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Interview: Christopher Graham, Reader candidate

09 October 2020

‘Public-service broadcasting has been a life-saver. I hope the politicians will now back off’

I wasn’t thinking of becoming a Reader at all. But the words of Matthew 18.8 kept challenging me: “Freely ye have received, freely give.”

I was the youngest of three in a Christian family in south-west London. We went to church regularly, were read Bible stories, and prayed together. I was quite shocked and saddened when I met my first atheist.

I could sing, and, at the age of nine, I became a boarder at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School. I became steeped in its history, the language of the Prayer Book, the Authorised Version, and the music. Allan Wicks, organist and master of the choristers, was an inspired teacher. Some real characters populated the precincts, like Hewlett Johnson and Michael Ramsey.

At the age of 12, I was going to be a bishop — and then somebody told me I’d have to start as a curate; so I dropped the idea. A music scholarship took me to St Edward’s School, Oxford, where chapel and the chapel choir were central.

I was licensed on 4 October by Zoom — but we’re promised a service of celebration in Chester Cathedral in the New Year.

Training has been a long journey. First, the Chester Foundations for Ministry course. Then a post-retirement year out. Then Foundations again, but this time as a group leader. Then two years of Reader training with the University of Chester. Assignments, word counts, proper referencing — and serious reading. Good teaching and also much encouragement from fellow students. A quite brilliant placement in a very different parish context from what I have been used to.

I’ve been preaching and leading at St Peter’s, Hale, and St Elizabeth’s, Ashley, now, for about 18 months. At the moment, we’re not broadcasting the services that take place in church. Even I, with my experience, couldn’t — and, anyway, I haven’t got the kit. So we record through Zoom the service the night before, and it runs in parallel with the real thing.

I was UK Information Commissioner for seven years, until 2016. The Commissioner is appointed by Parliament to oversee information rights under the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, balancing the right to privacy and the right to know.

There’ll always be a tension between the two rights, and you can’t generalise either. The Information Commissioner and team look at individual cases and make a ruling.

It’s the job of the Commissioner and the team to make those judgements, always applying legislation, not making it up. It’s important to get an independent agency’s view before it reaches the courts or is left up to politicians.

I worked a lot in Brussels; so I was very aware of danger of shooting ourselves in the foot over the EU negotiations. I was there when Cameron made the speech promising a referendum, and saw how British influence just collapsed. Now, there are all sorts of issues which are much more difficult to sort out because we’re no longer members — like the Channel migrants, for instance.

I regret I wasn’t able to provide the leadership for the working party of European Data Protection Authorities at a key time for privacy, policy, and regulation. The EU approach to data protection needed some British pragmatism, but UK influence vanished as soon as Cameron promised that referendum. Many of my colleagues took a very legalistic view of the definition of privacy. I said: how are you going to enforce them without an effective regulator with staff and resources?

I’m much more interested in practicalities than theory. It was satisfying to be able to win proper resourcing of the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] and more competitive pay for our specialist staff, who were being poached for their expertise. I was also badgering Parliament and Brussels to provide serious penalties for breaches. It needed at least a threat of custodial sentences to make people take notice.

With church data, we spent so much time worrying about what you couldn’t do, we didn’t see what you could do; so we didn’t have everyone’s contact details when the lockdown started. We need to learn to handle data responsibly so we can keep in touch with each other — so we’re not caught out again.

My previous role was director-general of the Advertising Standards Authority [ASA]. I’m glad we were able to strengthen the ASA’s role as the arbiter of standards in broadcast and non-broadcast advertising — and, increasingly, in online advertising. The ASA always had on its council a leading theologian.

One of the last cases involved deciding on hundreds of complaints generated by rival poster campaigns on London buses: “There’s probably no God” from the British Humanists, versus “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” from the Trinitarian Bible Society. The advertising code required proof only for “claims capable of objective substantiation”.

I was called to speak on Radio 5 Live about Ribena Toothkind’s ad — just as Robert Runcie’s death was announced. A presenter motioned me into the corridor and asked, “How well did you know him?”, thinking I had come from Lambeth Palace, and was very annoyed to learn I was there to talk about Ribena. Afterwards, the chairman, Bill Rodgers, told me: “I think you’d have handled it very well. You’d have said: ‘The news from Lambeth Palace is, indeed, sad. Let’s talk about Ribena: it’s what Robert would have wanted.’”

I joined the BBC as a graduate news trainee in 1973. I had a glorious time making programmes in radio and TV for 25 years, ending up as the secretary running between governors and senior management.

I produced Brian Redhead’s A Word in Edgeways on Radio 4, meeting his fascinating guests, including Marghanita Laski, Edward Patey, Antonia Fraser, and Harry Williams. Brian loved to talk post-Hegelian philosophy — and also trained as a Chester Reader. Producing the TV equivalent, Thinking Aloud, with Bryan Magee, introduced me to Bernard Williams — charming — and Kingsley Amis — cross.

I once filmed at Buckingham Palace, where Gerald Priestland was interviewing the Duke of Edinburgh, who’d written a book: A Question of Balance. Asking HRH to retake one of his answers was not well received. Getting Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to clarify his script for a Radio 3 talk on Alfred Waterhouse was similarly frosty.

I still believe in public-service broadcasting, and shout at the radio when professional standards are slipping. It’s been a lifeline during the pandemic, and the religious offering has been a lifesaver for many who’ve been unable to do online worship. I hope politicians will now back off.

When I was very small, I was strongly affected by my dad explaining his responsibilities as a godparent, and praying: “Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace, that he may continue thine for ever. . .” Dad became a Reader in Southwark; so I’m following in father’s footsteps.

When my first marriage fell apart, faith and church involvement kept me sane. The post-Trinity Gospel readings spoke strongly to me about being doers of the Word, and not hearers only. Mary and I have now been married for ten years, and she has been wonderfully supportive of my training. She hadn’t reckoned on me becoming a Reader, but then, until a couple of years ago, neither had I.

I dislike the state of British politics, our unreformed Parliament, and the rotten first-past-the-post system. . . But there speaks a twice-failed parliamentary candidate and a council member of the Electoral Reform Society.

I hope that, out of the horrors of Covid, the climate emergency, and a surfeit of narcissistic political leadership, there’ll emerge renewed concern for the common good — and the Church will be bolder about preaching a social gospel as well as the gospel of personal salvation. . . But there speaks a great-great-grandson of Frederick Denison Maurice, the founder of Christian Socialism.

I’m happiest drinking in the beauty of great art in the galleries of Europe; in the carvings and the stained glass of a French cathedral; in concert halls, opera houses, or theatres.

Next to a well-sung evensong, I love the sound of distant bells on the Venice Lagoon, or from the campanile of the Florence Duomo, heard from high in the hills across the Arno.

“Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see.” I pray for strength to serve God each day. I can’t be doing with creating to-do lists for God. That’s an abrogation of our responsibilities.

Lock me in Canterbury Cathedral any time. I know my way around. If I could be joined by Thomas Becket, I’d love to discuss church-state relations, telling truth to power, and what really happened to his remains after the destruction of the shrine.


Christopher Graham was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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