Thinking Anglicans

RW lecture on the media

Rowan Williams delivered a lecture last night at Lambeth Palace, entitled The Media: Public Interest and Common Good.
Lambeth Palace also issued a press release about it, in advance: Archbishop delivers major address on media.

Reports of this speech:

Ruth Gledhill in The Times Archbishop hits out at web-based media ‘nonsense’

THE Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised the new web-based media for “paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry”. He described the atmosphere on the world wide web as a free-for-all that was “close to that of unpoliced conversation”.

In a lecture to media professionals, politicians and church leaders at Lambeth Palace in London last night, Dr Williams wondered whether a balance could be struck between the professionalism of the classical media and the relative disorder of online communication.

Dr Williams also extended his wide-ranging critique of journalistic practice to the traditional media, arguing that there are “embarrassingly low levels of trust” in the profession and that claims about what is in the public interest need closer scrutiny. He called for a “more realistic, less fevered” approach to stories by journalists and added: “There is a difference between exposing deceptions that sustain injustice and attacking confidentialities or privacies that in some sense protect the vulnerable.”

He attacked the “high levels of adversarial and suspicious probing” that send the clear message that any kind of concealment means “guilty until proved innocent”, and he challenged journalists and broadcasters to attempt to regain lost public confidence…

Stephen Bates and Owen Gibson in the Guardian Archbishop attacks ‘lethal’ media

The Archbishop of Canterbury last night launched a wide-ranging attack on the media, accusing journalists of distorting debate, contributing to a climate of national cynicism, and unjustly attacking institutions over their secretiveness.

In the most trenchant statement on public life he has made in his three years at Lambeth Palace, Dr Rowan Williams appeared to take in tabloids, broadsheets, weblogs and broadcasters with equal vehemence. He charged all with conspiring against public understanding.

The speech at Lambeth Palace represented a departure for the archbishop, who has been criticised in church quarters for his reluctance to speak out on public matters, leading to accusations that his advisers prefer him to say nothing controversial.

Dr Williams claimed that some aspects of current journalistic practice are “lethally damaging”, contributing to the “embarrassingly low level of trust” in the profession.

The archbishop said: “We need to deflate some of the rhetoric about the media as guardians and nurturers of democracy simply by virtue of the constant exposure of ‘information’ and we need to be cautious about a use of ‘public interest’ language that ignores the complexity and, often, artificiality of our ideas of ‘the public’. “

He accused the media of manipulating fear, exhibiting violent conflict between people for entertainment, and living off internal feuds: “Corrupt speech, inflaming unexamined emotion, reinforcing division, wrapped up in its own performance, leaves us less human: fewer things are possible for us. Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow.” His attack encompassed national newspapers which “communicate as if every reader … shared the same fundamental values, preferences and anxieties”, broadcasters for their obsession with breaking news, and weblogs which indulge in “paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry”…

The Guardian also has an editorial about this, which should be read in full, Good news. Two quotes from that:

…Since he has spent much of the last three years avoiding as many journalists as he could, his analysis lacks the kind of practical sympathy arising from shared experience that he believes journalists should show towards their victims. It certainly lacks the snap that might propel it in the market place. But he makes a couple of deep and important points. The first is that the media, just as much as other powerful forces, tend to destroy the autonomy of the professions they write about. A professional, by definition, has knowledge and understanding unavailable to outsiders. Journalists, Dr Williams believes, should be illuminating this kind of inside knowledge and allowing readers to share it imaginatively; instead they concentrate on dragging mere facts into the light, which may well be misleading even if they are correct…

…The archbishop wants a society in which journalists, readers and their subjects all talk back to each other and try to learn from each other. This will strike most journalists and those who have to deal with them as extraordinarily utopian. Yet Dr Williams is right. There is something wrong with a society in which this seems a ludicrous aspiration. He should talk about it with journalists more often – and not just at them.

We don’t often link to the Sun on Thinking Anglicans, but its report is headlined ‘Fever’ call to media.

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Christopher Shell
Christopher Shell
18 years ago

It’s not good that the ‘Guardian’ sees RW’s hopes as ‘utopian’. You never know how far you can succeed unless you first try.

Alan Harrison
Alan Harrison
18 years ago

The full text of this lecture is well worth reading. It seems to have had an interesting effect on David Virtue’s website. (I’ve tried to pour a little oil on troubled waters, but I fear that it may act rather more like petrol.)

I don’t entirely agree with Dr Williams’ views, which I think reflect a (secular) liberal position, whereas I would criticise the media from a point further to the left, but this does seem to make an extremely useful contribution to debate about the media in Britain.

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