In the latest in the series of Lenten addresses Newsquest’s Production Editor Caroline Wollard said, “the best journalists live in the patch their newspaper covers”.
READ HER ADDRESS IN FULL:
Journalists, as Fr Mark kindly reminded us last week, are the scum of the earth – they hack people’s mobile phones, they care nothing for people’s privacy and they never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
So, never mind what a Christian can bring to that workplace – why would a Christian want to be in it at all?
Well, all these statements are generalisations – and like other such generalisations they are not universally true. So, for instance, I know men who will stop to ask for directions, women who can parallel park and I can categorically say that not all men are bas….. you get the picture.
I’m not here to give an apologetic about the media – and I’m going to talk mostly about newspapers, rather than other forms of media as, although I have worked in BBC radio, my journalistic life has mostly been with the printed word. But I would say that there is a difference between national and local newspapers. And that difference is community – local newspapers are embedded into the community which they serve. I choose that word – serve – deliberately. Although, of course, newspaper companies are there to make money, there is still a sense of being part of the community, of reporting what is going go – whether that’s good or bad – even (and this may sound somewhat high-faluting) of being the community’s conscience –I’ll come back to that a bit later. I believe the best journalists live in the patch their newspaper covers – so why would they want to ‘stitch-up’ any of their neighbours (in the widest sense of the word). Being part of a church community helps me, I think, to better understand that concept.
Of course, there are journalists for whom getting the story at all costs is their paramount concern and who do step over the line to do so. That line, however, is very clearly defined – we work under a Code of Conduct which sets out what we can and cannot do, we work under the law of this land which can hold a journalist (as well as his or her newspaper) responsible for being in contempt of court, for bringing a public office in to disrepute or for (with some very tight exceptions) not telling the person you are talking to that you’re doing so in order to publish a story. And we have evidence, in the current hacking trial, of what happens when you break that law.
I’ve been very privileged as a journalist – meeting people I would otherwise never have met and going places I would otherwise never have been – whether that’s down a sewer (honestly) or spending a week with the RAF in Belize. And working in a newsroom, as in any other place, can be a lot of fun. Nevertheless, it’s not all sweetness and light – newspaper offices can be ‘bear-pits’ and the work stressful – I can well remember one news editor I worked for many years ago who would make Attila the Hun look like a teddy bear. The working day can be punctuated by colleagues swearing and blaspheming, by the frustration of having uncovered a wrong-doing but being unable to report it, of sitting in court listening to harrowing details of rape and murder – details which would never be reported because they are just too horrible.
So why would a Christian put themselves in the middle of that? After all, St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says ‘Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals’[i]. The book of Proverbs advises that ‘whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm’[ii], and the writer of the first verse of the first Psalm says that ‘blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seats of scoffers’.[iii]
All very good advice, obviously, but for me those verses stand as a warning rather than an instruction not to work in places where there may be ‘bad company, fools or scoffers’ and how do you avoid sinners? After all, as Christians, we are, as Jesus was, very much in the world in which we live, and, unlike Jesus, we are all sinners.
St James says this: ‘My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing’[iv].
As Christians, we are bidden to be in the world, showing by the way we live, that Christ is the salvation of the world – so difficult to do at times. For me, that manifests itself in how I do my work – in my relationship with colleagues and in the way, when I was reporting or sub-editing, I sourced and wrote reports. Although I’m now away from front-line reporting or subbing, I’m still very much in that world, helping to bring new editorial computer systems to newspapers throughout the country.
To take the point about sourcing and writing stories first – and anticipating a sharp intake of breath from some of you – good journalists seek the truth. What’s the point otherwise? Of course, in a great many cases, it’s difficult to know what that ‘truth’ is. If a family comes to the newspaper saying that a hospital did not care for their elderly relative well enough, but the hospital says it did, what do you report? Actually, in that case, the hospital is unlikely to say anything. Yet it is a matter of public interest – you really don’t want the care in your local hospital to be any less good than it should be – so we report the family’s worries and give the hospital a chance to reply. The horrendous shortcomings of the level of hygiene at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital were not addressed by health chiefs when they received an official report until the author of that report went to the local newspaper.
I mentioned earlier that newspapers can be the conscience of the community – the Mid Staffs scandal is a good example of that. There is an example of here – a reporter with the Free Press newspaper was the first to uncover and report sex abuse at the former Ty Mawr approved school in Gilwern. On a lesser scale, newspapers can be the conscience of big business – one of the first stories I did when I worked for the Basingstoke Gazette was about a disabled woman who had been sold a car which wasn’t fit for purpose. The company wouldn’t replace it. I went to see the lady concerned, had a look at the paperwork, and then rang the firm. The next day she had a new car delivered.
