Monday, July 16, 2012

Interview With Danny Webster (Parliamentary Officer of the Evangelical Alliance)

On Monday July 2nd, I interviewed Danny Webster of the Evangelical Alliance, at Portcullis House in Westminster. Here is a main transcript of that interview!

PAUL BURGIN: ...We are here to discuss the role of Christians in the Media. Mainly in light of the Leveson Inquiry, and Hackgate and everything around that, and it (the interview) has a fairly broad remit and we will see where we go. So just generally first of all to kick off, what current affairs/political issues affect Christians in your experience as a Parliamentary Officer?

DANNY WEBSTER: We did some research last year and we asked about 1200 people what they got in touch with their MP's about and it was a huge variety of things. There were a lot of issues that were local, that weren't religious issues as such. They were issues about their community, things that they were concerned about, and there were issues that were more Christian. A lot of people were writing to their MP's about persecution of Christians overseas. There were concerns about issues of abortion, the survey was done before the crown consultation around marriage so I suspect it would be different now... The thing that really struck us were the massive range of issues, it wasn't a narrow range of issues, and most of the time when Christians wrote to their MP's they didn't write as Christians, they wrote as members of their constituency, they wrote as people who are caring about their communities and I think that's one of the challenges, that Christians are only seen as caring about issues when they speak as Christians; "I am a Christian, I care about this!" well actually a lot of Christians, they care about a lot of things and that may be because of their Christian faith, because of some particular issues that interest them! So it's very broad

PAUL BURGIN: Do you, would you say that Leveson is an issue, has it come up in the last year, the Hackgate...

DANNY WEBSTER: I think standards in public life in general are an issue. I look at the expenses crisis. I look at the economic crisis. I look at Hackgate/Leveson is very similar issues, as three issues were people were given a great deal of trust and actually that trust was abused, been abused and has evaporated. So I think people are concerned that actually standards in public life aren't what they should be. I think more attention on that has gone on the political side of that than the journalism side, I think people are perhaps more skeptical of journalists anyway, so they are more easily "Ah well they are in it for themselves!" but the two Worlds of politics and journalism are so closely aligned that they are very easily drawn together, so you see politicians that are obsessed with getting media attention and journalists who need stories from politicians and the lack of trust between the two parties very easily came together. So Christians haven't said a great deal about the Leveson Inquiry, and about hacking. I think partly because they don't know what to say. I think they would think it was not necessarily a very good thing, that there are these problems there are these people who are entrusted with communicating to us and they have abused that trust. I don't think they would know what to say next. I think actually that's quite similar to the expenses crisis. That they know there's something wrong as with politicians expenses, but they don't actually think "Right, what's next, what does this mean?"

PAUL BURGIN: And they don't necessarily feel qualified to deal with

DANNY WEBSTER: Precisely

PAUL BURGIN: Which is a very fair point. Would you say that it's an issue, in your experience as Parliamentary Officer.. How much of an issue does this concern Parliament? Have you seen MP's and Peers more wound up about Hackgate then perhaps the public?

DANNY WEBSTER: I think MP's and Peers are very conscious about what the public think about them and I think the expenses, and Hackgate, has drawn that out even further and so they are very very conscious that they don't want to be seen as too closely in line with the press. they're conscious that they don't want to be  seen as trying to give favorable attention. At the same time they want coverage for whatever it is that they're interested in. So there is this relationship, there are journalists that are very reluctant to meet, even talk to MP's. The idea of sitting down and paying for lunch with a Lord! One journalist was like "Oh I wouldn't do that! It's just too difficult!" because it might be seen as abusing the process, whereas I think before that was far more common thing

PAUL BURGIN: So journalists are a bit more wary as much as politicians?

DANNY WEBSTER:I think there's wariness on both sides, but at the same time they both feel they need each other. So they still do engage with each other, they still do.. the politicians still try and get their stories out into the press for the party leaderships. They still work on a sophisticated high level in trying to get the press to work in their way, to adopt a narrative they like. I think for the more junior MP's it's generally their own pet concerns and things they're interested in and we have been doing some work with Christians in Parliament and it is interesting that the level of interest from the press is only there if it's controversial. So if it's about gay marriage, the press will cover something. If you're trying to make a broader point, we were looking at the question of "Are Christians discriminated against in this country?" and the general outcome of the inquiry was  "A little bit but not a great deal!" Because it was a slightly nuanced, slightly not Daily Mail headline it didn't really get much coverage. I think that's a challenge that politicians in order to get the attention, they feel they have to say something controversial, but in saying something controversial are they actually misrepresenting reality and what's happening

PAUL BURGIN: That's a fair point, and I think you have inadvertently answered two other questions. You yourself, how important an issue do you see Hackgate? Do you think it's something that has the potential to change the political landscape of this country? I mean I'm sure... I get the impression you seeeing this from what you said earlier in context with the Banking crisis and the MP's expenses. Do you see this sea change...?

