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Lessons from the pulpit

Peter Rippon | 14:24 UK time, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The World at One interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury last week. You may have heard about it (or you can listen to it here).

World at One logoIt's common when an interview provokes such a huge reaction, most of it negative, for the messenger to get a bit of flak too. To his credit the Archbishop has not used this tactic (as his speech yesterday proved). Lambeth Palace was aware the speech needed to be handled carefully. So were we. Our reporter, Christopher Landau (MA Theology, MPhil Elizabethan Church History) knows what he is talking about and framed the interview very carefully and precisely to make sure we accurately reflected the Archbishop's view.

There has been some criticism of the 'tabloids' and media more widely for mangling the message. I am not convinced that goes very far in explaining the public reaction either. When the interview went out, nine minutes long, we broadcast no criticism of it. Within minutes we had a huge, overwhelmingly negative, e-mail and text response to what he said. That's hours before any newspapers had gone to print.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsA lot of comment has rightly focused on the culture clash between the cloistered academic world of theological debate and the crass, clumsy demands of the 24-hour mass media.

There's an old adage in TV that the key to good storytelling is to simplify and exaggerate. In radio there is an apocryphal story about the seasoned old hack who when asked to cut a crafted minute long despatch to 40 seconds responded. "My dear chap, I can do the Second World War in 40 seconds if you like, but you might lose a bit of detail."

However, it would be wrong to conclude it is only the media who can learn from this. As Martha Kearney points out in her World at One newsletter, the speech was very high fibre. If the Archbishop insists on writing in sentences that are 146 words long he will not get many shifts on our Newsdesk.


  • 1.
  • At 05:15 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Martin wrote:

'the interview went out, nine minutes long'

What a wonderful idea, if only your colleagues in tellyland would dedicated as long to an interview with an important figure.

Dr Williams was wrong to say what he did, but then he's wrong also when he tries to use his religion and indefensible place in Parliament to try and influence proposed laws on abortion, divorce, adoption and gay rights.

We should all respect and tolerate one another's religious views but followers of religions must stop trying to make the rest of us live under the 'laws' of their faith.

  • 2.
  • At 06:05 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Michael wrote:

Surely the issue is not one to do with the length of sentences. His 146 words sentence is well written. His care in phrasing should be a source of significant pride for the church he leads. It is simply not possible to simplify some thoughts without misrepresenting meaning, and I would always rather have to spend some time reading carefully than loose meaning. In an issue such as this, a good outcome (making one's point with precision, provoking debate, proving the thoughtfulness of the church) relies on the kinds of complexities displayed in his speech.

  • 3.
  • At 06:10 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • shane wrote:

a brilliant blog.

the real puzzle in this is how a person singularly incapable of comunicating clearly is widely described as brilliant, rather than as a muddlehead. he is a muddlehead, and his language reflects it.

Well said that man!

By the way, my word counter came up with a figure of 148 for that monstrosity of a sentence quoted in Martha Kearney’s article. You didn’t count them by hand, did you Peter?

  • 5.
  • At 06:48 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Jack wrote:


To some extent, particularly with regard to the World at One bulletin, you are correct. However, certain sections of the media had already primed the public to react in the way that they did, at the very mention of Sharia Law.

Where most of the 'responsible' media failed, was in trying to get the ABC to clarify exactly what he meant in his rather obtuse speech, this left the public to come to their own conclusions even though probably few of us had read or heard the original lecture.

  • 6.
  • At 06:49 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Tim Kempster wrote:

Well presented in isolation perhaps. The response however, was entirely predictable. Just more fuel to ignite a bonfire stoked by an intolerant and populist media. The best claim is that you did nothing wrong in this instance, we could wish that all such issues were treated so objectively and without bias.

  • 7.
  • At 07:05 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Madasafish wrote:

I read the speech. My major comments were:
1. He was speaking to lawyers. I am used to lawyers and commercial contracts. I found his speech made lawyerese seem quite simple and understandable by comparison. One of the worst written talks I have ever read.
2. He seems fixated on speaking up for other religions. I do not see that in his job description or what passes for it.
3. The C of E is bleeding members. I would expect the Archbishop as Head of it to have as his Primary task the need to stop that bleeding and encourage new members.

