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Interview: Peter Crumpler, journalist, former comms director

31 March 2023

‘If we want quality journalism to thrive, we have to pay for it’

I’m a communicator: a writer, broadcaster, and user of social media, and a self-supporting minister. I grew up in Brentford, west London, in a hard-working, happy family, the youngest of three children. Now, I live with Lin, my wife, in St Albans.

I knew I wanted to be a journalist from producing a class newspaper at primary school. My dad always took the Daily Mirror and old Sun newspaper, and the London Evening News. I was always fascinated by the range of stories, the people interviewed, and bylines from across the world.

My first piece of published journalism, at age 16, was a report of a concert at my Baptist church in Chiswick; so I’ve been writing for publication for more than 50 years. I began writing regular reports about what was happening in church and at school for several local papers. They even paid me.

I asked the editor of Buzz, a Christian youth magazine, for career advice, and he invited me to gain some experience with them during school holidays; so I did, and really valued what I learned.

I took my collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings around to various editors, and was selected for a three-year journalism apprenticeship beginning at Harlow College, learning things like shorthand, law, and public administration, for nine months, and then spending the rest of the time on the Acton Gazette and other west-London local papers. It was great experience of reporting grass-roots life in a diverse part of London. University courses can be excellent, but first-hand experience counts for much more.

I left local journalism to work in corporate communications, first for Hillingdon and Hounslow Councils, and later for British Gas, including ten years working for their developing overseas division in countries from Thailand to Trinidad, from Russia to Chile, getting to know how the media worked across the world. I left British Gas to join St Albans diocese in 2001.

If we want quality journalism to thrive, we have to pay for it. That means both taking out paid subscriptions to newspapers, and being willing to fund the BBC as a widely trusted source of news. There’s a lot to be depressed about in the decline in local newspapers, with much advertising revenue going to the big tech companies. Lots of local news now goes unreported for lack of professional journalists. Grenfell Tower might not have happened had there been a lively local newspaper to listen to residents’ valid complaints.

I’ve always encouraged churches to engage with their local media. Churches have a vital interest in supporting them to help promote community life, and hold power to account, as well as publicise all the good things that faith groups do.

I’m encouraged by the growth in grass-roots hyper-local publications being set up around the country, with a range of financial models, including crowd-funding or subscriptions. They may well be the future.

We can’t close our eyes to news we don’t like, but we should ration our intake so we don’t become overwhelmed. I found Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News really helpful on this.

During the lockdown, and since, I’ve focused on local and global news. I read local newspapers and listen to local radio, but also read The Economist and tune in to the World Service. Local and global news puts our national headlines in context.

News organisations need to connect with readers: for example, the wider use of social media to attract younger readers. St Albans Abbey uses video on social media really effectively: you can put short-form video on a range of platforms and really make an impact through that form. It’s a particular discipline: you have to say what you want to say very efficiently. Then there’s the growing market for podcasts where you can really go into a subject in some depth — two interesting forms emerging at the same time.

The Church of England has made impressive use of social media and online technology, which enables it to address people without the message being mediated through outlets that may misconstrue what’s being said.

The comms role of Church House and diocesan communicators is to support the ministry of local churches. The key question is: “Will this social-media post or video or article encourage people to engage with their local church?” If it enhances the vital grass-roots ministry, then it’s valuable.

In the diocese, you’re much closer to the parishes. In my time with St Albans diocese, I made a point of being out and about as much as possible, meeting clergy and parishioners, helping to identify the good news stories. When a fatal rail crash happened in the diocese, I already knew the local clergy, and could help them to respond to the intense media interest.

At Church House, Westminster, I worked more closely with the bishops, understanding the challenges that they faced, and helping them in their communications. We’re blessed with increasing numbers of bishops who communicate well to a range of audiences. I worked closely with the then secretary-general, William Fittall, and had seven years as communications director before training for ordination.

The Church can seem like a confusing, outdated, remote organisation, but we can all understand people; so high-profile priests like Richard Coles and Kate Bottley do a tremendous job in humanising the Christian faith. I’m not too concerned about whether people understand the Church or not: I’d like them simply to look to Jesus, and all he said and did.

It’s never good to lie to journalists — or anyone. It’s just not good practice. The Church is becoming a more open organisation. The more we can shine a light on things we wouldn’t wish to defend, the better. The faith doesn’t need defending, because we’ve got a strong gospel message, and we’re acting that out in 13,000 parishes.

The erosion of truth and shared facts is one of the biggest challenges facing society today. If we can’t agree on these things, how can we discuss issues such as Brexit well? I’ve been working on a diocesan project around responding to post-truth and disinformation. It’s been fascinating to work with people from a range of backgrounds and faiths, talking about post-truth, disinformation, and fake news, and the faith response to that.

We can help our congregations and communities choose good sources of news, to be discerning about social media, understand what we’re receiving, and checking for valid sources. It wasn’t something the Church appeared to be engaged with, and we’re a very small project, but we’re seeking to keep the conversation going.

When at school, I took part in a debate on why God wasn’t relevant to the modern world. I was speaking for the motion, and started researching the subject. This, with my brother becoming a Christian, were key influences in my early faith.

The older I get, the more I have to learn; so I’m increasingly eager to look at new perspectives, and to go deeper. Jesus asked lots of questions, and I like to follow his example.

I’m happiest being with Lin and our three children and six grandchildren, watching football, seeing new places, and doing jigsaws to get me away from screens. Seeing my family thrive, overcoming challenges, and enjoying life.

I’d love to watch Brentford FC win a major European tournament. I’ve supported the team for decades, and have seen them rise through the lower divisions to the Premier League. Quite some journey.

People who don’t consider others make me angry.

I love the sound of a small child sleeping.

Today’s young people give me hope, getting angry about the climate crisis and injustice.

I pray for the well-being of others, and greater understanding for myself, and for more Christians to consider working in the media as their vocation.

I’d like to be locked in a church with John the Baptist. He was a fearless communicator, who drew people to him, by words and actions, but he recognised Christ when he came, and was prepared to withdraw and let him go forward. I see Christian ministry about us stepping back and pointing people to Christ. It’s not about us.

The Revd Peter Crumpler was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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