how journalism works

One of the odder things I do is to write a column on religion in the media for the _Church Times_ and one of the odder difficulties with that is I feel I ought to try not to say too many cruel things about Ruth Gledhill. So I will vent here instead.

This week she is rushing to catch up with someone else’s scoop, a position that always brings out journalistic vices. After all, our livelihoods as well as our self-esteems depend on being better and more quickly informed than the competition, and last week her competition, in the shape of Jonathan Petre of the _Daily Telegraph,_ got a genuine and important story about whole dioceses from the Episcopal Church of the USA attempting to transfer their allegiance to another province of the Anglican Communion so as not to -catch gay cooties- imperil their orthodoxy.

At this point the innocent reader will be asking what is a province? What is the Anglican Communion? Well the AC is about 50m[1] Christians all around the world in churches descended from the Church of England. Large countries are provinces in themselves; England actually has two; smaller countries where there are a sprinkling of Anglican congregations get bundled up into larger provinces. The sparsest of all, is the so-called “Province of the Southern Cone”, which covers the whole southern half of South America, five countries in which there are a total of 32,000 Anglicans. It is the head of this operation who has announced that he will accept any North American dioceses who would like to join him. So naturally, the Gledhill version of the story starts:

bq. %(loony)One of the largest provinces% in the Anglican Church is offering itself as a safe haven for traditionalist US dioceses that wish to secede in the argument about the acceptance of gay clergy, including bishops.
The province of the Southern Cone, which includes Argentina, Peru and Chile and is headed by the expatriate British Bishop Greg Venables, has voted to extend its jurisdiction to cover the whole of the US.

Why not claim that the bishop with the longest name is the most important, while you’re about it? But it’s the next paragraph which is completely beyond parody:

bq. The decision marks the formal start of a %(loony)realignment% of the Anglican Communion in the row over gays and %(loony)could help to stave off a schism.%

But “realignment” *is* schism. That’s what “realignment” _means_ when Anglicans use the word now. You can no more stave off a schism with realignment than you stave off a war by mounting an invasion. If the bishop of Pittsburgh anounces that he is no longer part of The Episcopal Church (in America) but still claims to be the Anglican bishop in Pittsburgh, then the Episcopal Church is going to depose him and elect another bishop of Pittsburgh in his place. The lawyers will feast on all this for years, and in the meantime there will be two people believing themselves to be the Anglican bishop of Pittsburgh (there may well be others, but we will imagine them safely medicated and locked away). That is the definition of schism. You couldn’t possibly have a clearer case of it than two bishops laying claim to one cathedral. What Ruth has written here makes no possible sense. It’s not even untrue. It’s just totally incoherent. It’s what happens when you have to follow up someone else’s story and you have nothing whatever to add to it.

One part of me rather admires the crazed dervish skills with which Ruth gives the impression that her story is newer and bigger than the one which appeared in the Telegraph four days ago; but another part wonders whether it is entirely fair on the readers. Oh well, anyone still reading the _Times_ knows what they get these days.

fn1. I know people say there are 80m. If you believe that, you must also believe there are 25m Anglicans in England — rather more than 25 times as many as go to church on any Sunday. The Nigerian church claims 18m members, and you are free to believe their figures, too.

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17 Responses to how journalism works

  1. But I still think the best bit of the *Venables* story is his use of the comments at _titusonenine_ to announce his own re-election as primate of the province.

  2. Andrew, I am confused by this. Jonathan’s story, or the one that you linked to, appeared on 12 November. Mine appeared online on 9 November, with an accompanying blog, Ruth
    (I think another story appeared in the main paper a few days later, but that quite often happens. Maybe that is the one you were thinking of?)

  3. Mrs Tilton says:

    May I just say here that all this simply underscores why the Anglican Communion is the dark horse in any competition over which brand of Christianity offers the best entertainment value. Popery and glossolalic snake-handling, look to your respective laurels — I’ll bet you don’t have a Bishop of the Southern Cone!