Clearly his priorities are different from those one would normally expect.

I despair.

  • 8.
  • At 08:52 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Paul Madley wrote:

Funny, I viewed the BBC coverage of the Archbishop's Sharia comments as distinctly "tabloid"...

  • 9.
  • At 09:47 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

I think you should be encouraged to debate matters of race and religion on these shows.

Much of the media avoids it these days, for fear of being labelled 'PC' or 'Non-PC' or something '-phobic'. Or if we're honest because they are too lazy to do the research required on matters which are complex, subtle and where no clear 'right or wrong' answer exists.

The trouble is, the running is then made by articles of uncertain provenance and accuracy in certain newspapers, and, rather more alarmingly, on the BNP website.

Avoiding discussion of the balance to be struck and potential discrepancies between religious freedom, national interest, and universal human rights and civil liberties would be the easy way out. But, as we have seen on many issues recently, that just stores up problems for the future.

  • 10.
  • At 10:37 PM on 12 Feb 2008,
  • Mark Phythian wrote:

I feel the Archbishop of Canterbury should stand down and resign as his speech came from poor judgement and lacked any kind of real interlect.

No wonder the church of England is loosing its support.

There are many areas the church should and could involve itself in such as the ever growing gap between the rich and poor, the many deprived areas in our society, the lack of respect, drug and crime culture that are all consequences of this vast unfair, unjustified and immoral distribution of wealth. This issue I believe is the most urgent and acute of today.

I don't think I've ever heard Dr williams touch on these areas.

Does he not care ?

Has he ever been out and seen how people across all our society live ?

I guess not !


  • 11.
  • At 04:03 AM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Gary Prosser wrote:

Your argument seems to boil down to: 'if you're are going to engage with the BBC you'd better use soundbites not long sentences'. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Does everyone in public life have to conform to the BBC's perception of how to convey an argument ? You say that 'it would be wrong to conclude it is only the media who can learn from this.' You are shifting blame because you know the media's sole objective is to fill schedules. Can you confirm that the Archbishop's original interview was constrained to nine minutes by him or the BBC ?

  • 12.
  • At 10:34 AM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Dectora wrote:

Rowan Williams remains opaque and evasive on the issue of the misogynist aspects of Sharia Law. (A woman's evidence is worth only half that of a man's testimony.) In his original lecture he admitted that this would prove 'neuralgic' when dealing with divorce. This was his convoluted way of saying 'painful'. He is not prepared to honestly say that he accepts diminished rights for women in certain circumstances.

  • 13.
  • At 12:17 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Chris, Kent wrote:

What this wholly unnecessary storm ought to teach Rowan Williams is that if you accept the obligations of high public office, you must also acknowledge the demands made on you in the modern media age and to speak with greater clarity – all the more so on controversial and difficult issues. Christ Himself did not use convoluted speech that left his listeners floundering. His parables were models of simplicity. What better example than this for the Archbishop to follow?

  • 14.
  • At 12:48 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Sam Korn wrote:

Firstly, in reply to Madasafish (#7): the primary task of the Archbishop of Canterbury is to lead the Church of England in the worship of God. Judging the state of the church purely by the number of people coming to the Sunday morning Eucharist is a profoundly un-Christian way of looking at things. His task is to work for truth and to attack injustice wherever he sees it. His comments, taken in this context, are entirely reasonable. Christianity works not just for Christians but for all humanity and for the world.

In reply to Mark Phythian (#9): yes, he does care. He is a prominent supporter of the Christian Socialist movement. He is most certainly left-wing politically. To dismiss him as having no care for the poor is ignorant and uninformed.

