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Press: Truth is a casualty of unfettered capitalism  

19 April 2024

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THE only English news that I noticed this week came from a letter in The Daily Telegraph from Jonathan Baird, a lay member of the General Synod: “The Diocese of Lichfield . . . has a high vacancy rate (no vicar in post), and yet is advertising for a director of communications on £50,000 per annum for a 35-hour week.”

Looking at the advertisement (for this is not a spoof), it turns out that there is more to the job than talking to journalists. The Director is to “raise the external profile of the diocese, which is a tremendously active, creative and rewarding place and . . . inspire and empower colleagues by providing dynamic leadership and support that has Christian beliefs and values at its heart”.

That’s just as well, since I wonder how many press enquiries there are each year about the workings of the diocese. I’m not counting enquiries about what local churches are doing, because those can and should be answered by local churches, even if the Director of Communications feels that only He or She is capable of that. But, once those are eliminated, I’d guess that the job pays about £1000 for every time the Director of Communications picks up the phone to a local journalist, and ten times that if the phone call is from a national media outfit.

The Director also manages the diocesan X/Twitter feed, which has 4500 followers and posts every couple of days. I counted eight job ads there since February, of which four were for parish clergy, and four for diocesan staff, including a Strategy Programme Director (salary not mentioned).


THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
published an article that shed light on the future economics of the newspaper business. “It took me two days, $105 and no expertise whatsoever to launch a fully automated, AI-generated local news site capable of publishing thousands of articles a day — with the partisan news coverage framing of my choice, nearly all rewritten without credit from legitimate news sources. I created a website specifically designed to support one political candidate against another in a real race for the U.S. Senate. And I made it all happen in a matter of hours,” wrote Jack Brewster, who works for NewsGuard, an American organisation that tries to track and resist disinformation online.

The site itself was built by a Pakistani man known only as “Nawaz”, who was found on an Israeli site, Fiverr, which links freelances all around the world with customers. All that a site like this does is to rewrite real news stories and add a — frequently grotesque — spin to them. The grotesquerie is, in fact, a selling point. The wonderfully named “Garbage Day” newsletter drew my attention to a Facebook group full of pictures of Jesus in the company of air stewardesses, all generated, of course, by AI. The group has nearly half a million followers, many of whom will be human.

It is extraordinary how unfettered global capitalism has produced a media ecology so very like that of President Putin’s Russia, in which “nothing is true and everything is possible”, to quote the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent book on the destruction of trust under totalitarian rule.


THE NEW YORKER
had a story about a more intimate destruction of trust. Christopher Fiorello was raised a fundamentalist Christian in Missouri, grew up, lost his faith, and then discovered the teachings of Baba Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, one of the Harvard psychologists who evangelised for the use of LSD in the early 1960s. Disillusioned with acid culture, Ram Dass had converted to an eccentric strain of Hinduism in 1967. By 2019, he was a guru dying in Hawaii, and Fiorello, in his early thirties, was one of his carers.

Fiorello wrote: “In his 1971 book, ‘Be Here Now’, which has sold more than two million copies worldwide, Ram Dass summarizes his views: ‘You are eternal. . . There is no fear of death because / there is no death / it’s just a transformation / an illusion.’”

And then this enlightened being died in front of his disciples: “I was on one side of Ram Dass’s bed. . . Then Ram Dass started choking. It wasn’t that different from any of the other horrible breaths he’d taken that morning, except that he just couldn’t breathe it. When he realized this, he turned to me with a look that haunts me even now: light eyes wide as quarters, mouth open, lips a bit rounded.

“I’ve no idea what Ram Dass felt in those final moments, what he could see or hear. I don’t even really know if that was fear I saw in his eyes, though it certainly looked like it. . . I waited for grace, for him to speak reassuringly from some other plane of reality. Instead, I was taken back to our final moments together, where fear sutured me to each passing second. Not fear of the past or some uncertain future, but fear of the vast, strange intensity of what is.”

It’s very rare to read something that acknowledges the part played by this kind of fear in religious experience.

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