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Press: The Mail does not want spiritual leadership

20 November 2020


LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH vanished almost without trace in the secular media, and John Humphrys in the Daily Mail suggested a reason. “On Monday, the House of Bishops solemnly announced that it was embarking on a formal ‘decision-making’ process on its attitude to sex, sexuality, marriage and gender, with the possibility that this would lead to its ending its opposition to same-sex marriage. What in the name of God is a ‘formal decision-making process’ and who cares what the bishops think of same-sex marriage anyway? We, the people, have already decided.”

This came at the end of a why-oh-why that was much better than the usual ones. It did observe the golden rule of right-wing religious commentary: that the only safe spiritual leaders to praise are those whom the readers are under no obligation to follow. This explains the enthusiasm for rabbis and the reverence extended to the sonorous platitudes of the late Lord Sacks (Gazette, 13 November), when an Anglican prelate who said the same things would simply be ignored or mocked as an intellectual.

Actually, the Mail has no interest in spiritual leadership at all. What it wants from clerics is moral followership, a rather different thing. The moral leadership is already provided by the tabloid press: the job of the Churches is to validate and to bless the policies of the editor.

So, Humphrys writes: “The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said that at the centre of Christmas is Jesus ‘who brings joy, healing, hope and love, whatever situation you are in’. I would respectfully warn His Grace to be careful where he makes that claim.

“Try telling that to the old people in our nursing homes who have forgotten what ‘hope and love’ even means. Many will die this Christmas in fear and alone because of the vicious regulations that mean they have not been able to hold the hands of their loved ones, let alone have a reassuring hug. They have been treated worse than an animal in a zoo or a prisoner in a jail.

“This is an utter disgrace. It shames us as a nation. This newspaper was right to launch a campaign to change the inhuman rules. But it should not have been left to a newspaper. If ever there was a cause that should have been led by the Church this is surely it.”

As it happens, I am on the side of the Mail here; but I am also troubled by the knowledge that, while my mother might well prefer to die of Covid rather than loneliness, I don’t have the right to make that choice for everyone else in her home. But then I’m not a spiritual leader.


ON A completely different note, the columnist Suzanne Moore has left The Guardian, apparently in a delayed reaction to a protest by several hundred employees against a column that she wrote on trans issues (Press, 13 March). The agitation against her was led largely by the American staff, who are, like most Americans, completely unable to credit that other countries might have different cultural and political arrangements. Come to that, they have extreme difficulty in grasping even that other Americans might have different cultures with their own values.

There was a similar bust-up at The New York Times earlier this year, when the opinion page published a denunciation of the Black Lives Matter protests by a Republican senator. Black staff members complained that even to publish the piece made them physically unsafe. The man who had commissioned the piece was forced out in the ensuing furore.

The interesting point is whether this narrowing of allowed viewpoints makes commercial sense: is there still a market for the kind of balanced and objective journalism, mimicking perhaps the BBC World Service, to which many journalists aspire? And perhaps there isn’t. New York magazine pointed out an extraordinary result from the kind of detailed audience research that the internet makes possible.

“In 2018, a group of data scientists at the [New York] Times unveiled Project Feels, a set of algorithms that could determine what emotions a given article might induce. ‘Hate’ was associated with stories that used the words tax, corrupt, or Mr. — the initial study took place in the wake of the Me Too movement — while stories that included the words first, met, and York generally produced ‘happiness.’ But the ‘Modern Love’ column [in which readers’ lives are retold as if they were pitches for a romcom] was only so appealing. ‘Hate drives readership more than any of us care to admit,’ one employee on the business side told me.”

You can see this very clearly in the British papers, on the Right quite as much as on the Left.

Media organisations are all now in the middle of a huge swing to subscription revenue, since Google and Facebook have taken all the advertising. Readers feel that they have a right to have their prejudices — sorry, their opinions — respected by the people who write for them. And, when the readers are paying directly for the show, editors gain a new respect for them. It’s very unhealthy.

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