‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (1 Tim 2:1)
Last night I watched the TV dramatisation of events that took place 4 years ago less then a quarter of a mile from where I am sitting right now. In the ‘Lost honour of Christopher Jefferies’ (second part follows tonight) we encounter the story of how an innocent man, a retired Clifton College schoolmaster and Landlord of the flat from which 25 year old Joanna Yeates had disappeared, was hounded by a mob of journalists baying for his blood.
Cruelly portrayed in the press at the time as a ‘creepy’, marginal individual with a shifty demeanour and unusual hairstyle, he was noted to love ‘poetry’ and, perhaps most damningly of all, to be ‘a member of a the Prayer Book Society‘ (an organisation that promotes the book of Common Prayer).
Oh, and he hailed from Grimsby. This, as it happens is my own place of birth (along with Norman Lamont and Ian Huntley, the convicted Soham murderer) but I believe that even this Press Witch-Hunt failed to spot that particular piece of guilt-by-association.
In the wake of the Milly Dowler affair, the wider phone hacking scandal, the Leveson disclosures, and the seedy, whisky-soaked, dog-eats-dog culture caricatured in Private Eye, the events portrayed here are yet another low point in the sorry tale of British journalism. No wonder that the mother of Paul Vallely, a journalist writing for the Independent, rang him up to tell him that she was ‘praying for him’.
Those who have been bruised and embittered by the rough justice, or rather injustice, dolled out in the court of journalistic mob opinion might feel that prayer is too good for the likes of them. But for most of us I guess it just sounds hopelessly sanctimonious, patronising and out of touch. Either too lazy, cowardly, devious or intellectually challenged to engage with the issue directly, we blandly reassure our opponents that we will invoke the services of the Almighty in their favour.
But we should be praying for them. The Apostle Paul urged Christian believers to make petitions, intercessions and thanksgivings for all people, and especially those in positions of power (‘for kings and all those in authority’ (1 Tim 2:2)). He was echoing Jeremiah’s prophetic call to his own people being carried off into captivity to pray for the ‘prosperity and peace’ of their place of exile: ‘because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jer 29:7).
In a liberal democracy such as ours journalism is a critical load bearer in the power structures that support our way of life. At its very best, journalism pursues the facts without fear or favour, speaks truth to power, and exposes the endemic hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the human spirit. Think Watergate, the expenses scandal, the abuse of vulnerable residents in care homes. The list is endless.
But at its worst, journalism panders to the instinctive self-righteousness that almost always motivates the all-too-easy slide into mob-rule. Human beings have a deeply rooted sense of moral propriety. When we believe ourselves to be unobserved, we are capable of chilling levels of callousness, deviousness and disregard. But in the public eye what matters more than almost anything else is to be seen to be good and virtuous: as psychologists such as Mark Leary have shown, we are obsessively concerned with what others think of us and capable of harnessing powerful psychological mechanisms of self-justification.
The public shaming of such as Jefferies affords a quick and easy opportunity to parade our righteousness before others, and before ourselves. The personal cost is a quick tweet or a head-shaking scan of the headlines. As a means to feel good about ourselves, it’s simply too hard to resist. And the Jefferies affair is a chilling reminder of how easily those who are supposed to deploy truth as a bulwark against the self-righteousness of the mob are themselves so easily made victims of its psychology.
This phenomenon is too frightening a prospect to be left to (necessary) Inquiries such as Leveson and to calls for yet more regulation supposed to ‘ensure this never happens again’. So long as the human spirit remains snarled in sin, it is always going to happen again. Always.
Which is why, for all the risks of sounding patronising and hopelessly sanctimonious, I think Paul Vallely’s mother was right. Christians do need to pray for journalists, along with all those who deploy institutional power. We are called to bless, honour and offer ‘thanksgiving’ for them. To respect and look for the best in the profession. To pray for wisdom, courage, integrity and a love of truth among those who work in it. To ask that our brightest and best will give their lives to this calling; that they will be graced with insight to detect humbug; and endowed with humility to acknowledge error and make good when harm has been done.
So let’s add journalists to our prayer lists because when journalism prospers, we all prosper. When journalists flourish, in the true Aristotelian sense of bringing benefit and life to others, we all flourish. The season of Advent, when Christians anticipate the final revealing of the truth of all things, may well be a particularly good time to make a start.