Yesterday I heard Tony Blair speaking at the Faithworks Lecture. Today I read the newspaper accounts of that occasion. Even the phrase 'passing resemblance' would be too generous a description for the accuracy of most of these reports. It's reminded me that the highly edited sound bites of information that we read in newspapers or watch on TV news are at best highly selective. Here's a list of just some of the inaccuracies:
The Daily Mail describes Steve Chalke, who chaired the Faithwork lectures, as a telly evangelist. Well Steve often appears on TV (GMTV, Songs of Praise etc) and he has, at times in his ministry, fulfilled the role of an evangelist, but telly evangelist? Using this warped logic you should refer to your friendly local pharmacist as a drug dealer.
The Times journalist Ann Teneman implies that Tony Blair's decision to speak was opportunistic and purely because an election was looming. That may be true, but she omits to tell her readers that Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy had also accepted invitations to give a Faithworks lecture. Ah – so only a half-truth then… Teneman goes on to write that Steve Chalke 'bounded back on stage' - 'bounded?' I didn't see any gymnastic leaps. Later she writes that Steve announced that he and other Christians would be praying for the PM, which prompted Mr Blair to look 'terrified'. Er, no, actually. Mr Blair smiled. But since Teneman clearly wanted to confirm a stereotype that evangelical Christians are a bunch of over enthusiastic nutters - 'bounded' and 'terrified' it is.
The 'most interesting' moment, according to Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail, came during the Q&A session. He claimed that a 'senior Downing Street aide' sat alongside Faithworks staff and ensured the PM was spared any embarrassing questions about Iraq, gay rights or campaign lies. 'Once the censorship was done,' Letts writes, 'the Blairite aide moved away from the scene of the crime’. 'Censorship', 'crime', really? Er, no actually. A fact confirmed by Faithworks, after the Conservative party asked Steve Chalke if this had really happened.
So scores out of 10 for accuracy on the papers who reported the story:
- Daily Telegraph 7 (quotes mostly in context, cynical but less so than the rest)
- The Guardian 5 (sarcastic, cynical, but broadly accurate)
- Daily Mirror 4 (missed the point)
- The Times 3 (highly selective, cynical, patronising)
- Daily Mail 1 (let's be generous they spelt Blair and Chalke correctly – but that aside it was loaded with negative sniping, quotes torn out of context, and was poisonously cynical).
So what lessons to draw? Don't decide who to vote for on the basis of what newspapers report. We need to go to the sources and read the full account – that means reading manifestos, visiting web sites and attending local hustings – to hear direct from the horses mouth. And don't get dragged down into cynicism. Scepticism may be healthy when listening to politicians – but not cynicism. The only bright light for me about the press reports was the description of the church leaders who attended the Faithworks lecture by the Daily Mail as, 'decent, uncynical types'. If that's true, a big 'if' since it was printed in the Mail after all, hurrah – long may that be true of people like you. And even though I'm a journalist – it's something I aspire to as well.