NOT very much English Church journalism this week, but lots of interest anyway. There was a piece in The Guardian about the report by the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, two years after Grenfell. I suppose most other papers thought it worthy but dull, or squeezed it out to make room for more Trump coverage, but Grenfell Tower is a Guardian story, and Harriet Sherwood did it justice: “The bishop has produced a report, The Social Legacy of Grenfell: an Agenda for Change, based on conversations with survivors, bereaved relatives, councillors, community groups and social activists.
“‘When a disaster of this magnitude happens in our communities, it is an opportunity for national repentance, an opportunity to look at the way we live together,’ he said.
“The public inquiry into the fire had a narrow focus on its causes, what happened on the night of 14 June 2017 and what could be done to prevent a similar catastrophe, he said. ‘Yet if all we do is to think about fire safety and building regulations, we will have missed a vital opportunity’.”
This is, I think, exactly the level at which the Church should insert itself into public debate: somewhere in between the parish and the House of Lords, taking advantage of what it has learned on the ground, and doing so in a way that some people, at least, might listen to.
INCIDENTALLY, this is a report, and a story, which shows up exactly what is wrong with the replacement of journalists by robots, or at least software. The Financial Times had a report on Radar, the software launched by PA, and in part funded by Google, that produces news stories from government statistics, with minimal human intervention: “One of six human journalists working at Radar will write a story ‘template’ with wording for each of the various possible scenarios — for example a boom, modest rise or sharp fall in violent crime. Then, at the click of a mouse, versions of the story are created for each of the UK’s 391 local authority areas, pulling in the statistics specific to that region.”
JPIMedia, formerly Johnston Press, the conglomerate that owns the i newspaper and The Scotsman, along with 160 of our mostly loss-making local papers, is using about 700 stories a week from this source, which, by my rough calculation, costs it about £5000. The editor of one local paper (not owned by JPI) is quoted enthusiastically as saying that his readers cannot tell the difference between the automated stuff and the bits that are written by human reporters. That may well be true.
There are four things worth noting about the story. The first is that some aspects are genuinely useful. I would love (but could trivially write myself) a piece of software that extracted regional statistics from national ones.
The second is that the raw figures are actually where journalism starts. You then ask why things are this way, and talk to people until you understand. That is the time-consuming and expensive part of the work. It has been under attack since long before Google: I remember the old joke at The Independent that one phone call made a news story, two made a feature, and three phone calls an in-depth investigation.
The third — related — point is that this does nothing to replace local coverage of the courts, or, indeed, of local-government meetings, which cannot possibly be automated, but used to take up hours of (expensive) reporters’ time.
Yet there is one final point: the people who should really dread this kind of automation are working in PR, where the job of writing press releases could easily be defined as dropping helpful facts into pre-selected templates.
ONE of the loveliest news photos I will ever see sits at the top of a recent New York Times story: it shows a nun, Sister Diane Clyne, looking at a young woman, Sarah Jane Bradley. Sister Diane is in focus: her face is full of kindness, strength, and age. Ms Bradley, her face smoothed by youth as well as out-of-focus blur, is looking across her. They are part of a project “Nuns and Nones”, which has brought together religious unaffiliated millennials with a house of the Sisters of Mercy in California. The young people lived with the Sisters, and some helped to care for them. They were astonished to discover that the question they were asked was not “What do you believe?” but “What is your spiritual practice?”
“The Nones, many of whom said they felt overwhelmed by life’s choices, were drawn to the discipline and the notion of sacrifice. A life of chastity was especially appealing to them.
“‘I started to realize chastity was an invitation to ‘right relationship’ and not just about celibacy,’ Sarah Jane Bradley said. ‘In an era of Me Too, we need right relationships. We need to know what it means to respect someone’s personhood and to respect your own personhood and to be a conduit for love rather than ego needs.’”
It would be extraordinary if this kind of understanding were to rehabilitate, so to speak, the language of virtue — but stranger things have happened.