with every passing year. This has a number of implications. The first is that straight news without context becomes less and less important. The problem is not so much that the straight news lacks context - nothing in the news lacks context - but that context becomes increasingly misleading as the subject becomes remote. So, stories need to be wrapped in explicit interpretation, since the obvious, implicit interpretation will often be wrong.

To take a very obvious example, every news story that labels the Archbishop of Canterbury "leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans", or whatever this week's figure may be, is going to be read as if it meant that 70 million people round the world care what the Archbishop says and adjust their behaviour accordingly. That also is not exactly true.

The second point is that the coverage is likely to become increasingly international. For as long as I can remember, there has been an assumption that, once a religious story becomes sufficiently interesting, it is no longer religious. I watched that happen right back with the Satanic Verses fatwa, which became something political. It is happening to religion under Pope Francis. He is normally covered from Rome, not least because few specialists speak Italian. And the enormous and important stories in American religion are generally done from the United States. That is a greater loss, since the particular strain of civic religion to which the US's élite media subscribe makes it almost impossible to understand popular religiosity there.

WHETHER the Churches will suffer from this is not entirely obvious, at least in the short term. There must be a temptation to assume that they won't. Local churches can, should, and must deal with local media. They don't need the national press.

Archbishops, by virtue of their office, and even bishops who have something to say can still reach out to the national media (provided the story involves sex or money). The internet, by making almost anyone a publisher, allows them to put their views out without intermediaries. The people who care will all find out from their preferred blogs or specialist papers anyway.

None of this, in any case, can show the clergy in such a sympathetic light as Rev did.

In the long run, though, the Church will lose a great deal by being driven to the margins of the national conversation in the secular media. It fails not just to get its message out but to get our message in, and so has no idea how to respond. The Telegraph on Tuesday made quite a noise about Archbishop Welby's condemnation of homophobia in schools. The Times gave it a nib (news in brief) on page 25. There is a message there for archbishops as much as for Times readers.

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