Press: News, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

18 January 2019

PARLIAMENT LIVE

JOURNALISM is about the transmission and transformation of information. We pick, from the confusion of the world, some aspects that are either significant or attention-grabbing, strip away the rest, and display them. It’s a necessarily partial process: there are procedures to give two sides of an argument, but we can never supply all its facets. And what counts as significant is determined by the context or the audience, not the intrinsic importance of the story. News, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Two experiences brought these platitudes to life this week. The first was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on Brexit in the House of Lords, and his subsequent interview with Premier Radio.

The interview itself was widely reported as saying that a no-deal Brexit would damage the poorest in the country. But, if you look for it on YouTube, where teenagers get their news, it appears in a completely different frame. The Archbishop tells the interviewer, Justin Brierley, that he believes only that the burden of proof is on those arguing for no-deal to prove that it will not damage the poorest and most vulnerable. “That may be true,” he adds with tremendous emphasis, as if it got him off the charge of political speech.

It doesn’t, of course. Merely claiming that the welfare of the poor should be of paramount importance is itself a political act — one with which a majority of voters seem to disagree. He sounds to me like a prosecutor saying, with passionate sincerity, that it may very well be true that you have stopped beating your wife. But I am not the audience, and I don’t know quite who is.

But it is the side strip of videos that YouTube will automatically play to viewers after the interview that is really informative. This is dominated by a particular genre of argument as sport. Just as football fans chain together their team’s greatest goals, these purport to show the triumphs of the forces of Right.

“Jordan Peterson leaves liberal Senator SPEECHLESS on gender pronouns”; “D’Souza absolutely DESTROYS leftist student”; “Leftist student MOCKS Jacob Rees Mogg, instantly regrets it”. Richard Dawkins, on the other hand can apparently be “STUNNED by stupidity”.

It is a glimpse of a world where the pointlessly combative interviews of the Today programme would be the acme of intellectual sophistication.

THIS lack of interest in argument is also shown in the case of John Finnis, the conservative Roman Catholic law professor who has outraged some of his students by taking entirely seriously the teachings of his Church. The immediate cause is a lecture he delivered at Notre Dame in 1994. Just as Archbishop Welby boasted that he had read all 585 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement, I can claim to have read the whole of the lecture.

It is a very clear exposition of the natural-law position: I haven’t seen anything so lucid since John Bowker, then Dean of Trinity, Cambridge, laid out for me the arguments on homosexuality in 1986. And, with scrupulous, scholarly logic, Finnis paints himself into a position both absurd and arrogant: “Sexual acts cannot in reality be self-giving unless they are acts by which a man and a woman actualize and experience sexually the real giving of themselves to each other . . . it cannot really actualize the mutual devotion which some homosexual persons hope to manifest and experience by it.”

To which the only possible answer is: “Says who?” I think he does the debate a huge service in that it makes clear how fundamentally incompatible this style of reasoning is with empirical inquiry. Of course, faith in empiricism itself rests on metaphysical foundations. But these seem harder to get away from.

Yet to conclude that he should be banned from teaching just because he is wrong is also arrogant and absurd. Much of the reaction to the case — on both sides — has taken the form of recreational outrage. This may, of course, be unavoidable. Could any serious discussions about morality ever be free of outrage? Morality should impel us to action. It is surely a necessary quality of an immoral act that it should inspire disgust and anger in morally educated people. If you are not angry at an injustice, you don’t understand it properly.

This makes a difficulty when society re-evaluates a moral question such as homosexuality. The conservative side discovers that the shame and stigma that had been attached to their opponents are now — outrageously — attached to them. The mechanisms of moral enforcement operate independently of the morals enforced. It is easier to pity the victims of this switch if they had shown any signs of understanding this fact while they were its beneficiaries. Few do.

JUST time for a strange sad story in the tabloids: a fundamentalist church in the Nottingham village of Mansfield Woodhouse got its congregation to put £500,000 of their savings into an arena show about Adam and Eve, which never even managed one performance. It went bust with debts of £2.6 million, six weeks before it was to have gone on tour. The money has gone completely. It is a little tragedy that deserves some proper investigation.

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