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A journalism lesson from the Mail

01 January 2016

Research: a Mail Online reporter bothered to phone the academic in the story, unlike others

Research: a Mail Online reporter bothered to phone the academic in the story, unlike others

THE run-up to Christmas had the by now traditional shortage of actually Christian stories. But there was one that illuminated the widespread ignorance of and hostility to “religion”.

It originated in a press release from the University of Colorado, and appeared here in The Independent, the Telegraph, The Belfast Telegraph, and the Daily Mail — and those are just the ones I found by Googling one sentence in the original press release.

The headline in all of them was a variation on The Independent’s take: “Religion has been causing conflicts for over 2,000 years, say scientists.”

It’s worth admiring the assumptions baked into this headline. It has “scientists” set up against “religions”, and it also has the suggestion that without “religion” there would be less conflict, or possibly none.

The Independent’s story is a straight lift and fillet of the original press release, and really very confusing; The Belfast Telegraph went with a shortened version of the Independent article, and the Telegraph made some effort to make sense of the story.

Only — astonishingly — the Mail Online practised any journalism on the raw material, and it produced by far the best and most informative coverage. The story is further distinguished: although the quoted scientist is a woman, she does not “show off” any of her body parts, which is unusual for the Mail Online. (The construction “Woman shows off her” whatevers has appeared more than 3.2 million times on the site so far, and no doubt a couple of hundred times more by the time you read this.)

But Ryan O’Hare, who wrote the story, had actually rung up one of the anthropologists involved, and got her to explain the story. So, instead of the press release, which stated confidently that “[the study] contradicts the long-held belief that religion acted to unite early state societies”, this had the central point that the authors had studied two widely separated sites, in one of which a large coherent state had formed and endured, while in the other it had failed. They had come up with religious explanations for both processes.

As Dr Sarah Barber told the Mail: “Differences in how people gained access to their gods prevented an early state from thriving in the Rio Verde and helped another in the Valley of Oaxaca to endure for a millennium. There is an object lesson here: religion matters.”

Of course, she had to go and spoil it with her next quote, which was true, very important, and just too complicated for a headline: religion “can have a destabilising effect in some instances and a unifying effect in others, and likely can have many other effects as well”.


RELIGION is mattering like anything in Pakistan, where, says The Economist, the security forces have finally clamped down on a Sunni Muslim group that has been murdering Shiites for years: “Due process was dispensed with entirely in the case of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sunni supremacist outfit responsible for countless deaths of Pakistani Shias. In the past the authorities have treated it with kid gloves. Yet the group has lost much of its top leadership in what the authorities call ‘encounters’ with police but which in reality are extrajudicial executions.”

This is interesting, because the persecution of Shiites in Pakistan appears to take a different form from the persecutions of Christians and Ahmadiyyas, both of which are much more spontaneous and less organised and — if I read the statistics right — much less lethal even if they are more popular.


TWO British stories: The Guardian’s strong one about the banning of a Muslim family group of 11 from entering the United States for a longed-for visit to Disneyland. That really is a sign that the terrorists have won.

At the same time, The Times had a leader picking up on a call by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, for an inquiry into sharia courts. This argues itself right up to the point of removing the protection that religious arbitration — like any other mutually agreed form — currently enjoys under the Arbitration Act . . . but does not quite cross that line.

“Any agreement reached through coercion or other forms of pressure can always be overturned in a civil court. Coercion often goes hand in hand, however, with enforced silence. Attempts to muzzle victims of discrimination are almost impossible to prove. The inquiry must investigate this, but it can never know what it has not found. The only true protection is a single, sovereign rule of law.”

This seems to me to be one of the points where liberal individualism breaks down into unreality. The idea of “consenting adults”, which seemed to make so much sense in a sexual context, breaks down when it comes to family networks. We are largely constituted by our relationships with others. Take them all away, and what’s left is only an abstraction — visible perhaps to leader-writers, but not apparent in the real world.

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