Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Archbishop, the Telegraph and the Tsunami

I cannot resist the temptation to blog a little outside of the NT. I knew that this would happen eventually. Apologies in advance. Ignore and pass on through to the proper NT stuff those who can't cope.

Helenann Hartley blogs on a matter I mentioned in passing the other day, the misreporting in the Sunday Telegraph of the Archbishop of Canterbury's views on the Tsunami disaster. Here's the article and the offending headline:

Archbishop of Canterbury admits: This makes me doubt the existence of God
By Chris Hastings, Patrick Hennessy and Sean Rayment

Now when I say "headline", I do not mean just the article. This was the main headline in the paper, the one you see in the newsagent on display as you buy your copy of The Observer. I was away at the weekend and when I saw it on sale in the petrol station, I was so intrigued that I nearly bought it. And that's the problem -- the headline sends its message out far and wide beyond those who actually consult the article. And let's face it: that headline is unequivocal. By using "me", it gives the strong impression that this is something that Rowan Williams has actually said. In fact, he said nothing of the sort. This is disgraceful headline making on the part of the Sunday Telegraph.

On Klippt Och Skuret, Goran links to the following editorial that appeared the next day in the Telegraph:

Faith in Plain Language

Remarkably, the editorial attempts to justify the misplaced headline by blaming Rowan Williams for his inability to speak in "plain language":
We have some sympathy with the archbishop. Those who had time on their hands to read his article several times over will realize that he was not in fact doubting the existence of God. The headline writer had clearly been misled by the sentence: "Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers."

The archbishop's purpose here, it now appears, was to say that the Christian faith should not be upset by natural disasters, because it is a faith that is not "bound up with comfort and ready answers". But what a convoluted way of putting it.

If Dr Williams was indeed misrepresented by our sister paper's headline, he himself must accept much of the blame. His prose is so obscure, his thought processes so hard to follow, that his message is often unclear.
No, it is unacceptable to make up a headline that gives the impression that it is directly quoting from someone, even using "me". It is particularly outrageous given its prominence in the paper, the sensitivity of the subject and the importance of the figure being misrepresented. But the editorial also strikes me as remarkable for the condescending assumption that readers of a quality Sunday paper require "plain language", that they are unable to understand erudition, that they require some kind of dumbing-down in order to be able to work out what is being said. The article concludes:
If Dr Williams hopes to teach and inspire his flock, he really must learn to express himself more clearly. Otherwise he will be forever doomed to be the victim of his own erudition.
No, what is required is respect for the intelligence of both the archbishop and the readers of the paper.

The Guardian, my more usual haunting ground, has an excellent comment on this today, also linked by Helenann Hartley:

The bishop who believed
David McKie

This is quite right -- it does not require repeated readings to work out what Rowan Williams is saying; it requires one sympathetic and intelligent reading, and the avoidance of opportunistic misrepresentation.

1 comment:

Whit said...

Mark - Thanks for this post.