DANNY WEBSTER: I see more of a sea change on the political front in terms of the trust in politicians. I think the politicians have felt a definite need to change and to improve their standing. I think for journalists.. Good journalists don't have a great deal of contact with the public. They write their piece, they write their headlines, but actually how does a member of the general public get in touch with a journalist? There's a divide there. There's a consumption. They consume the papers and the TV programmes, but there's not the same connection that you do have with politicians. I don't think it's as much of an issue and I don't think it will lead to has much of a sea change

PAUL BURGIN: You don't think so? The Murdoch Empire has hit a crisis that no one really anticipated!

DANNY WEBSTER: I think that there are is a crisis, I think there have clearly been hugely dishonest and pitiful things going on. I think the question is will it change this, this link between people, whether it's politicians or whether it's other senior public figures who need press or want press attention and then the press who want the stories, and that relationship means that both of those sides are willing to engage. I think the hackgate and the criminality side of it needs to be dealt with. I think the relationship between the press and public life, I think will always be a little bit messy. I think there there are areas where transparency will help open that up. where we will see the sheer no of meetings that take place between the lobbyists for News International and special advisers that, when you see that sort of thing, you see the influence and you see the way that actually that lobbyists for huge organisations operate. I think for me that was the really interesting thing! When you see the emails you see that's how people who are lobbyists for these type of organisations work and it is quite scary. Something has to be expected, I'm sometimes perhaps a little too pragmatic about it, but I expect people in organisations, people in companies to try and put their case and I expect that politicians to hear it but also to be able to make up their mind independently of that. Maybe I put too much trust in politicians to be able to detach themselves and not be so worried about the negative press attention that they will therefore do business deals that are  more favourable for the companies. I think that's where the News International issue really comes into play is that they are a press company that political parties want coverage from. They are also a business organisation which is affected by the political decisions that they make and I think there's two sides to that which means that there's a trade off and that are politicians giving them something on a business level therefore in order to get them something on the press coverage and I think if that's going on them yes there is the.. there's a very dangerous toxic mix that's happening, but I think the press will always want to tell a story. I think the press needs to have the freedom to do that! I think that...

PAUL BURGIN: It's probably also more to do with.. This is a personal view of mine, but I think they best way we can have all these regulatory reforms and changes and everything else we can propose.. I mean the Press Complaints Commission was universally seen at the end of it's life as toothless. But it was set up in response to a similar, nowhere near as bad as we have now, similar problems twenty years before, and I think the only real change might be when the public start to think, put a connection between the newspaper they buy and what comes out of that newspaper

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes, I think you are absolutely right,  we want a press and a system of politics that is better, but we are still going to consume our journalism in the way that we like it, and I think that on a consumption level there's really no change and until there is change on a consumption level you are not going to see any changes of the business end of  these organisations. Because people still buy papers that have extreme headlines, they will still buy newspapers that run scare stories, that  make blatant political claims, because that seems to be what people want and the papers will continue to write it because that is what people are buying and I think it's on that consumption level that actually the change will take place rather than on regulatory level and I am very suspicious of regulation because I think we can run very tight rules and laws on how we want them to behave and actually what does that achieve? It just makes people more sophisticated in the ways they try and get round it

PAUL BURGIN: That's true but there's also the Goebbels effect isn't there in newspapers! That if you repeat something enough times to a reader they will believe it and a lot of that does go on doesn't it!

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes. Oh definitely!  And I see it with stories about Christianity. That there is a picture painted through the press, for example that Christians are discriminated against. Christians cannot adopt, both of which I'd say are untrue, generally. There are some discriminatory problems for Christians, but generally most Christians do not face any problems. Some Christians who want to adopt face some problems, but the vast majority of Christians adopting don't, and actually there is a real need for Christians to adopt more because we have a crisis and I would be far more interested in encouraging Christians to adopt that than telling them they can't because there are a few problems. So I see this problem that we have a press that tells the church audience that they are being discriminated against and that that actually gets repeated back and that they then think "Oh we are discriminated against!" well when have you been discriminated against? "Oh no I haven't but I have heard this story!" and often it comes back to a few isolated cases, well some of them are really bad, others are not quite as bad as they are presented, that they then adopt as their own

PAUL BURGIN: In your experience do you think, Christians, people generally, are being more savvy about the media than they used to be? Or do you think...

