The Independent asks why report when you can reprint PR?

The Independent asks why report when you can reprint PR? December 19, 2013

How do you respond to a smear? If you are the Independent you respond with a smear of your own, it seems.

The London-based daily has picked up a story from the web and without doing any investigation of its own, has concluded that what it reads on the internet is true. One would hope that they would know better than that. Or, might this be a British example of the Dan Rather school of journalism — a story that is so good that even though it is false,  it should be true.

The left leaning newspaper published an article this week entitled “UK evangelist says Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died'”. (Tom Daley is a British sportsman who recently announced he was bi-sexual.) Reporters are seldom responsible for the headlines placed atop their stories, but this title does set the tone for the journalistic errors that follow.

An evangelist is different from an evangelical.  The subject of this story, Andrea Minichiello Williams, is an attorney by trade — not a cleric or lay preacher — and the founder of Christian Concern, a conservative Christian evangelical advocacy group. Confusing evangelist and evangelical is a common error, but it presages the troubles that are to come.

The lede states:

The head of a British evangelical Christian lobby group has angered gay rights campaigners by urging Jamaica to keep same-sex intercourse illegal and reportedly suggesting  that Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man because his father died. To the dismay of mainstream church leaders Andrea Minichiello Williams, the founder of Christian Concern, spoke at conference in Jamaica to lobby against the repeal of the Caribbean island’s controversial law banning gay sex.

Let us unpack this. Mrs. Williams, is the head of evangelical group (not an evangelist), who “apparently” urged Jamaicans not to change their country’s sodomy laws.  Her words have led to “dismay”, not in Jamaica, but among gay activists — no surprise there — and “mainstream church leaders”, e.g., more than one and not just activists on the margins.  We need to wait and see who these “mainstream” leaders are, but cognoscenti of Anglican affairs will see an allusion here. One of the chief conservative evangelical lobbying groups is “Anglican Mainstream.” Is the Independent being clever? Are they suggesting a rift within the conservative wing of the church?

The editorial voice of this article is that it is somehow beyond the pale to oppose the reform of sodomy laws. While this may be the received wisdom in the offices of the Independent, the world does not march to that tune. From this month’s ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right to gay sex, to Judge Antonin Scalia’s dissents in Bowers v Hardwick and Lawrence v Texas, there is an intellectually respectable body of opinion that disagrees with the innovations endorsed by the Independent.

This is not to say the Independent must raise the objections to its thinking each time it goes off on this issue, but a degree of self-awareness on the part of the newspaper would prevent it from making the silly errors found in this story.

After laying out the controversy, the article then goes on to quote Mrs. Williams. But the quotes are followed by the caveat that they have been taken from BuzzFeed. They are further hedged about with phrases such as “reportedly illustrated” and “she is said to have added …”.

The Independent provides a hyperlink to the BuzzFeed story, but cites no other sources. It does include a quote from Christian Concern saying Mrs. Williams was “unavailable due to a private matter.”

The story then moves to commentary and provides a “mainstream” critic, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt. Rev. Martin Warner. Perhaps bishops count as multiple sources? What the Independent implied the bishop said is at odds, however, with the statement released by the bishop. It wrote:

Yesterday Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, where Mrs Williams was elected to the General Synod in 2011, condemned the comments.

He told the Independent that they had “no sanction in the Church of England” and that they “should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable”.

Bishop Warner did not condemn Mrs. Williams or her comments — he condemned incitement to homophobia. He said:

The comments by Andrea Minichiello Williams about the decriminalisation of same sex intercourse in Jamaica have no sanction in the Church of England or the diocese of Chichester.  Insofar as such comments incite homophobia, they should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable.

The Christian Church is widely perceived as homophobic and intolerant of those for whom same sex attraction is the foundation of their emotional lives.  It is urgent, therefore, that Christians find legitimate ways to affirm and demonstrate the conviction that the glory of God is innate in every human being, and the mercy of God embraces each of us indiscriminately.

Note the use of the word “insofar” — The Independent is shading the bishop’s words here. It has either misconstrued what was said, or cherry picked phrases  from the statement to support its editorial voice.

We see this shading of facts in the use of comments. Quotes condemning what the Independent concedes are alleged statements made by Mrs. Williams are offered, but there is no voice offered in support for retaining Jamaica’s sodomy laws. As most of the article is taken from the press release of a gay lobbying group the lack of balance is understandable — why do the hard work of reporting when someone else hands you a press release you can reprint?

Now to forestall comments from the perpetually outraged, this post is not about the rights or wrongs of Jamaican sodomy laws. It is about journalism. And as journalism this article stinks. What we have is a re-written press release passed off as original reporting. The Independent will not stand behind the quotes it says might have been said by Mrs. Williams, but is happy to reprint the comments attacking her.

And when a quote is not sufficiently rigorous for its tastes, it improves it by omitting key phrases that put the words in their context. This story is an embarrassment to the craft of journalism.

