This month, I really wanted to write about Calendar Girls, an everyday tale about a band of Yorkshire women of a certain age who decide to use their rather mature bodies as the subjects for a calendar designed to raise £999 for a hospital sofa. They slightly underestimate their own allure and end up raising enough to buy an entire leukaemia unit for a little over £500,000. Of course, they reveal nothing – or at least none of the bits that usually cause a stir – and so they successfully throw their size 12 - 18 clothes in the face of the ‘youthism’ that prevails in Western culture. This real-life act of cultural defiance, this spirited and witty affirmation of the possibility of beauty and sexual attractiveness beyond the age of 23 seemed to me be a fitting subject for Christian reflection. But, hey, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and my editor pays the piper. So you’re going to get the Hutton inquiry.
Nevertheless, though Downing Street may have decided that they don’t want to get into the business of ‘processology’, of revealing just how their documents and dossiers were compiled, I think C+R readers deserve to know the truth. If, of course, the truth gets past the editing process.
Apparently, there was a telephone conversation between a C+R editor and a well-placed source in the offices of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. A single source – to be sure – but still wellplaced. Apparently, the editor suggested that the reality that I am a man, not menopausal and not over 50 means that an article on Calendar Girls would be a risky business. The risk being that my patriarchal perspectives, my unavoidable maleness and my lack of specialist knowledge would almost certainly make anything I wrote dangerously misleading to male readers and deeply offensive to female ones.
Editors, shreditors… what do they know?
Have I never met a women over 40? Is not my mother over 40? (whatever she, and her dossiers, say to the contrary) Was not my aunt? Did I never have grandmothers? Or female bosses? Have I not read Germaine Greer? Oy, such literalism.
But then again, is there not another way to look at it? Was not my editor, with all the sagacity of his advanced age, suggesting not that my life experience disqualified me from really understanding mature women but that my life experience, as a former adman, meant that no one in Christendom would be better placed to understand how truth can be distorted to achieve particular objectives? He has a point – and even though that’s not exactly what he said, I’m sure that’s what he meant to say. And besides, in a sex-obsessed, trivia-snuffling culture how easy it would be to go for the superficially titivating story of Calendar Girls – something to ‘sex up’ Christianity+Renewal and raise circulation 45%. Ah, but no, that would be to ignore what is really in the readers’ interests? Education, education, education. How refreshing to at last find a media mogul who will not sacrifice principle for commercial gain?
Magazines doesn’t just appear – someone decides what you get, in what form and why. Ideology, editorial policy and commercial imperatives jostle with individual preferences. All of which has everything to do with at least one of the two core issues in the Hutton inquiry: can we trust the BBC? The other being: can we trust the Government?
Of these, the second is easier than the first. By the time you read this Hoon may have resigned, Blair may be writing his memoirs and Robin Cook may be running for Prime Minister which I think would be enough to make Tony Benn vote Conservative. It may prove to be the case that someone in the cabinet knew that the intelligence community had serious qualms about the single-source claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction “within 45 minutes of the order being given” but, it would have made no difference if they had. What took us to war with Iraq was not the assertion that Saddam Hussein could deploy WMD in 45 minutes but the utter credibility of the idea that Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction. Here, lest we forget, was a man who had already precipitated a war with his Arab brothers in Iran, invaded his Arab brothers in Kuwait and left the country as an ecological disaster, used chemical weapons against his own Kurdish citizens in the North and his own Marsh Arab citizens in the South, summarily executed tens of thousands of his own people, lobbed SCUD missiles at Israel, and had proven links with a number of terrorist organisations, if not Al Qa’eda. Here was a man that every intelligence source had no doubts about viewing as a serious short, medium and long term threat to the stability of the entire region.
We may disagree with Blair and Bush’s rationale for war, we may view their actions as illegal under international law, we may rue the consequences for coalition troops and the economy, but the reality is that during his 23 year reign Saddam Hussein caused the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of people in the course of his despotic reign of terror. No, we went to war because Saddam Hussein made the weapons inspectors’ task unnecessarily difficult, because he deliberately created the impression that he had something to hide, because the coalition made a character call – can the leopard change his spots? Can the viper lose its venom? Can Hitler lose his imperialist ambition? We had seen Saddam’s sort before and, in the end, he cried, “lamb” once too often.
Besides even if Lord Hutton concludes that the Government deliberately lied, all that will happen is that the Government will fall.
Can we trust the BBC?
But what of the BBC? What if the BBC are shown to have been deliberately irresponsible in the way that their governors publicly defended Andrew Gilligan so vociferously, without any proper internal inquiry, whilst internal memos questioned the wisdom of his decisions? What if the real reason why Andrew Gilligan felt able to effectively accuse the government of lying with so little corroborative evidence was because of the Dyke regime’s lust for high impact news, which has led to an increasingly tabloidesque approach to its major news broadcasts? What if we really took seriously the BBC’s Susan Watts’ assertion that she hired her own solicitor rather than rely on the BBC’s lawyers because she felt pressured to ‘mould’ her story in such a way as to corroborate Gilligan’s report? What if we really looked dispassionately at what many regard as the BBC’s Orla Guerin’s pro-Palestinian stance, or the excessive belligerence of the curmudgeonly John Humphries on the Today programme, or at Paxman doing Paxman? Would we conclude that we were receiving a balanced picture, or being treated, in the case of Israel, to selective, ideologically tainted opinion? Might we conclude, as we listen to Humphries and Paxman, that the desire for entertainment had come to outweigh other priorities, that they have perhaps unconsciously come to deploy their inquisitorial weaponry without real consideration as to whether such overwhelming force is likely to uncover the truth or simply distort it? All in the name of vigorous, independent journalism?
