By Andrew Brown
The turmoil over Martin Bashir at the BBC matters because it goes to the heart of an interesting question: why should people talk to journalists at all? This is especially acute, I think, in religious journalism, because of the general perception among believers that secular journalists are biased against all forms of religious belief. At the same time, secular journalists tend to believe that religious organisations are biased against truth and interested only in propaganda. There is plenty of evidence for both sides of this argument.
As Professor Abby Day told the all-party parliamentary group’s inquiry into religion and the media last year: “Media practitioners and people of faith often have competing perspectives: each have a different version of ‘the truth’; there are often differences as to who they may feel is the best, most valid ‘source’; and finally, each recognises a different ‘legitimate authority’.”
So why should they talk to each other at all? There is both an official and an unofficial answer to this question. The official answer is to do with the pursuit of truth. Journalists are after the truth of what really happened, or what is happening, and they do this to serve the public. People who talk to them are meant to share the same interests. But this is at best only half the explanation. While both sides may, and usually do, care about the truth, it’s not all they care about by any means.
When I was the religious affairs editor of The Independent, I used to say that my job consisted of ringing up religious leaders so they could tell me lies about each other. This was a lot more than half-true and a lot less than half a joke.
The religious people I rang told me lies about each other in the hope of boosting their own side in a conflict and damaging the other. Often, they half-believed them. When they are locked into the kind of polarising struggle that makes for good stories you may genuinely believe your opponents were wicked, and should be discredited in the eyes of the public.
Besides, they might be telling the truth, and in that case some facts would be added to the public store. But this was a desirable side-effect of the emotional dynamics. It was not the main reason they talked to me.
On my side, I talked to these people because I wanted stories. I wanted to find and understand things that people would read. I wanted stories to be true, obviously, and enlightening. But they had to be entertaining or at least interesting. Otherwise, my job was ultimately at risk.
There is nothing particularly surprising in any of this. Journalism is not a profession notably more idealistic than any other. The people who give us stories are seldom distinguished by their moral qualities, even when they don’t work in PR.
Perhaps the best way to understand this problem is to think about the two different sorts of values involved. There are “values” in the sense of the goals that people have, or tell themselves they have; and there are “values” in the sense of those goals they actually pursue. These will usually conflict, as even St Paul knew: “The thing I would not, that I do.”
Institutions have the same clashes. One need only think of the systematic cover-ups of child abuse scandals in all the major Christian denominations.
These cover-ups did not come from nowhere. There is yet a third set of values to consider here, and these are those that the institution rewards with promotion. In a large bureaucracy like the BBC, or even the Church of England, one of the most important of those values is the importance of not making trouble for your superiors.
People are justifiably outraged today about the cover-up of Martin Bashir’s wrongdoings, but what kind of executive would have had the moral courage to publicly repudiate a scoop that had brought such lustre (and lucre) to the BBC when it first went out? And what would have been the effect on his career if he had?
Yet none of this should stop us talking to one another. It is hardly surprising to learn that people have mixed motives even for the good things they do. It is hardly surprising that they fall short of their own standards and must correct and apologise for their mistakes. That is why the press needs bodies like the Independent Press Standards Organisation if it is to be trusted.
You might even argue that religions exist to help us deal with the problem of our own mixed motives, or clashing values. It ought, in theory, to be very easy for a Christian organisation to admit that it was made up of sinners, or for a humanist one to admit that it sometimes made terrible mistakes. But that would require both to live up to their values.