St Bride's: Sermons

The Power of Words

I was at a dinner recently at which the guest speaker was Gyles Brandreth, the former politician, broadcaster, writer and journalist. He made a very witty speech in the course of which he made one serious point, as an author and broadcaster – about the power of words – how they can be used to inform and educate and enlarge our horizons and how they can be misused and abused to distort the truth, to manipulate and misinform.

The printed word and the spoken word have very profound and important resonances for this church and parish. Here the printed word was transformed over the centuries from a medieval mystery to a mind-moulding mass communicator, and even though the newspapers have come and gone Fleet Street remains the generic name for the press, and we retain strong links with the print and broadcast media. At St Bride’s words, spoken and written, matter, and those who use them as their stock-in-trade are our care and concern, focused on our Journalists’ Altar. Over the years we have remembered many journalists, from the hostages in Lebanon in the mid 1980’s (John McCarthy etc.), to those who have died covering the war in Iraq. And most recently Alan Johnston, BBC reporter kidnapped in Gaza over a month ago, and who pray God is still alive. And it is about him and his craft that I want us to reflect this morning.

A week ago Polly Toynbee was having a rant in the Guardian about how dreadful the British media are:-

“The British press, the worst in the west, demoralises the national psyche. It makes people miserable. It raises false fears. It proclaims that nothing works, everything gets worse, and it urges distrust of any public official or politician. Now it has the government on the run and a chance for a Tory victory, there is no holding back its doom-mongering in this most healthy, safe and prosperous age.”

To which I want to reply – hang on a minute Polly. Yes the media can be negative and outrageous – closing down political debate, hounding Kate Middleton, tapping into the private telephones of the Royal Family etc. but the British media is also some of the best in the world – both print and broadcast, and Alan Johnston is a wonderful example. Listen to these words from his boss Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC:-

alanj.jpgAlan stayed in Gaza so long, and stayed after so many other western correspondents had left, because he wanted to tell the story of Gaza, and to tell it not from a studio in London or by voicing-over pictures taken by an agency or freelancer thousands of miles away, but on the ground and among the people of Gaza. And he wanted to do it with what I think you could call classic BBC values: with humanity but also with objectivity and impartiality.

In a way we live in an age where news is two-a-penny. There are getting on for a dozen continuous news channels in Arabic alone. And yet serious, dispassionate, impartial journalism is at a premium.

And my first conjecture – or perhaps I should call it my first article of faith – is that this kind of reporting makes a difference. No one could argue that on its own outstanding journalism can make the world a better place, but it does feel like a necessary, if not sufficient, condition.

Throughout my own time in journalism, from the famines in Ethiopia in the 1980’s to the modern killing fields of Darfur, accurate, revelatory journalism has been the first step in mobilising global opinion.

That leads to my second, I’m afraid rather depressing conjecture which is that, precisely because of its potential to increase understanding and to start new and fruitful conversations, in many parts of the world free media is under a growing threat.

In the case of the BBC, I think of Simon Cumbers, our cameraman murdered in Saudi Arabia in the same incident in which our security correspondent, Frank Gardener, was very badly injured. I think of our producer, Kate Peyton, shot killed in Mogadishu, in a city where the only source of reliable news is the BBC Somali service...”

And Mark Thompson could mention many others, whose names are honoured in this Journalists’ Church. These are the people who put their lives on the line to bring us the news week in week out. And when we feel exasperated by the tackiness of celebrity news culture or the disinformation which government and business PR machines spin on us every day, we need to remember people like Alan Johnston. He and others like him go on assignment, in the words of the legendary Life Magazine photographer Larry Burrows “to show the interested people and to shock the uninterested.” And our world would be the poorer and the democratic process weakened without them. Let us remember those bringing us the news from far away and dangerous places, and especially Alan Johnston, praying that he may be released and return home safely, and for his family as they anxiously wait for news of him.

This church has had a long association with the printed word, and word and Gospel are intimately linked because the God we believe in is a God who communicates: that’s why St John calls Christ the divine logos, the divine word. Down in our Crypt in one of the display cases there is a large open Bible; the label beside it says this:- “Words mould the minds of men. St Bride’s stands for the reconciliation of all our words with the word that is God.” Good journalism is part of that process: that’s why it is important that we remember and pray for Alan Johnston today.

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