DANNY WEBSTER: I would hope they are. I think often Christians read what they want to hear. When we did this inquiry with Christians in Parliament, the Church of England, the person giving evidence for the Church of England, said there was something within the Christian consciousness that likes the idea of  martyrdom, that has this "actually we recognise that everyones against us" mentality and sometimes Christians adopt that a bit too easily and I think certainly in terms of the press I think that buys into that quite easily and I think it's the responsibility of churches and Christian organisations and people in leadership in different roles to not buy into that scaremongering tactic, but instead present a positive nature that doesn't deny the fact there might be problems, but doesn't buy into headline grabbing.. and that's the problem that we want, Christian organisations, want media coverage. They then sometimes say things that they know will get media coverage. I think there is a real responsibility for Christians to speak with integrity and truth, even if that means they don't get the coverage they might otherwise get.

PAUL BURGIN: So, some questions (from) some of my followers on Twitter... One is why isn't Christian ethics further up the Churches political agenda? Oh Media ethics further up the churches political agenda? Sorry

DANNY WEBSTER: I was thinking about two related things yesterday. One was talking to you and the other was questions of individual morality and I wondered whether sometimes the church is too idealistic when it comes to individual personal morality and too pragmatic when it comes to corporate social morality


PAUL BURGIN: I remember thinking that many years ago

DANNY WEBSTER: So we have "How shall I live my life and I have this perfect standard of what I should do! And there are rights and wrongs and things that  when I transgress those lines I need to repent and have forgiveness for" and it's quite clear. But then when it comes to a corporate social level of morality, whether it comes to politics, business, journalism.. We step back and say "It was very, very complicated! There are all these inter-linking things! There's this trade off, there's that trade-off, life isn't perfect, we've got to live in this complex reality where things aren't always as good as they could be. We acknowledge we live in a broken world!" and I think sometimes that we accept that a little too easily, that we become pragmatic at working in this broken world and accept trade-offs that sometimes entrench that brokenness into our lives, so we accept that we have poor motives, that in a business situation people are greedy, that people will want to make as much money as they can, but how do we then mitigate against that? Whereas I sometimes think actually  we need to step back and say "Actually how can we have a much bigger vision? How do we have a vision for business that isn't centered around greed? For politics that isn't solely about power!" I'm not sure what the comparative one is for journalism. "Is journalism always about selling papers?" or is it about "How do you have a journalism that is always more interested in truth than in making money or gaining credibility?" So I think it's not that high up the churches agenda, I think it needs to be higher up the churches agenda and I think perhaps it needs to get there by somehow coming up with a vision of what a more ethical media would like! But there are people who think about politics, how could politics look, and it's more...

PAUL BURGIN: It's got to be more imaginative than some broadsheet readers ideal which is broadsheets only apart from the i, possibly the Evening Standard, and everything else can go hang! You need an alternative don't you really?

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes and it also can't be a press that says everything that I agree with

PAUL BURGIN: Which we are all very good at!

DANNY WEBSTER: Yeah! So we like the fact that papers say things we agree with and that actually we live in a society and a world of so much difference that the press will always reflect that, there will be worldviews that are different

PAUL BURGIN: I have to confess it does bother me personally that I am very good at sneering at The Sun, The Daily Mail, or The Daily Express, and their readers and yet it occurs to me that when I go and buy The Independent or The Guardian, one of the reasons I enjoy buying those papers is that they reflect my beliefs, prejudices, worldview very, very, easily and I can be in a little nice, safe cocoon which is the very thing I tend to sneer at people who...

DANNY WEBSTER: So in terms of having a media that's better, it's not just a media that says what we agree with, it's a media that presents different points of view, so you might have worldviews that are very unchristian being presented through the press and that is part of the fact that is plural, that has different worldviews, and we have to find a way to view that, rather than wanting a press that only ever says things we like. Cos' that would get us back into a whole heap of other problems where it only ever says one thing, there isn't really any press freedom. So I think that's the trade-off, that you want a press that's free to say things that are radically different to what you think, that can even be offensive, and because that's important, but we also want a press that's responsible, that doesn't distort the truth in order to gain readers

PAUL BURGIN: Fair point. So in what ways should we as Christians be engaging with the media more effectively?

