Press: Fun with facts — and the darker side of this

22 June 2018

PEOPLE say that the Church is not news these days. Some crazies will even suggest that the General Synod might be boring. And yet a tweak to the regulations governing local ecumenical projects made the front page of The Times last week, and sparked follow-ups all over the media.

Of course, this was not quite the way in which Kaya Burgess presented the story. The headline actually read: “Hallelujah! Church of England turns to Harry and Meghan-style preachers”. The intro, only slightly less misleading, was: “The Church of England is to capitalise on the success of the African-American bishop at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by linking with British churches in black communities that share his style of sermons.”

The suggestion that this legislation had anything to do with the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Michael Curry, is, of course, entirely false. It has been working its way towards the Synod long before any of the members had heard of him. But, as an eye-snagging detail, it is surpassed only by the great mankini wheeze, perpetrated some years ago by John Bingham and Canon Giles Fraser.

This was also based around an unobtrusive change of church regulations: this time, to allow ministers to wear not vestments but cardigans in the pulpit. Someone had added to that a clause saying that the new vestments must be seemly. From there, it takes very few glasses of wine to ask what might qualify as unseemly, and then, armed with a quote from a minister in holy orders, run a story that the Church of England has banned mankinis from the pulpit — which duly appeared in print.

The great thing about the Bishop Curry story was that it worked so well with concepts that readers already had somewhere towards the front of their minds. It was a beautiful illustration of the way that half the skill of news writing consists in keeping real novelty away from the readers, and to make them feel that nothing is happening except a set of variations on a very familiar theme.

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They know about Bishop Curry, or they think they do; so tell them that there will be more of him, and they think that they have found something new that requires no thought or effort to understand — and that is most of what they want from news media.

This is not a problem unique to the news business. It is widespread across the whole of the attention economy. Hence all the films whose gimmicks can be summed up in one sentence: “A Western, but in space”; “a romcom, but with dolphins”; and so on. It is the craft of always reducing the strange to the comfortingly familiar. It is the opposite of mindfulness.

JUST as there are jihadi propaganda networks, there are fascist ones, which also spread internationally. In fact, their international spread is essential to the way they work, because it allows them to tell stories which far fewer people would believe if they had any possibility of checking against evidence.

I don’t mean to imply that this sort of credulity is confined to the extreme Right. There is a long, dishonourable history of left-wingers’ believing impossible things about some supposed earthly paradise; but, for some reason, the Right prefers to believe in impossible dystopias.

So, a Swedish neo-Nazi website informs me that “Tommy Robinson”, the far-right figure who is serving a prison sentence for repeated contempt of court, has been moved to a prison that is “70 per cent Muslim”: and this, as its readers understand, is “tantamount to a death sentence”. “Fears grow for the safety of the citizen journalist,” and so on.

This information comes from an interview with one of Mr Robinson’s assistants, conducted by Alex Jones, an American who rose to notoriety by running a campaign to prove that the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012, when a gunman killed 21 primary-school children, along with six adults, had never happened in real life. It was, Ms Jones argued, a stunt faked by liberals to promote gun control. Need one add that President Trump has appeared on his show and praised him?

So the story pings around from Sheffield to Los Angeles, and then to Sweden, and then back out of Twitter to England again. At every stage, it is amplified and passed on by people who expect it to be true, and, in various ways, want it to to be true.

This is, perhaps, no worse than the way in which YouTube recommends videos of ever-increasing weirdness and sometimes extremism: at every stage, you get something that you already half-believe reframed in a pleasurably shocking way. You don’t learn anything, but learning is often a disagreeable sensation, whereas this is just a delicious mind-tickle.

The mechanism of completely harmless fun, like the earlier Times story, becomes, in the hands of an Alex Jones, pure poison. Of course, if we don’t give our readers pleasure, there won’t be any newspapers at all. Knowing just how far to go is at the heart of journalistic ethics, such as they are.

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