  4. Mrs Tilton says:

    And, oh yes: is it not somehow fitting that a troublemaker from Latin America is seeking to create two, three, many Bishops of Pittsburgh?

  5. acb says:

    Ruth, my copy of Jonathan’s story appeared on the 8th. If there is some problem with editions, I apologise. I saw your blog story on the Friday, erm 10th, and nothing in the paper till Monday the 12th when there was a shortened versio of what had been on your blog.

  6. Thanks Andrew, I do sometimes follow Jonathan up but this wasn’t one of those occasions. I certainly never saw a story he did on the 8th although actually, to give her credit, I subsequently found a story by Riazat on this that did appear on the 8th. Again, though, I wasn’t following her because I didn’t see it beforehand, but technically I think Riazat was first with the story. The online world makes it much harder to know who did what and when they did it at tims.

  7. Oh dear. I see you’ve repeated the fact that my story was four days after Jonathan’s ‘scoop’ in the Church Times. I’ve now had to send Paul a letter pointing out that in fact I was four days earlier and my story was indeed ‘newer and bigger than the one which appeared in the Telegraph’ four days after mine, to correct what you say above. I’ve looked online and can’t find Riazat’s story that I thought I saw, so I guess I was actually first with the story. No chance of mentioning that in the Church Times I suppose? No, I guess not.

  8. acb says:

    Ruth — I don’t understand the evidence for your assertions. My papers from last week have all gone to recycling. But when I check the relevant web sites, I find that Jonathan’s story starts:

    Anglican leader offers haven to US conservatives

    By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
    Last Updated: 8:49am GMT 08/11/2007

    Your story from the newspaper starts

    From The Times
    November 12, 2007
    US Anglicans are offered a safe haven in gay clergy row

    and your story from the Faith site starts

    From Times Online
    November 9, 2007
    ‘Realignment’ of Anglican Communion underway
    Ruth Gledhill Religion Correspondent of The Times

    I can’t find anything about Venables in the _Guardian’s_ news pages at all.

    I won’t be writing the press column next week, and I’m sure they will publish the letter you have written. But all the evidence I have is that Jonathan published the story first, and that readers of the Times newspaper did not see it until four days later. I’m sorry that I referred to the Faith site as a blog. But it still looks like Jonathan’s scoop.

  9. Peter Owen says:

    Jonathan Petre’s article was published on Thursday, 8 November 2007 and at Thinking Anglicans we carried an article about it that very morning: “Venables speaks to the Telegraph”: You can also see it listed in the Telegraph’s own archive for “8 November”:; it’s the seventh item in the News section.

    Unfortunately Jonathan’s article appears to have been altered in some way and it is now dated “Last Updated: 2:20am GMT 12/11/2007”. It looks as if some people are seeing this and others are seeing a cached copy of the original version.

  10. Thank you Peter that was a very helpful explanation and clears up the puzzle of what happened. I didn’t see Jonathan’s piece in the paper on the 8th. The similarity that Andrew finds in our stories is proof of that – when I follow up one of Jonathan’s many scoops I do take care to find my own material and to make sure the writing is not plagiaristic. But subs do choose obvious headlines for stories, and in this case they chose nearly identical ones. Andrew doesn’t credit me however for getting an interview with Venables, which Jonathan didn’t have. One of the problems which I accept is mine is that I no longer read the Telegraph unless links to interesting stories online are sent to me via one of the many active lists that operate in the field of religion. News International will no longer pay our expenses for newspapers other than our own. Even when it did, we still had to pay 40 pc tax which over a year of buying a daily paper adds up to a lot. So that’s why I didn’t see Jonathan’s story. Even if I had seen it, I would have followed it, though. Most Times readers don’t take the Telegraph either. And it was a good story. The reason my printed version appeared on the 12th was because I thought it hadn’t appeared anywhere else and so filed it for the paper as a sunday for monday, while doing it online for the 9th in case a Sunday paper did it.
    This is how journalism really works, far more mundane than Andrew’s wild ‘dervish’ theories would have it! But I do love Andrew’s writing, he makes me laugh out loud, even when I’m the victim. Ruth

  11. acb says:

    Well, I don’t know — staff journalists! I pay for all the papers out of my own pocket, and have only ever worked for newsdesks who expect me to have read everything in all the papers before it caught their eye.