What if we can’t trust our media to be objective, to be responsible about checking their facts, and, yes, to hunt for truth with intensity and integrity?
Then we really are in trouble. What if the world we are shown is as much a result of media spin as political spin? Indeed, we might ask, why are politicians so often presented in an unflattering light by the media? Despite all those spinmeisters? Is it entirely their fault that we no longer respect them? Or is it the way that the media operates that forces them to present material in particular ways?
Gilligan rightly wrote in his Mail on Sunday article (June 1st): ‘The language of intelligence is inconclusive. The language of spin admits much less doubt.’ How, I wonder, would he describe the language of media?
Talking in soundbites
Why, for example, do politicians’ talk in soundbites? The answer is simple: the media want soundbites – they fit the way they want to edit news broadcasts. In reality, whether or not politicians talk in soundbites, it will be in soundbites that that they will be reported. Is that the government’s fault? Or the Opposition’s?
Why do we really no longer have a serious news programme in which it is possible for someone to talk for more than 45 seconds without being interrupted? Is that the government’s fault?
The language of broadcast media is concise, and tends to the sensationalist and the simplified. And this sensationalisation doesn’t just apply to news, it applies to almost all the output – the adaptations of classic novels that apparently have to include a sexual specificity which is nowhere in the original texts. Did the recent serialisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace really need a scene featuring oral sex in a brothel? Sensationalism is the air that the ‘medianites’ breathe.
And are the BBC the only culprits? Well, The Guardian is often very helpful in its coverage of the view from the left and the developing world but if you had followed its reporting of the Jeffrey John case you would, I think, have been appalled not by what their columnists were saying – columnists are hired to work themselves up into a lather and present their opinion – but by how their news editors presented the material. It was a radical distortion not only of the position of evangelicals and traditionalists but a radical distortion of Rowan Williams’ own views, at the expense of evangelicals.
Well, at least ideologically driven newspapers – and all newspapers are so driven – have the virtue of purporting to stand for principle. It is one of the major differences between broadcast and print media. Broadcast media are expected to present both sides of a case, print media aren’t. Indeed, people buy a newspaper that tends to reinforce their own view of the world – which is why Tories tend to buy The Daily Telegraph and left-wingers The Guardian.
Oh, that it were only principled ideology that gave us the media we have. But it is not. Our media are increasingly driven by commercial interests, by the pressure to deliver audiences to advertisers, or to licence-payers. Ah, how they pander to the lowest common denominator. And not just inThe Sun and The Daily Mail.
Oh, how our media are increasingly characterised by a juvenile pettiness. Any peccadillo is magnified to the nth degree? Why, when Cherie Blair yawns should the yawn not only be captured by a Reuters’ photographer but actually featured in The Independent on Sunday, The Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday to make the wider and almost entirely unsubstantiated suggestion that Cherie Blair was bored at the proceedings she was involved in?
Is that Downing Street spin or journalistic trivialism? Do not the newspapers know that research has shown that 100% of people yawn, that yawning is caused not only by boredom, but by tiredness and that it can be triggered simply because someone else yawned – a Reuters photographer perhaps – or because the word ‘yawn’ was read. Indeed, there is an extremely high probability that you will yawn in the next 60 seconds. And that if someone sees you that they too will yawn within the following 60 seconds. Does The Independent on Sunday know why Cherie Blair yawned? And why is it important anyway?
This pervasive hyping and distortion of the ordinary leaves no place for the extraordinary to be extraordinary. Consider for a moment not only the volume of football commentary but its almost hysterical emotionalism. At one point early in last season Arsenal led the Premiership by five points and the commentators instantly predicted they would win by a canter. Meanwhile, we were told that old man Ferguson had lost his grip and should have retired a year ago. But a year is a long time in football. Manchester United won the Premiership and are now seeking to extend Ferguson’s contract beyond its already extended period. Alas, the media, in its baying for drama, so often lacks any depth of judgment or perspective – gimme energy, gimme intensity, gimme crisis, gimme impending doom… and gimme it NOW!
Whatever Lord Hutton concludes about either the Government or the intelligence services I hope he will also point an unwavering and dispassionate finger at the BBC. Maybe we have the media we deserve but we need a media that is better than that. We need a media that will serve us. The genius of the BBC was that it was set up to do just that. Ratings shouldn’t matter to it, or us, nearly as much as accuracy and as much objectivity as is possible. After all, the licence fee releases the BBC from having to produce programming that can compete with ITV and Sky for inanity and sensationalism. We are paying for a service that will serve the democratic process, not distort it, that will serve all the people, not just some of them, that will hold to standards of content, not sacrifice them on the altar of egos that need to beat ITV to feel good about themselves.
We can afford to lose Blair but we cannot afford to lose a BBC that is independent and dispassionate and holds to the highest standards of integrity, a BBC that has the courage to hold its nerve against the tawdry, trivialising spirit of our media times and has the integrity to admit when it is wrong, not only in particular instances, but in the whole direction of its editorial policy.