All reporters should be in search of the truth – whatever, as Pontius Pilate would say, that is. As a Christian, I think that is not just the ideal situation – it is an imperative. And if the truth means the story falls to bits, well, so be it. My faith also demands my compassion – I have sat with bereaved people while they talked about their loved ones, something which they have said afterwards was a great release as talking to strangers often is. But I’ve been aware that sometimes those in mourning say things they wouldn’t want to appear in the paper and, perhaps, as a Christian, I am more aware of that.
Of course, it’s not all about the big stories, it’s also about keeping people up to date and reporting the good stories – in the last couple of weeks or so, in the South Wales Argus, for instance, there have been updates on what’s happening with Morrisons here in Abergavenny, a gentle obituary of Hilda Messenger and a feature on Welsh folk dancers keeping the tradition alive in Gwent.
More obviously, I suppose, is the way my faith manifests itself in the workplace among my colleagues. Well, there is a very practical benefit as other reporters have a ‘go-to’ person to check how you refer to a bishop, what the chapter of the cathedral does or even what the governing body is for (I sometimes wonder myself – and I’m a member). As I’ve said, newsrooms can be rough-and-tumble places with a great deal of bad language – although I have to say they’ve certainly calmed down over the years. I’m well aware that swearing can be a release from tension yet too often these days it is used merely as an adjective. When I was in the Argus newsroom, I tried to encourage people not to swear and certainly not to blaspheme. There were times when someone would turn round and spit the words ‘we’re not in a xxxxx convent, Caroline’.
There have also been times when people have attacked Christianity or even the idea of God – how can, for instance, a loving God allow 9/11, natural disasters or the death of child? Sometimes, all you can do is listen. At other times, I’ve said, ‘I don’t have the answers, but surely it’s to do with our humanity and with free will. And, as to where God is in these situations, well, he’s in the hands of those who rescue, care for and comfort those who suffer.’ We’ve had discussions on the nature of evil – does it even exist? – on why churches have so many valuable artefacts when people are starving, and on why I bother to go to church at all. We’ve even had discussions about this address. I don’t preach but I do chatter about going to church and I try my best to show Christianity through how I live my life. I fail on many, many occasions – and when I do so at work I’m often pounced upon. On the very odd occasions when I swear, there is usually a sharp ‘oooh, Caroline’. The fact my colleagues expect me to behave better than that is a good thing – it acknowledges that they acknowledge that being a Christian means behaving with a strict moral code, even if they do sometimes forget that all Christians are also human beings.
I was baptized as a baby, and went to church throughout my formative years. Then, like many, I went away from the church and was still away from it when I started working as a journalist. Just over a decade ago, I came back to the church and I believe being a Christian has made me a better journalist. I have a better understanding of people, of how their actions are often the result of something which is hidden, of how even if they are putting on a ‘hard’ front, they are often suffering behind it.
I mentioned listening before, and reporters who have to hear all sorts of horrors. I’ve stood in the Argus car park listening to youngsters who’ve been affected by what they have heard or seen; been with colleagues while they ranted at the unfairness of life, and even been asked by one or two of them to pray for them.
From another angle, being a journalist has led to me being the object of derision from people outside the profession. People might think they’re being funny when they say journalists ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ but actually that’s a really insulting thing to say. We’ve had people ring up the newsroom and been abusive about why we’ve reported they’ve been convicted of a crime – although one of the strangest complaints was contained in a letter from a prisoner who complained not that we’d reported the case but that we’d spelt his name wrong. Incidentally, when newspapers report court cases, they stand in place of the public who cannot be in court. The public reporting of court cases is part of the convicted person’s punishment and good reporting will always put in the defendant’s mitigation.
I’ve even sat in one of these pews and heard a minister (not Fr Mark) harangue ‘the Press’ for invading someone’s privacy. Why should a government minister’s affair be made public? Well, it’s in the public interest (rather than being interesting to the public) if the said minister had been, for instance, campaigning on family values – it speaks to his honesty, truthfulness and character. Not in the public interest if you’re talking about the chap next door but very important, I would suggest, if you trusting an MP to be truthful about the way our country is run.
I’m starting to get on my soap box here – so here’s one final thought.
In 2013, 71 journalists were killed because they were journalists – in Syria, Somalia, India, the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil, among other places. While 40 per cent of those occurred in combat zones, 60 per cent did not – they died from violence linked to bombings, or organised crime, at the hands of police or other security forces or on the orders of corrupt officials. While journalists in this country have been threatened with violence and even with being charged with treason, we haven’t had a reporter killed here since Martin O’Hagan in Northern Ireland in September 2001.
So while we may not have a perfect Press, and we do get things wrong at times, we do have a media which is free to hold to account government, big business, councils – whoever has power over us – and to do so in relative safety. And for that, we should all be grateful.
[i] 1 Corinthians 15:33
[ii] Proverbs 13:20
[iii] Psalm 1:1
[iv] The Letter of James 1:2-4
The series concludes next Sunday with Solicitor Robert Phillips speaking to us at Christchurch , North Street at Evensong, starting at 6pm.