Press: Self-referential journalism has its eye on PR

01 November 2019

PA

Noella Kavira Kitakya (left), holding 16-month-old Kambale Eloge, whose mother died of Ebola, talks to Arlette Kavugho, in the courtyard of a UNICEF creche for families affected by the virus, in Katwa, near Butembo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, earlier this month

Noella Kavira Kitakya (left), holding 16-month-old Kambale Eloge, whose mother died of Ebola, talks to Arlette Kavugho, in the courtyard of a UNICEF c...

BOTH Archbishops were in the news on Sunday, but, with characteristic perversity, I noticed most a trivial point in The Sunday Times’s coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to the DRC. About 13 paragraphs into the Sunday Times’s splash about his appeal for less inflammatory language came this passage: “Welby was speaking in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has been highlighting the plight of people affected by an ebola outbreak.” One sentence — and then straight back to the thing that they want the readers to know: “He warned that extreme language in politics was fuelling hate crime.”

You’re not highlighting anything if it turns up only in the 13th paragraph of the story. This is a nice example of the way in which even the most apparently factual journalism is now self-referential. Just as headlines are written to be parsed by Google rather than the human eye, explanations about what is being “highlighted”, or “stressed”, are written to be quoted by PR people, not to be remembered by readers.

The angle that the Sunday Times splash actually highlighted was, of course, the Archbishop’s shocking and wholly unexpected view that “Death threats are really serious and they need to be taken seriously.” You can’t expect the readers to know that this has been the policy of the see of Canterbury ever since Thomas Becket.

The story produced three or four paint-by-numbers responses, of which the most noticeable was Dominic Lawson’s in the Daily Mail, and the most stupid — always a hotly contested distinction — was the Daily Express’s report.

What was infuriating about this was that The Sunday Times had, in fact, run a very long, moving, and properly reported story about what the Archbishop had actually been doing in the Eastern DRC. “One survivor, Chris, told Welby he had been attending a church service when a violently shaking man was brought in by his family.
“‘They thought he was demonised, so we started laying hands on him,’ Chris said. ‘Three days later he died. I ran to the hospital, tested positive for ebola and came straight here. I want to tell people it’s fine to pray for someone, but pray without putting your hands on them. We’re in the middle of an epidemic.’

“Welby also heard from Régine, a 34-year-old woman pregnant with her third child. ‘People don’t understand, they think doctors who want to give them the vaccine are trying to kill them. I want people to know when they get sick, don’t fear, go to the doctor’.

“Welby’s response was to offer selfies ‘so that you can show your friends and family there is nothing to be afraid of’. He prayed with the group of survivors, then posed for photos with each of them, placing his hands on their shoulders.”

The transition from a laying on of hands which kills most of those who perform it to another touch of the hand which is meant to give courage and hope is very nicely done. It’s a pity that the Archbishop will get so little credit for his visit that he might almost be Meghan Markle.

 

THE Archbishop of York, writing in The Observer, had an unashamedly pro-migrant piece pegged to the death of 39 people in a container lorry, which ended: “I must declare an interest. In Christ’s words: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ That was in 1974, when I was fleeing the regime of President Idi Amin in Uganda. So I know at first hand what it’s like to depend on the fellow feeling of British people, to be allowed to work for a Cambridge doctorate and to have the privilege of serving in the church’s ministry here for 40 years.

“Experience tells me the British are not hard-hearted. We just need to turn today’s sentiments of sadness into a national policy of welcome.”

It may be that the British as a whole are not hard-hearted, but the paper felt the need to turn off the comments on that piece online rather than test the theory.

 

THE Press Association took up the question of Kanye West’s religiosity (Press, 25 October), in a rather less reverent manner than the US papers did. Reporting on an interview that he’d given to plug his record, it quoted him explaining why he had put on a Trump-supporting hat. “For the greatest artist in human existence to put a red hat on was God’s practical joke to all liberals. Like, ‘No! Not Kanye!’” he said.

“The 42-year-old also revealed plans for a future presidential run. He said: ‘There will be a time when I will be the president of the US and I will remember . . . any founder that didn’t have the capacity to understand culturally what we were doing.’

“In the same interview, West also referred to himself as ‘unquestionably, undoubtedly the greatest human artist of all time’.”

Presumably, this makes him a far superior Christian to someone like the Pope, who simply describes himself as “a sinner”. I know that’s been criticised as false modesty; for all I know, it is. But it’s still preferable to true vanity.

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