    I’ve only just noticed your own explanation of the phrase “one of the largest” in the blog piece:

    bq. The Southern Cone province has about 40,000 members, with a large number consisting of Wichi, Toba, Mapuche, Lengua and Chorote Amerindians. It is one of the smallest provinces numerically but one of the biggest geographically, covering six countries from Tierra del Fuego to northern Peru.

    I love the way that the “Orthodox” are handing America back (at least ecclesiologically) to its first inhabitants, a project they might denounce if liberals recommended it.

  12. Craig Goodrich says:

    As to schism: Andrew, what Ruth was presumably referring to (though thanks to the miracles of cyberspace she can obviously correct me if I’m wrong) is schism within the Communion. Unless something quite radical is done about the US Domestic & Foreign Missions Society, a large chunk of the Global South will simply abandon the Communion, which would do neither their churches nor the Communion any good.

    Moreover, if the DFMS simply remains a member in good standing, it will become clear to all the Provinces that not only are duplicity and pettifoggery tolerated in communion relationships, they are actually rewarded. This aspect of the matter is seriously annoying even impeccably liberal Primates such as ++Aspinall.

    But the US church is already in schism and has been since at least GC03. And as to “gay cooties”, it is the teaching of the church that is endangered here; millstones are somewhat larger than most cooties.

  13. acb says:

    Well, I think the schism started over women priests and has been in place ever since then. Duplicity and pettifoggery are the only things that keep the “Communion” going and have been for years.

    I’ve no idea what the DFMS is or why I should care.

    In general, the idea that the Lambeth Conference should, or could, have teachings, is one I have a hard time taking seriously. I appreciate there are people who disagree with me. I can’t think of a creditable reason to do so. “Teaching” implies a relationship of authority: that there is good reason to suppose something is the case merely because the Lambeth Conference says it is. This is not an idea that I can take seriously.

  14. _I no longer read the Telegraph unless links to interesting stories online are sent to me via one of the many active lists that operate in the field of religion_

    I’m distressed to learn that Ruth does not have an RSS subscription to Thinking Anglicans… it doesn’t cost a penny!

  15. I’ve asked Paul Handley not to use my letter, or if he does to use an altered version, now I can see what has happened here. The funny thing is, Simon, I was musing on all this over the weekend – despite what Andrew thinks about my dervish tendencies I do take criticism really seriously and try to change – and I realised that one of the problems was that I don’t have an RSS feed to Thinking Anglicans or indeed any other site. Really remiss, I think. I only tend to check TA once or twice a week. But I notice today you’ve not put up my women bishops story, even though you’ve put up Andrew’s Guardian column and Jonathan’s Lambeth story. Still, I think it’s time I got my act together on RSS if only to avoid this kind of thing happening again.

  16. Kim Byham says:

    Andrew, I’m a bit hesitant to correct you since you are so accurate in your critique of Ruth Gledhill of the Times of Murdoch. However, you have confused two uses of the term “province.” There are internal and external provinces. England has two internal provinces — Canterbury and York, Canada has four, Ireland has two, Australia has five, the U.S. has nine, one of which consists of non-U.S. dioceses, and Nigeria has three. But the use of the term province as in Province of the Southern Cone, or Province of Southern Africa refers to it being one of the 38 self-governing churches of the Anglican Communion, headed by a Primate. The heads of internal provinces, though they may not always use this title, are Metropolitans.

  17. acb says:

    Kim: no — I welcome corrections. But I thought the Archbishop of York was also a primate of England. He certainly appears as such in Whittaker’s Almnanac, the nearest reference work to hand.

    I take your point about the use of “Province” to mean a self-governing entity. It is an important distinction. But it doesn’t appear from the nomenclature.

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