DANNY WEBSTER: I think sometimes it happens.. I think we should as consumers, we need to be more responsible!  I think we need to know what we are consuming and why we're consuming it! It think there are people who would prefer one paper over another, that's perfectly reasonable. But I think it's knowing that we won't cover that with our own sets of views and prejudices, that we will read what we like to read. That not all people who read other papers are wrong!

PAUL BURGIN: And we have to be aware of the faults of our favourite..

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes. So I think as consumers we have to be responsible, we have to know the papers will only change if people stop buying them. I'm not blind to the fact that it's not always readers who matter! It's advertisers that also matter. I'm aware that..

PAUL BURGIN: Well that's what helped break the News of the World

DANNY WEBSTER: Exactly, I remember hearing someone speak last autumn  about the News of the World and they were saying actually it was the advertisers. It was when people got onto the advertisers and got them to pull their ads that half of the ad buy for the next time they had had gone, and then once that happened then the cumulative effect had other people pulling out because it became bad for them to be associated with that, that that actually was what brought down the News of the World, there were many other things in the pile up process, but that final straw was not the readers, because actually galvanising two and a half, three million readers would be very difficult, to target half a dozen key players...

PAUL BURGIN: That said, I did this thing where I did this campaign for boycott.. a petition to boycott the News of the World and I did a facsimile on my blog and what surprised me was the No of hits on my blog, to get that page on my blog and print out the copy. So there were a small but significant minority that were prepared to do a boycott campaign that weaken..

DANNY WEBSTER: And individual action can make a difference. Sara Hyde who was involved in the campaign, I don't know if you saw it, about New Look.. about a month or so ago they had some T-Shirts that they were selling leading into the  European Championships, and they were quite sexist, and quite quickly New Look a lot of negative attention and then they pulled the T-Shirts. So I think consumer action makes a difference, we have to be responsible consumers. I think also we have to learn not to be afraid of the press, not to always think they are going to be against us. I think there are local churches that have had a hard time with their local press. There's been some things that the press has picked up on that they've ran along stories, they have been very critical of something the church is doing, the views that the church has, and therefore the church has backed totally out of it and refused to say anything to the press, they refuse to advertise the great events that they do, the programs they run. So I think there needs to be more confidence for churches to engage locally  with their press, whether it's events that they are running, things that they are doing. Or just building relationships with them to write regular columns and there are church leaders who do monthly columns for the local papers because they are people who can relate to their community. So I think building relationships on a local level is a much easier way than thinking nationally because actually you can have that more direct contact person to person with journalists, whereas with someone writing for  The Times or the Daily Mail, it's very, very difficult to imagine. I think on a national level we have to expect, we have to have that idealistic vision for a press that is better, that doesn't easily settle for old fashioned ways for things to work out! I think there can be better ways of doing these things

PAUL BURGIN: Would you say the media.. that churches need more training in dealing with the media?

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes that's a definitely, and there is definitely a need for some of those barriers broken down, for church leaders to know that actually it is quite simple  for them to get in touch with the media, that it might not be the church leader, but there might be other people in their churches that want to do it, how can churches help people in their congregations who want to engage in the media. So I think sometimes we put too much responsibility on the church leaders, a church leader is a church leader, that's what  their passion is for, so while some church leaders may do really  good job of writing a column for the local paper, actually maybe someone in their church is much better or equipped to do it! How can those people be empowered to do..

PAUL BURGIN: We do tend to put too much on our Pastors and Vicars don't we! As if we expect them to have a whole array of talents that they weren't exactly...

DANNY WEBSTER: We put a lot of pressure on church leaders to do everything, but we also, when we identify leadership, we assume it's church leadership. So we see someone with talents for leadership and think "Ooh, we're going to send you off to Bible College, theological training, ordain you in the Church of England, and then you can become a church leader too!" actually we need people who are, who have leadership gifts in politics, in business, and in the press, so we need people who not just engage with the press as consumers or as, for want of a better word, the arts, on the church side of things who actually go into the press, be journalists, be editors, and do a really good job of doing that

PAUL BURGIN: Getting your hands dirty

DANNY WEBSTER: Yes, and I think that's the real challenge because there is always a danger in certain sectors of public life that become tainted and seen as "Oh well, that's slightly beyond the pale for Christians!" I think for a while politics had that reputation, I don't think it necessarily does so much. I think business sometimes has that reputation and I think journalism does now as well, that actually it's all a bit too dirty when I think reverse that and say "Because it's such a challenging place, because it's a place that has that, that sense that it's dirty, that sense that there is something wrong here, actually that's why it's vital that Christians do work in those areas and do require leadership!"

