I am an idiot

You’d have thought, after ten years writing about religious journalism in this country, and twenty years perpetrating the stuff, that I would know better than to take any _Times_ exclusive at face value. You would be wrong. I should have checked Ruth Gledhill’s blog post about the supposed poisoning of an English missionary in Malawi before “mentioning it here.”:http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/archives/2007/04/29/even_for_the__t.html#002000

I didn’t. I didn’t get around to it until yesterday morning, when a couple of phone calls produced some interesting results.

* The three “poisons” that Ruth mentions on her blog posting were in fact prescription drugs — an anti histamine, an antibiotic, and a tranquilliser. You can’t check this directly, because the first thing she did after I rang her up and told her was to say “Oh Dear” and the second, to take the post down. It has been replaced by a copy of a letter I forwarded her giving a rather more credible explanation of these symptoms.
* Ruth had not checked the properties of the “poisons”. Neither had her source, Mark Hunter, the dead Canon’s nephew.
* Ruth rang last night, eight hours after our original conversation, to say that her co-author on the story _had_ checked, and thus knew that they were writing a story about prescription drugs but had forgotten to tell her. Readers are invited to look at the _Times_ story in the light of the fact that one of the authors knew when it was written that the “poisons” involved were an anti-histamine, an antibiotic, and a tranquilliser.
* The three priests dying in mysterious circumstances thirty years ago, put down to witchcraft, may not be true either. At any rate, I have spoken to Donald Arden, who was then the Archbishop of the province, and he has no memory of it, who might be expected to know. Before you ask; yes, his marbles are all in his possession.

Apart from those details, the story seems accurate.

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16 Responses to I am an idiot

  1. Hi Andrew, thank you for covering this story. There are many adjectives I might be tempted to use to describe you, but ‘idiot’ is not one of them. I think you are being a little hard on yourself, don’t you?

  2. Ref the Google link, after Andrew called me yesterday and sent me the Anglican Information release, which I’d not received in spite of attempts to get comments from that side, I updated that blog and posted a new one putting the release out in full.

  3. Ambridge Vicar says:

    Come on Ruth. This isn’t the first time. While it isn’t of the scale of the front pager on Anglican-RC unity the reader just gets the impression that you are working to other imperatives than veracity.

    I’ve said before that, if News International valued religion as much as it does the reporting of politics and finance, would you still be in that job?

  4. acb says:

    Evesham Vicar — I don’t want Ruth sacked at all, and I would be personally distressed (not as much as her) if that were to happen. If you work for a paper that doesn’t care very much whether stories are true or not, so long as they are interesting, it’s very hard to resist some kinds of mistake and almost all papers are like that at least about some subjects. The _Times_ seems to me to be like that about religion at the moment.

    No one would be, or stay, a news journalist without the capacity to lose their sense of proportion, or to suspend it. If you don’t think that the story on which you are working is the most important and exciting thing in the world; if you don’t — at some level — want it to be true: you won’t make the story interesting to readers either. It is one of the jobs of a well-run news desk to make allowances for this, and to grill people on whether their stories are in fact as exciting and well-founded as they seem to be. Clearly this didn’t happen with this story. That’s not entirely Ruth’s fault.

    Perhaps Ruth feels that I am behaving like a vicious traitor and betraying a long friendship. But it is one of my jobs to write about the reporting of religion, and I don’t see how I can do that job without pulling her up when she makes mistakes any more than I could do it without praising her when she gets real scoops. In this instance, the _Times_ story doesn’t seem to me a victimless crime. Nick Henderson is a good man, and by all accounts an exemplary Christian whose reputation has been dragged through the mud by an organised campaign. The Times has now run a story claiming that some of his supporters are murderers and they did so without checking the evidence. I think that’s a fucking disgrace. I don’t see how I could avoid either writing about it, or placing at a couple of points on the web where the story is being discussed this rather important set of facts.

    I appreciate that Ruth put up on her blog the counter-evidence to her story. But the real damage was done by what the paper printed. If it were to correct that, the story would be over.

    I’m not doing this to drop her in the shit with her employers. I think they are at least as guilty as she is. But as a result of the story many people believe — and most will continue to believe, whatever happens — something that is untrue and to some extent damaging to the blameless Nicholas Henderson. That’s a difference from things like the “pope to take over England” stories, which were a completely victimless crime. I don’t see how a press columnist, in possession of these facts, can just shut up.

  5. Ambridge Vicar says:

    Look, I like Ruth too. Where I’m coming from is that I’m working very hard to salvage from the ashes some worthwhile treasures from my small corner of an organisation which one generation away from grinding to a halt. It is not the job of journalists to have any sympathy for that and, when journalists expose our hypocrisy and absurdity, as you so often have done so well, you’re actually helping the refining process.

