The Media We Deserve

Geoffrey Stevenson, researcher on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project, reports on a summer Church and Media Conference.

Professor Jolyon Mitchell and I braved the rains and the trains to attend a two day conference in MediaCityUK, Salford, held for Christians working professionally in the mass media. Journalists, radio presenters, producers, publicity officers and student wannabes came for a packed and varied programme of presentations and panel discussions.

The Church and Media Conference has been going for 30 years, but this was the first time it was held in a city rather than the rural retreat of The Hayes in Derbyshire. We assembled in the glamorous Lowry Arts Centre, with its double-story glass windows looking across the newly developed Salford Quayside towards the even newer BBC North production centre. I was delighted to attend and to renew contact with many I knew from my time as director of the Centre for Christian Communication at Durham, and the whole thing had a very buzzy and busy feel to it. Even while the rain lashed the windows and the wind whipped up the water in the canals. As academics we were a little in the position of fish enjoying a day out in the forest, but time and again the subjects turned to media issues that continue to require careful ethical study and informed theological debate.

Under the overarching title, the Media We Deserve, the conference looked at live and pertinent questions such as, Does freedom of the press mean that it is always permissible to print pictures that invade privacy or count as blasphemy? Is publishing what the public is interested in the same as publishing what is in the public interest? Are the Christian values inculcated into the BBC by Lord Reith still discernible in the BBC today? To give but one example, the conference opened with a pointed and entertaining keynote from Giles Fraser, priest and columnist and formerly at St Pauls Cathedral at the time of the Occupy protest. He took as his starting point the question, Why do Bishops find it so difficult to speak to the media? There is (often justifiably) fear, yes, but there is also a reluctance to speak out definitively in a way that might upset one of the many different and opposing groups who historically have come to shelter under the ‘big tent’ that is the Anglican Church. A useful historical and ecclesial analysis led nevertheless to the observation that the church does a lot of newsworthy and profoundly important things at all levels of society, fulfilling the commissions of its Founder, but would do better in our media dominated society if it could ‘preach what it practiced’. There was much more, including input from Labour MP Chris Bryant (no stranger to media hounding), the director of BBC Children’s Television Joe Godwin, Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, and His Grace Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who gave a perceptive account of the role of both social an broadcast media in world events. The playwright Murray Watts observed once that Christians complain so loudly about the filth and corruption of the theatre – but is it not the case that the meat has gone bad because the salt never got to it? This conference, and the Church and Media Network behind it (over 800 members meet online) are vital ways of providing encouragement, support and challenge to Christians who are trying to be like salt, and light in dark places. It was a encouraging and thought-provoking to be there.

By Geoffrey Stevenson, researcher on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project, August 2012.