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Press: Blessings story gets the algorithm treatment

27 January 2023


YOU don’t own your story. You’ve just given it to the public, and it’s theirs now. This is one of the most painful lessons anyone who talks to journalists has to learn. Once the story’s out there, other people will find their own uses for it. Or they will not, in which case it will be forgotten. The only way to “control the narrative” is to have plenty of money and energetic lawyers. Even then, your success is usually temporary.

But the Church of England hasn’t got the power to control how a story comes out. The idea that its deliberations over sexuality on Tuesday of last week would not be leaked before last Friday never made any sense; and — sure enough — the bulk of the coverage came out on the Wednesday morning.

It was all predictable, in an unnerving, and — dare I say it — prophetic way. The prophecy involved has nothing to do with the Church, or the matter at issue, but with the spread of what’s loosely known as Artificial Intelligence. People worry about things like Chat GPT replacing journalists, and that will certainly happen. What hasn’t been noticed is the degree to which this sort of algorithmic mimicry took over most editing functions on newspapers decades ago, even though it is performed by highly skilled humans. The selection and treatment of news stories is something that proceeds entirely by a set of instructions (an algorithm) that’s well understood by everyone in the business.

The “news feed” on social media is chosen by a rather different algorithm, but all that really changes is whether the fixed rules are executed by humans or computers. So, when the story about the Bishops’ proposals on same-sex unions came out, the news editor algorithm suggested three treatments: a straight report of the compromise, explaining that both sides would be disappointed (illustrate with quotes); a first-person piece by a disappointed gay campaigner; a first-person piece by a disappointed conservative. Pick at most one of the last two, since the story doesn’t matter much, and our readers just want to know which side they are on.

So, The Guardian had the straight piece, by Harriet Sherwood, and the disappointed gay vicar piece, by the Revd Charlie Bell; The Times had the straight reporting, by Kaya Burgess, and the Revd Richard Coles writing the disappointed gay vicar piece. The closest to a disappointed conservative piece was in the The Spectator, where Melanie McDonagh made a rather strange argument about disestablishment. Where Richard Coles had argued that the Church could not be established if it refused to marry people like him, she thought that it could not be established if it agreed to do so: “The whole point of an established church is that its pastoral care extends to pretty well everyone, as do its schools. It does a good job of it, too. But it’s another matter to impose secular norms on it. It may be prepared to marry all-comers, baptised or not, but it cannot be forced to embrace a view of marriage that runs counter to that of Christ.”

MEANWHILE, The Mail on Sunday had a possibly more significant story about an unattributed government briefing on “the war on woke”: “Mr Sunak is also understood to have instructed officials to perform ‘more due diligence’ on bishops before they are appointed, following their outspoken criticism of Government policy.”

Obviously, this cannot be true, since he no longer gets to choose bishops. But it’s interesting that someone in his press operation thinks it ought to be true, and refers to two cases: Philip North (who he has in fact appointed Bishop of Blackburn (News, 13 January) and the fact that: “Last year, all 25 bishops in the House of Lords sent a letter to The Times in which they condemned the Government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda, describing it as an immoral policy that shames Britain [News, 17 June 2022].”

“WOKE” is now a label as flexible as “Identity politics” — the reader is meant to know that only some identities are bad. I myself am implacably opposed to granting privileges to people just because they are members of the Old Marlburian community, but not even a government of Etonians will sign up for my crusade.

“Christian”, on the other hand, remains an unequivocally toxic identity across most of The Guardian, as is nicely illustrated by this passage from a recent review of a novel — For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy, by Victoria MacKenzie — which imagines a meeting between Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

“What these women share is bravery: in telling their stories at a time when the church has weaponised misogyny — Julian in writing, unlettered Margery by engaging passersby on the street — both are risking their lives,” the review says. “As for their spirituality, without detracting from its ardent mystery, MacKenzie lightly suggests connections to postnatal depression, grief and the urge to self-harm.”

You have to admire the way in which this passage avoids any taint of sympathy for Christianity or the Church. I am a little shocked that the editor let past the suggestion that either woman was in danger of their lives for what they wrote or said, but only a little.

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