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The Prince, the Press and the Public Interest: examining our own relationship with the news

Peter Ladd

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Every day, we are bombarded with more news than we could comprehend: articles, blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, from just about every angle that we could possibly envisage. It is a relatively recent phenomenon. I read recently that the first ever regular newspaper to be published in the USA (although it was part of the ‘Thirteen Colonies’ then!), the Boston News-letter, which began publication in 1704, originally began by covering a week’s worth of events at a time: evidently they did not think there was enough ‘newsworthy’ material to justify anything more regular!

This week has seen considerable attention placed on the news industry by the court case involving Prince Harry and the Mirror Group Newspapers: much of the media attention has focused on how the Duke of Sussex seems to have been somewhat out of his depth when facing a leading barrister rather Oprah Winfrey, and the general opinion so far is that he is unlikely to win the case, appealing to his feelings rather than providing the judge with hard, solid facts.

But at the same time, pretty much everyone would agree that - whatever may have followed - Harry grew up with the rawest of deals. Faced with tales of his parents’ divorce (and his own reaction to it being sprayed across the papers), his mother’s suffering, and of course, his own misdemeanours in ways that other teenagers would never have to endure, one cannot help but feel for the Duke, and question why as a society we have created such a media circus.

Harry said himself:

“As a child, every single one of these articles played an important and destructive role in my growing up. There’s more than thousands, perhaps millions of articles that have been written about me since age 12.”
Prince Harry

I don’t know more than has been reported (in mind-numbing depth!) elsewhere about the specifics of his case. But it has got me thinking about my own consumption of the news.

What would it be like to engage with the news Christianly? I wonder if many of us have ever really thought about that question…because (as you'll see later) I don’t think I have!

Using the Gos­pel as a lens

The Christian faith has never been one which draws back from society. Whilst there is clearly a danger with reading the news too much, to go too far the other way and not engage with culture at all, is equally unhelpful. Jesus did not envisage creating a people who withdrew from the world around them, but a people who would impact and influence society for His kingdom.

We are, he says, the ‘salt of the earth’, the ones who bring God’s flavour to the world. We are - as He himself was - the ‘light of the world’, the ones who shine in darkness of the world around us and expose things as they really are.

John Stott was notorious for the practice of ‘double listening’: in order to help people understand the world around them and how to live in it, he equipped himself with endless cutting of newspaper quotes as sermon illustrations. It was, to quote Karl Barth, the practice of preaching with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” It is important to help one another to understand the environments we are all by-products of.

The Bible acts as a lens, through which we can interpret the news and the world around us: for within the Bible, when properly interpreted, we see things as God himself sees them. God is the one who defines reality. We see this most clearly in Genesis 1, where it is God who not only creates, but also who names and defines what is what:

“God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.””
Genesis 1:5

Every newspaper, video or media outlet comes from a different perspective: the Guardian offers a more left-wing perspective, the Telegraph a more right-wing one, such that they could be describing the same story but providing very different accounts. But through the Bible, we learn God’s perspective on life, the world, and everything in it. It is a solid, unchanging bedrock, a firm foundation on which we can lean:

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16

It is through the Bible that we know that everyone is made within the image of God, from the point of conception until life’s natural end, prompting us to appeal for the rights of the unborn, for the dignity of the disabled, and for care for the elderly. Or it is through the Bible that we can know that there is such a thing as male and female, and that our bodies matter, such that we are not taken captives by the latest philosophies around gender ideology, or believe that people can truly change their sex.

The Bible gives us a full worldview: it shows us God’s original purpose for the world, it tells us about how His good design has been spoiled, it shows us how to live now, and how He will one day redeem all things. It is the lens through which we can view everything going on around us; that is what we try to do in this series of long-reads, where we examine the big story of the week from a Christian perspective. We want to try and see things in the way that - based on what we can discern from Scripture - God Himself sees them.

We are not to disappear from society or withdraw from the world around us and what is going on: but we do need to let the Bible interpret events, such that we accord priority to God’s view of things, rather than our favourite columnist.