N.b., should you be of a mind to debate the issues or go deeper into this story, blogger Peter Ould has done the investigative reporting that the Independent could not be bother to do.

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8 responses to “The Independent asks why report when you can reprint PR?”

  1. Whether you want to admit it or not, the paper fell down on the job by taking what was essentially a press release and treating it like a full-fledged news report. They should have used the report as a stepping stone in order to get the full story out.

    So regardless of what side of the issue you’re on, this is legitimately bad journalism.

  2. I’m afraid this article itself demonstrates some misunderstanding of the issue at stake here, and perhaps of how the Church of England operates. The relevant point of the story was not that Mrs Williams expressed views that in the UK would be considered beyond the pale even for most conservative evangelicals (who tend to resile from the suggestion that gay people should be threatened with violence and imprisonment as they are in Jamaica). The relevant point is that Mrs Williams is a lay representative to the General Synod of the Church of England for the Diocese of Chichester – as the Independent article points out. The Bishop of Chichester’s very pointed intervention in the issue is clearly a rebuke directed towards Mrs Williams, though couched in very polite Anglican language. The press (and especially the American press) often have great difficulty in penetrating the gentle euphemisms of the Church of England, but in this case the Independent has construed Bishop Martin’s comments entirely correctly. There is much anxiety in the Church of England about homophobia in the Anglican Communion, and especially about the role of the churches in supporting laws that are oppressive to gay people in countries such as Jamaica and Uganda. For some years now the church has been insistent in opposing such laws, and the statement from Bishop Martin (no liberal activist he!) accurately reflects the embarrassment felt by many in the C of E that an elected representative should so flout the line Anglican conservatives have been attempting to tread in England. I must repeat again: American Christians may believe that there is some “intellectually respectable body of opinion” in favour of anti-sodomy laws (though only in the US could Antonin Scalia be viewed as “intellectually respectable”) but this view is not shared by the Church of England.

  3. Of course Buzzfeed may have got it wrong, but Christian Concern has had several days to put the record straight and it’s turned down an opportunity from the Independent to do so. Also, while the statements attributed to Williams are surprisingly virulent (and the Tom Daley angle is not the worst of it by far), they’re certainly the kind of thing we’d expect from her US associate in Jamaica, Peter LaBarbera,

  4. Note: attacks on individuals will result in comments being removed. There are plenty of websites out there for invective and hyperbole — this is not one of them

    • If you think characterizing Scalia in Lawrence as “intellectually respectable” isn’t hyperbole, I’ll have what you’re having!

  5. Please keep comments to the journalistic issues under discussion. I’ve had to spike three comments from one individual who engaged personal attacks. As I have said above, there are plenty of places on the internet where the loons can gather and honk. This site is not one of them. Agree, disagree, add your take — but do it in a reasoned manner.

  6. Just a moment. The Independent article did not focus on comments “about” Mrs Williams. It focused on comments allegedly made BY Mrs Williams. And the question remains: did she make them or not? The implication of the article above is that she did not – that the Independent report was mendacious, a tissue of lies about an innocent woman who never said anything akin to the remarks which the Independent attributed to her. First of all, we are told above that the Independent article was a “smear”: the implication is that it was dreamt up with the prime aim of harming Mrs Williams. (No attention is given to the notion that IF Mrs Williams really did talk to a Jamaican audience about Tom Daley’s sexual orientation and its causes, maybe she herself was talking in a less than complimentary or Christian way about an absent third person.) Secondly, we are told above as well that the Independent article was characteristic of a style of journalism which seeks to present “false” claims as truth – evidently this is called the “Dan Rather” approach: this complaint likewise advances the argument that the Independent article made (“reprinted”, to be exact) claims about Mrs Williams which were “false”. And finally, we are told that the whole issue under discussion here is about “journalism”, namely journalism which “stinks”.

    I agree. It’s all about journalism. And all of the complaints above about this journalism which “stinks” create the impression that Mrs Williams never said these things – it was all a fabrication (whose? buzzfeed’s?) which the Independent merely reprinted in a bid to harm (“smear”) Andrea Williams. And so, the question obviously has to be posed yet again – and again: did Mrs Williams tell people in Jamaica that Tom Daley – a person who has done her no harm, an athlete who won a medal at the Olympics for his country – is gay (or bisexual) because his father died? And why is this point so consistently evaded? It is the central matter at issue here – the truth. Mrs Williams herself and her supporters are tireless in announcing what they see as the Christian truth. They should be just as tireless in this case: they must either confirm the truth of what she is asserted to have said – or expose and refute a fabrication. So which is it? Gospel truth in Jamaica? Or anti-Christian falsification? After all, all the complaints above about “smear”, “false”, “Dan Rather”, “journalism”, “press released passed off as original reporting”, etc all revolve around this very simple issue – which nonetheless remains elusive and unclarified: the truth. Did Mrs Williams say these things or not?

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