CT feature on the press

CT feature on the press

Andrew Brown April 3, 1997

There aren’t any clear statistics but I sometimes think more Christians visit convicted murderers than willingly talk to journalists. There is something about appearing in public which brings out the worst in priests, as well as in their congregations. This is unfortunate, especially in a body whose central activity is a form of drama, or performance art; and the chosen remedy usually makes things worse.

In this professional age, the obvious answer when you find you lack some desirable skill or capacity is to hire someone else to do it for you. So the Church of England is spouting press officers, and communications units like mushrooms on a rotting tree. Some of these people do a very good job, but even the best of them cannot communicate something that is not there; and the worst share entirely the fear and suspicion of the media shown by their employers. Perhaps they never read newspapers themselves, or perhaps they never think of themselves as consumers of news. The gap between being entertained and being entertaining is very uncomfortable to cross. In the newspapers, I read of the death of thousands every day, usually in horrific circumstances of pain and fear; and this leaves me wholly unmoved. But should a letter come with the news of the death of a man I only met once, but who was the father of a close friend of my wife’s, and thus connected to the real world, I find myself weeping. And this is a general condition. The people in the news, or in the media generally, are not real. They are public. They are there to make a show, like the martyrs in arenas.

This does not happen because of the iniquities of journalists. I have no doubt of the crimes and follies of the modern media, but it is simply not true that all journalists are brutal and unprincipled thugs, or, if principled, determined to get the Church of England at every opportunity. Besides, even the brutal and unprincipled ones would attempt to be scrupulous if they or their masters thought this would make money. If Christians appear in public life as martyrs in the arena, this is not because journalists are ravening beasts, but because the public is. So, I want to shout, get out there and edify someone.

Of course, there are technical difficulties in talking to the press. For most journalists "I have a degree in theology" means "I was too thick to read media studies." One man who moved from television to the Independent’s newsdesk, armed with such a degree, said once "Remind me again: what was the Reformation." But it is only the very stupid and arrogant who are unteachable — providing, that is, someone wants to teach them.

But that is not why press officers are usually hired. On the contrary, people start to want professionals to deal with their image for two bad reasons. The first is to stop the press from getting to the people they need to talk to. Hire a press officer, someone says (it is usually the prospective candidate), and you will never have to talk to one of those nasty journalists ever again. Even, especially, when you are the only man in the organisation who actually knows what is going on, we can guarantee an extra Chinese whispering of the message; and we can offer you the opportunity to be absolutely certain that none of the clarifying questions will ever reach you. Then you can blame the press for misunderstanding, and realise how immensely valuable the PR person is.

The second bad reason, perhaps the worst bad reason, is to raise your profile: i.e. to get you a more interesting job. Essentially this job has two parts: to go around talking up your own bishop, and to spend as much time talking down all the competition. It was brought to a fine art over the great civil war over women. To be fair, it does not flourish much outside London, and it only flourishes at all because we journalists enjoy it so much. Witty and scurrilous gossip is fun, but like many other pleasurable activities, it should be conducted in private, and not for money.

So the bad reason for getting a communications unit is to expect it to communicate for you. What are the good reasons? The prime good reason is to enable other people to communicate. This is harder than it seems. It demands the ability to understand questions, usually better than the questioner himself does; also the knowledge of who can answer them. Then you have to introduce the two parties and know when to get out of the way.

The second part of the job is perhaps the most obnoxious. It is certainly the one which least needs doing in an ideal world; and this is to go over every line of written material put out by your employer and see whether it can be misunderstood by the average journalist with a theology degree (see above). If it can, it will be. This leads to a second step, seldom performed. Someone has to ask whether we need a misunderstanding, and the consequent, illuminating fireworks, or whether the whole thing should be buried. The person who makes that decision is actually running the organisation at that moment.

Of course it is not clear that the Church of England is or ought to be an organisation, or that it needs running. The jury is still out on that one. But it is certainly the expectation of the outside world that it should be, and it does contain organisations which seem to the outside world and sometimes even to themselves to be "the Church of England".

This leads to the third sort of communications that might actually benefit the church, which is letting the various bits of it know what is going on in other parts. Again, this is a very odd job to hive out, since communication over long distances depends on dramatic projection, which is the job of the actor, not the prompter.

None the less, all these jobs need doing and they cannot apparently all be done by one man or woman in a modern, fragmented world. Good press people — and all the central press people in the Church of England at the moment are good at their jobs — do make a difference. Most of this is of course disaster relief. Perhaps the best job on those lines done in recent years was the handling of the Nine O’Clock Service scandal, where the diocese really did do as well as it could with a very nasty story indeed.

This is not just because disasters are news in a way that things working as well as can be expected are not. It is also a consequence of the fact that news can be anything except really new. The way that ideas operate in the public mind really does seem to be a form of Darwinian evolution: only small mutations are likely to survive. There are few hopeful monsters. Once a large picture is fixed in the public mind, it can only be changed by degrees. If anyone doubts this, let him ask himself how long it would take to change the public perception of journalists as untrustworthy sensationalists, much harder to redeem than murderers.

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