Let­ting the Gos­pel shape the agenda

A key part of seeing things the way God sees them is the importance we place on them. How important actually are the events we are often so consumed by? It is easy - particularly in a world of near-infinite choice - to while away an hour every day reading through newspaper articles and opinion pieces. And yet, to what extent will most of that actually impact our life? What seems so important when we read it in the morning papers is old news by the Evening Standard.

Or as Hugh Grant’s character puts it in Notting Hill: “Today’s newspapers will be lining tomorrow’s wastepaper bin.”

Are the things we read genuinely in the public interest?

There was an interesting moment in the case itself when Harry was questioned himself on whether a story about whether he was getting preferential treatment during his time at Sandhurst would constitute a public interest story. Harry’s response, which didn’t really answer the question, but was, in a sense, totally fair enough? “I don’t believe it affected the wellbeing of society.”

The Prince Harry court case comes, of course, directly after the newspapers were dominated for days by headlines about Philip Schofield’s dramatic fall from grace at ITV; it is with no great pride that I have to confess to being glued to Eamonn Holmes’ eviscerating interviews with Dan Wootton, seeking out Holly Willoughby’s now iconic ‘Are you okay?’ speech, and being intrigued by the thoughts of Dr Ranj, the former resident ‘This Morning’ doctor.

The press and the public exist in a symbiotic relationship: they pick the stories they believe are most likely to appeal to us, so we buy more of their papers. The public interest is whatever sells.

There are - of course - stories which as Christians we cannot avoid engaging with. When we read of Russia blowing up a dam in Ukraine and tens of thousands of lives being put at risk, or the latest effects of climate change, or the earthquakes in Turkey or Syria earlier this year, we have a duty to make sure that we are informed and consider whether we are in a position to provide help.

Closer to home, when we read about the latest attempts to introduce Assisted Suicide (there was yet another meeting of the Health and Social Care Committee about it this week), or the ways in which the government are letting big tech companies get away without policing their social media and adequately safeguarding vulnerable children, it is important that we keep up to date.

It might be be keeping an eye on the economy (and who will be left vulnerable from a cost-of-living crisis), or it might be watching out for what is going on with education (and the teaching of inappropriate materials in RSE lessons): at CARE we keep a news section fully up to date with all the headlines we think are most valuable for you to be aware of.

These are important topics to follow, because they are important to God.

What would it look like to read the news Christianly? It would look like spending time thinking about God’s priorities, rather than our own. Just think about Paul’s words to the Philippians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Philippians 4:8

The Gos­pel is the real news-story

Christianity is all about news. That might feel jarring, given its central events - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - occurred around 2000 years ago. But at its heart, Christian faith is about a proclamation of the gospel, the euanggelion (the ‘good news’) about Jesus Christ: in the person of Jesus, God has already broken into our world, defeated evil and begun to create a new world, which one day he will bring to completion.

How much of our time is taken up in trivialities, such as the saga of Holly and Phil? How many hours do we while away reading news we ultimately do not care about, and will do absolutely nothing about?

I found this quote from the Christian journalist Malcolm Muggeridge instructive:

“I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and—I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”
Malcolm Muggeridge

We need to remember what really is the big news story; when I compare the amount of time I spend on the BBC News (or dare I say it, the BBC Sport!) website with the amount of time I spent in my Bible or in prayer, I see my following of the news for what it is: something which is, at times, an idol.

There is one news story in which we are to immerse ourselves, and one news story we ought - more than any other - to be talking about to our friends in the workplace. It’s not about Harry or Holly. It’s the news about Jesus.

These words from Tom Wright are wonderfully encouraging. I reproduce them in full, as they bring out the many dimensions of the glorious news about Jesus:

“The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. The ancient hopes have indeed been fulfilled, but in a way nobody imagined. God’s plan to put the world right has finally been launched. He has grasped the world in a new way, to sort it out and fill it with his glory and justice, as he always promised. But he has done so in a way beyond the wildest dreams of prophecy.

The ancient sickness that had crippled the whole world, and humans with it, has been cured at last, so that new life can rise up in its place. Life has come to life and is pouring out like a mighty river into the world, in the form of a new power, the power of love.

The good news was, and is, that all this has happened in and through Jesus; that one day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now.”
Tom Wright, Simply Good News

That really does sound like news we ought to spend our time reading about.

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