    But it seems to me that when stuff is flying around which is merely sensational, it kicks up dust that obscures everyone’s view. Consider a married couple in my parish one Anglican, one Roman Catholic, what it meant to them to learn that we were a hair’s breadth from unity, and which mug had to go see them and tell them it ain’t so.

    My problem is signal-to-noise ratio, and noise is just wasteful because of the human fallout after the headlines have passed.

  6. Well I like both Andrew and Ambridge Vicar and wouldn’t like to see either of them sacked. (One point, my husband’s name is Alan Franks, same as the real Vicar of Ambridge, but I am certainly not married to Ambridge Vicar posting above!) I appreciate Andrew’s columns, even if some of them I regard as my equivalent of ‘ASBO’s. In other words, an AFGO – Another F*****g Growth Opportunity. Feeback is always helpful. In regard to the latest CT column on this, though, Andrew writes: ‘The only thing wrong with this story is that there is no evidence that Canon Hunter was poisoned by anyone.’ In my defence, I cite the statement from a relative that the medical report had found evidence of poison. Also, two people, include his cook, were arrested and charged with murder last December. Surely that could not have happened with ‘no evidence’? And just one more thing, ref AV: there is no evidence what so ever that the CofE or the Anglican Communion is ‘one generation away from grinding to a halt’. From where I sit, quite the opposite is the case. Ref the unity report, did you actually read it? You should buy it from SPCK and give it to that cross-denominational couple you mention. They would be thrilled and interested by it, I promise.

  7. acb says:

    I’ll leave it to people more familiar with Malawi than I am to comment here — but I asked a couple of experienced Africa hands, and their view was that the police arrested lots of people without their being guilty of anything much. Malawi was described by Human Rights Watch as a dictatorship in 1990:

    bq. “Malawi is a land where silence rules. Censorship is pervasive: Orwell, Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Wole Soyinka are among hundreds of authors who have been banned. Dozens of Malawians suspected of critical views are detained without charge or have been unfairly tried. Teachers, students and civil servants from the northern part of the country are systematically discriminated against and those who protest are imprisoned. Yet, as a long-time ally of Western interests in southern Africa, Malawi has escaped criticism for its appalling human rights record. Here is a rare look into the myth of Malawi’s ethnic harmony and the government of Life- President Kamuzu Banda who embodies a combination of totalitarian control and personal despotism rarely seen in Africa.

    Since multi-party elections in 1996, things seem to have got a little better, though it took three years for the country’s Human Rights Commission to start work, and it was almost immediately hamstrung by (IMF mandated) spending cuts. A couple of years ago,. Amnesty reported that

    bq. The use of the police to harass the media is common practice in many parts of the region, including in Malawi, Namibia,
    Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Journalists across the region have been subjected to arrests, detentions, searches and
    seizures of notes and files, as police have attempted to suppress the publication of articles critical of governments.
    Journalists in Malawi have been arrested on a variety of charges, including sedition, and publishing false news likely to cause public fear or alarm.
    In July 2000 armed officers of Malawi’s Police Mobile Force threatened to shoot Pushpa Jamieson, a reporter for The Chronicle weekly newspaper, and confiscated her camera. She had been taking photographs of clashes between riot police and hundreds of people who could not be accommodated in a stadium for independence day celebrations. Even newspaper vendors in Malawi have been subject to police harassment. In May 2001 police officers led by a police public relations officer arrested vendor Austin Machewere in Lilongwe, seized copies of the Dispatch newspaper and charged him with creating public fear or alarm before releasing him on bail to await trial.

    A police force which treats journalists like that is unlikely to treat civilians any better. So far as I can see, the men arrested have just been picked up because the Cathedral Dean claims someone has been poisoned.

  8. acb says:

    Further from [“the same Amnesty report:”:http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR030042002?open&of=ENG-MWI%5D

    bq. In Malawi, according to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (Section 176), evidence can be admitted as long as it is relevant, including where there are allegations that it has not been freely and voluntarily obtained. Thus the law in Malawi seems to go beyond the admissibility of derivative evidence from unlawfully obtained confessions to the admissibility of the confession itself, if the court is satisfied that the confessions contents are materially true.

    If the law says — as this does that the police can get convictions on the basis of confessions without anyone caring quite how these were extracted, then it’s obvious that the police will “clear up” lots of alleged crimes by simply arresting someone and mistreating them until they confess. The death rate in Malawian prisons is quite startling.