  • 15.
  • At 01:44 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Terry wrote:

I saw the full length of the Archbishop's speech on BBC Parliament on Saturday night. I wasn't surprised to see some in the audience who (it seemed) would have welcomed a nice cushion so as to sleep better. You had to listen carefully to be able to cut through the non-sensical use of the English language, but the message was pretty clear: we need to consider accommodating Sharia law; he even provided examples of where other law was accommodated, so as to be help his audience understand that this wasn't such a revolutionary thing to think about. It is rather disturbing that his supporters are now having to deny that he said what he did actually say, more or less accusing us of misunderstanding his message because we're too ignorant to comprehend the big words he used. It'll perhaps be quite nice one day to see the Church of England full of people who are actually enthused by the Christian spirit and feel they have people in the Church who they can relate to, rather than Church attendance being increased as a result of mothers wanting to get their children into better performing Church schools.

  • 16.
  • At 04:47 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Nancy from Raleigh USA wrote:

We are so used to soundbites that we have learned to react instantaneously rather than think through an idea. Yes, the media is responsible for encouraging this reaction and it is also their responsibility to generate thoughtful dialogue to counterbalance emotional reflexes.

Would you have the Archbishop run everything past his PR person (if he has one)? The trouble is he cannot win. If he had wrapped his comments in short sound bites then the furore could have been even worse. At least his comments come with qualifications and caveats. The danger with having fewer words is that comments could be taken out of context. Perhaps his PR person advised him to keep sentences as long as possible to avoid being misquoted!

The Archbishop’s comments and speech seem to me to be very mild. The BBC more often than not falls into the trap of confusing public opinion with the opinions of journalists. Surely the real problem is not with the length of sentences or even the actual message he was trying to put across. I would suggest that the Archbishops acted as a lightening rod for the deep frustration about immigration to the UK. Just the mention of Sharia law was enough to send pulses racing. By helping others to vent some of the steam, perhaps he inadvertently did some service by reducing the pressure, albeit by a tiny amount.

  • 18.
  • At 06:37 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Bilal Patel wrote:

Through years of conditioning, large sections of the British public have turned into xenophobes and hatemongers, primed and ready to spring into action at any mention of Islam.

This is not unprecedented. A look at Europe's recent history tells us where this kind of conditioning can lead to.

So it's not surprising Peter, that Auntie Beeb would be overwhelmed with negative responses at the very start. The Beeb is one of those organisation that unfortunately contributes to this negativity with it's increasing reliance on soundbites and dumbing down. This gives no space for critical discussion, analysis or for alternative views.

What this episode should teach us, is that it's very dangerous to rely on popular misconceptions and stereotypes to win audiences. It's high time that the BBC changed tack. I view Euro News and Al Jazeera on my Sky TV box, and when I switch over to the BBC News, am amazed at how dumbed down it is. It has no sense of the objectivity it once had, and particularly on the so-called 'war on terror' adopts the same tone as the government which is currently pursuing a campaign to enforce 'western values' on the Muslim world, according to Milliband.

  • 19.
  • At 08:42 PM on 13 Feb 2008,
  • Gregor Campbell wrote:

Well I can agree with your comments Peter as viewed from the isolation of the World at One and its final news summary. However you really need to look at the headlines and words used by your colleagues in the BBC newsrooms from that point onwards in the day. The papers picked up on them too.
We were well into stoking a story by the evening despite having the exact words of the lecture by then and knowing that most of those being invited to comment were not aware of those actual words. As a reporting exercise I await some wise words from our man at the BBC College of Journalism.

Let us not confuse discussion about what the ABC said or meant with how it was reported. I am thinking about the latter but you confused the two.

  • 20.
  • At 03:52 PM on 14 Feb 2008,
  • David Keen wrote:

I agree with Gregor Campbell. BBC news was chasing a row/resignation story from very early on.

When General Synod gave him a standing ovation the cameras spent most of the time zooming in on the 3 people who didn't stand, and interviewed one of them. There was no interview with any of the 497 who applauded. BBC1 news said virtually nothing about the real debate Williams was engaged in, but turned it into a running story about whether he should quit, and only gave up on that line yesterday. If that's what the flagship news programme is doing, it can't be any surprise if the other BBC coverage is seen in this light: pick a fight, rather than debate the issues.

So a BBC website article on Jan 9th talking about 'calls for him to resign' turned out to be a story about 2 Anglicans who wanted Williams to step down. When only 2 Anglicans want you to quit as Archbishop of Canterbury, that's a good day.

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