PAUL BURGIN: It becomes that vicious circle again, that we mentioned earlier isn't it! Do you, one more question... there seems to be a perception in some quarters of the church about the media being anti-Christian, that's not exactly justified is it really?

DANNY WEBSTER: I think there are certain stories about religion that make it into the press and there are a lot of stories that don't. If it involves a Bishop saying something, it makes it into the press, if it involves Christians saying something about homosexuality it makes it into the press, when it is a Bishop saying something about homosexuality it makes it even bigger! So there is a journalistic bias towards some types of stories. I think sometimes there is a bias towards stories that paint Christians as out of touch as it were. I think there, I'm just conscious that those sorts of stories do make it into the papers, that paint the church in a little corner that, even if it's done in a way that presents Christians as being discriminated against, in that synthetic mindset, there is still that "Christians are being discriminated against, which shouldn't happen, but that has happened because they have different views from the rest of the World!" There is a, I think there is a slight intolerance towards Christian worldviews, even in papers that talk about discrimination of Christians, so I wouldn't say that they're anti-Christian, I think they know that some of the stories sell better than others, that, a story about gay marriage will work on two levels. That it will enrage people who are supporters of that, that the church is backwards in their view, it will also galvanise Christians that they need to stand up for their rights. Whereas part of that is the fact of reality that the media will go for stories that are more polarised and two distinct sides. But then, but then there are stories that make it into the press that are much better. So for example there's been a range of stories recently about food banks that churches run, that that is actually a great story about work that, that is not exclusively but mostly church based

PAUL BURGIN: And it's a growing thing. My fiancée's a big one for food banks as an issue

DANNY WEBSTER: And my church runs one down in Vauxhall, that, we've been doing it for just over a year, there's been a huge need, which is kind of scary in itself, that there is that need for it, but that actually it's been a great taker, that we'll go and stand outside Sainsbury's in Vauxhall and collect food and people donate a lot of food for that, so there are good news stories that happen in our church and the press do cover those things, so I don't think the press is anti-Christian, I think there are stories that present the church in a negative light that sell papers and I think that the church therefore needs to do a really good job of...

PAUL BURGIN: Of making the positivity of their work sell

DANNY WEBSTER: Yeah, making their, making as much as they can of the great things that they do! Of not walking into traps where they slag each other off! There is a peculiar Church of England position that, for people in the Church of England, they will get noticed more

PAUL BURGIN: If they're rude!

DANNY WEBSTER: Well if they're rude, if they say something while having a debate, whether it's about women Bishops, some other issue, then actually what happens within the Church of England makes the pages of the press, because it is that institutional body, whereas for other churches they almost completely go under the radar. I think some of the new churches that aren't part of the traditional denominations, they exist completely under the radar with the press and often the only time the press gets in touch is because they will have heard a story that the church has done something or said something and the church goes into panic stations because this story's being released that presents the church in a negative light, and there's been two cases recently, one a church got a fund from another church in Liverpool that suddenly came to the attention of the press and some of the work that they were doing was undermined, but then the church wasn't really able to deal with the press because it wasn't ready for it!

PAUL BURGIN: They wouldn't have been trained properly

DANNY WEBSTER: They hadn't been trained

PAUL BURGIN: A final question which is, would..., it seems a bit off the beaten track, but it was offered to me on Twitter this morning. Do you think Christians are better at being inclusive? That's how I interpreted the question anyway

DANNY WEBSTER: In what regard?

PAUL BURGIN: Generally I think it was!

DANNY WEBSTER: I think Christians do a great job of making a church a very welcoming place, and I think that actually it's totally disconnected to the doctrinal views of the church! I think the church can be a radically inclusive place to all, because it can be a welcoming community. I think it can be a place where people come together, it obviously, how often do you have places with people in their nineties, people with children, people with different ethnicities, I think it can be a really inclusive place! I think the challenge is how do you hold together that mass of variety of different cultures, lifestyles, views, as a community that is not just welcoming of welcoming people to come in, but actually of traveling together! I think that's the challenge that everyone can be welcoming, but then the church is going somewhere, the church is doing something, and that does involve some level of "this is what the church is about", so while we come from a massive variety of different places we are heading in the same direction, so I think that's where there's a slight tension towards that and I think sometimes the goal doesn't try and stop people from being inclusive, and I think they shouldn't, I think the important thing is saying "Right, how do you welcome everyone! How do you make a place work for all! Feel included! And at the same time travel somewhere together!"

PAUL BURGIN: Danny Webster, thankyou very much for your time

DANNY WEBSTER: That's okay



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