  9. I’m glad everybody likes each other here so I hope I’m not going to be accused of throwing a turd into a perfectly pleasant cauldron of soup here but I am still curious about the motivation of George Conger from _The Living Church_ and Ruth Gledhill from the _Times_ in pumping this story.

    They are, it appears, the only journalists who have been riding this particular hobby horse. With a few exceptions it is their articles which are being reprinted in the African newspapers. Both journalists have been, wittingly or unwittingly, part of the negative morale machine. I can’t imagine that there is a single little man working behind curtains somewhere but there has been a concerted effort to get the right message out at all times and these little gems all have their effect.

    If you google the relevant names in this story you come up with a whole list of conservative blogs – most of them designed by pimply boys unlikely to get a shag in the next year – which have a rather large readership. Poor sad people comment on these blogs – lines like ‘well, if these liberals don’t believe their bibles what’s to stop them murdering their opponents’. Another commentator on Ruth’s story listed her story under the heading ‘The Cost of Conservatism’. Another had ‘First Schism, now Murder’. Ruth may well go ‘Oh Silly me!’ and shake her head back and forth but the effect of stories like this coming with a Times imprimatur will have a predictable effect down the line.

    *Somebody* is predicting this effect, even if it’s not Ruth. Somebody is predicting this effect while feeding Ruth the odd tidbit.

    During the whole Tanzania debacle Ruth ended up hobknobbing with the dark side – either because would always talk to her even if other channels were holding their cards close to their chests (mostly because they were busy trying to rebuild bridges that others were knocking down) She didn’t demonstrate then that she was circumspect enough to know that she was being fed agitprop and all her headlines were “it’s over” “it’s too late” ‘deadlocked’ ‘doom and gloom’. This has been the point of view put forward by every schismatic organization hoping to reorganize the American and Canadian churches (and possibly the C of E) along different lines. She became their mouthpiece. George Conger – much toadied-to by even Liberal bloggers for the odd scoop he miraculously comes up with – simply works for the dark side. He can quite openly say that his editorial policy is on the side of A and against B. Is the Times in a position to say the same thing?

  10. Ambridge Vicar says:

    > but I am certainly not married to Ambridge Vicar posting above!

    Don’t worry Ruth, next life.

  11. Hi, thank you for coming back on this rr. My motivation in writing this story? As I told my colleagues on the day it appeared, ‘it is a shame a priest has to get murdered for me to get a story in the paper.’ It is the same as my motivation in writing any story: propagating news, trying to earn a living and so on.

    As for hobnobbing with the ‘dark side’ in Tanzania, I didn’t even go out there. All my communications with people out there were necessarily brief, due to the appalling communications technology. There were equal amounts of communications between me and people on either side, as well as with people who I would describe as on neither side but simply trying to help.

    Ref Malawi, none can deny there is a story in this situation. What the story is, time will tell. All developments are of interest though. The development that sparked the latest story was the pathology report. I can promise you, if Nick Henderson ever does get enthroned in Malawi, we will give that acres of space. We might even go out there for the event. That would be a major news story.

    Ref Anglican Church, I pray each week in church that RW can hold it together somehow. Before Tanzania, I thought a split inevitable. Tanzania did not change my mind. But events more recently have made me reconsider. RR, I actually do wonder now if RW might not pull his own rabbit out of a hat and save the AC from schism. I’ve just got a feeling – and a little evidence – that it might work out somehow, but how I’ve no idea. Anyway I am hoping. Anyway RR, do keep pulling me up and taking me to task. People like me in the msm need this process in order to learn to work more effectively. Thanks for yet another AFGO!

  12. btw, Andrew, two days ago, as soon as you sent it to me, I did put up the entire Anglican Information press release on my blog and also asked to go on their mailing list. They said ‘no’ to that, but have agreed to include me in any future mailings of press interest. I hope they do, because you are right, it is only fair that their voice should be represented too.

  13. Maybe Joanna Sugden will bring a little bit of balance to the Times religion page.

  14. acb says:

    I’ve been away for a while, but coming back, I am struck by the idea that anyone can avert the Anglican schism. I don’t know how to date those things: I thought that the last Lambeth Conference was clearly in schism with itself, in that the Forward in Faith guys did not, and do not recognise their opponents as real bishops.

    But this is the weekend when Peter Akinola actually consecrates a bishop of his own in someone else’s diocese. That is the very definition of schism. For Ruth to say that Rowan “might find a way to avoid it” is like saying that the Pope might avoid the First World War — in 1916.

  15. acb says:

    I’m going to sub some of these comments so that the paragrpahs are shorter. Just saying.

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