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Welby praises journalists who pay the cost of telling the truth

06 November 2014


"Watchman, how goes the night​?": The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches at St Bride's, Fleet Street, in central London, on Wednesday 

"Watchman, how goes the night​?": The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches at St Bride's, Fleet Street, in central London, on Wednesday 

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has praised journalists who "witness the full horror of what is going on and dare to speak it", and in so doing "unlock the covers of the wells of compassion".

At a service for fallen journalists held at St Bride's, Fleet Street, in London, on Wednesday, entitled "The Pen is Mightier than the Sword", Archbishop Welby paid tribute to reporters who, in pursuit of the truth, risked being "hurt deeply, mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually or even killed". He named both James Foley and Steven Sotloff, journalists beheaded by Islamic State (News, 22 August, News 5 September). Such correspondents were like the look-outs described by Isaiah ("Watchman, how goes the night?"). 

"They are the ones who witness the full horror of what is going on and dare to speak it. The rest of us are one step, or many steps, removed - both from the adrenalin and from the agony."

Archbishop Welby gave thanks for those who "light the lamp of truth where it is being snuffed out by so many. Not only by savage evil, by those who sell arms and convey lies; but by those who are indifferent and forgetful.

"It is right and essential that we give thanks for those who unlock the covers of the wells of compassion that can become available in this wonderful country of ours; who challenge the complacency in which some people suggest we can live in our own country as though the rest of the world did not matter, and, if we are sufficiently inward-looking, that the rest of the world will not affect us."

The public should be grateful, he suggested, for the immediacy of today's reports: a far remove from the "famously unreliable, exceptionally partial, and profoundly delayed" bush telegraphs of the past.

He spoke of the courage journalists displayed by putting themselves at risk. "The people who do it are not safely removed from the agony," he observed. "The reality of disaster, of war and suffering, is brought to us in a completely fresh way. It may still occasionally lack accuracy - that is an inevitable part of being human - but what it lacks in one area is more than compensated for by immediacy. And immediacy means risk."

And he singled out for praise those who had reported on the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Their stories had enabled him, he said, when meeting the head of the UN's response team, to "sense much more profoundly what he was saying".

The Archbishop's encounters with war correspondents had stripped him of any illusion that they were "entirely saintly", he admitted. "But there is an old saying in the Church, 'ex operandi operandum'. Or to put it another way, the fact that the priest is all messed up does not mess up the sacrament."

He concluded: "To witness is to tell the truth. And the more horrific the circumstances, the more needful, the more precious, the more costly is the truth. But we believe, as Jesus put it, the truth is not cheap. As he said, the truth sets us free."          

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