As I write this I’m feeling pretty fired up having just returned from the first conference (hopefully of many) by the MediaNet.org – an initiative for Christians involved in the Fourth Estate in whatever capacity. I admit I felt a little bit out of my depth initially as I just don’t view myself as very ‘industry’ in that sense. Still, it was an amazing opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals of all ages and backgrounds and talk shop from a spiritual, philosophical as well as practical perspective.
The day officially opened with an address from Andrew Graystone, the director of the Church and Media Network and former BBC TV producer. He mentioned how the latest underground ad campaign for a brand new show on the Comedy Central channel quips ‘...Maybe it’s not going to change your life but the life-changing stuff isn’t really what we do here. You’ve got the God Channel for that’. Great minds think alike, I mused. I was only recently reflecting on what great free publicity that is for that particular Christian network (which I must confess I don’t watch). It’s a step in the right direction. He used the advert as a platform to launch the overall theme of the conference; God’s place in the media. He gave very personal accounts of the compromises and tough decisions he had to make in his first job in TV as an editor for the BBC programme ‘The Big Questions’. It was whilst filming one episode of the series that former England football manager Glenn Hoddle revealed some of his politically incorrect views about reincarnation. He asked Graystone to edit them out of the show when it dawned on him that they might not be suitable for public consumption. Nevertheless Andrew felt he had a duty to present the truth as he saw it and he broadcast the footage anyway. This precipitated a chain of events that eventually led to then Prime Minister Tony Blair indirectly calling for Hoddle to be sacked from his job as England manager.
Graystone is a confident, engaging speaker, peppering his talk with well-pitched pop culture witticisms. He had a unique, non-allegorical take on the parable of the talents in the Gospel according to St Matthew Chapter 25. He claimed we should see ourselves as the talents themselves, being dispersed by God and circulated to bring about a positive change. He also encouraged us to look at how the story celebrates creativity and risk-taking in the right measure. I’m not sure if I entirely agreed with the notion that the parable has no allegorical merit at all but it was food for thought.
‘Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be only one of two kinds of human beings; either a liberal or a conservative’ – Kurt Vonnegut.
Next, attendees were told to split up and join ‘Strand groups’-individual sessions covering the various challenges of working in the media. For the morning session, I went to sitcom writer James Cary
’s ‘The Ethics of Constructed Reality: or Why TV Keeps Lying’. My interest in this specific talk was piqued after having watched a few episodes of TV critic Charlie Brooker’s fascinating ‘How TV Ruined Your Life
’ series. I suspected a discussion on the manipulative tendencies of television wouldn’t be complete without some input by Mr Brooker and lo and behold I was right; James used some clips from CB’s ‘Screenwipe’ series to illustrate some salient points about how crafty editing choices can change the narrative of even the smallest bit of TV footage. Charlie surfaced again when his clip on the Maddie McCann
abduction was used to highlight the meritless, voyeuristic style of certain ‘news’ reports. Cary very aptly described Brooker as a ‘prophet without hope’; extremely percipient regarding the issues that ail contemporary society but unable to offer any real solutions. It’s hard not to have a good deal of respect for the UK’s most recognisable misanthrope since Victor Meldrew. Anyone who cares enough, as Brooker clearly does, to get angry at the mendacity that taints modern society can’t be all bad.
Building on Brooker’s observations, overall Cary’s session was a critique on the measures modern television programme makers take to satisfy their audience’s obsession with being visually stimulated. Even during uneventful news reports tenuously-linked footage is often inserted to accompany the more prosaic truth. This in turn raises a question of the chicken-and-egg variety; is TV responsible for the audience’s insatiable desire for visual stimuli or are they merely pandering to a primordial need? The ‘Strand group’ was brought to a close with some very appetising exchange of ideas amongst the attendees. Once again we discussed the ethics of Andrew Graystone’s decision to include Glenn Hoddle’s controversial statements in ‘The Big Questions’ and most agreed that he did the right thing (I wasn’t so sure, I must say). One Lindsay Pollard explained her very admirable reasons for abandoning work in television altogether. On two occasions she walked out on assignments that forced her to go against her Christian principles. In one instance she was asked to hire a lap dancer to entice a married man who happened to be featuring in a show ostensibly aimed at helping couples on the brink of divorce resolve their issues. Suffice to say Ms Pollard promptly refused. Her account was met with a round of applause. The discussion then went off on a tangent, albeit an interesting one, as to whether high profile personalities confect a version of themselves that responds to what the media want to hear and see.
We all gathered again in the main hall for an interview and Q&A with BBC entertainment correspondent Colin Paterson chaired by the very same James Cary. Amidst riveting and amusing anecdotes about his role in the Jay-Z vs. Noel Gallagher Glastonbury saga and asking Michael Jackson what he claimed was the worst question of his career not long after MJ’s acquittal from paedophilia charges (‘So, is it nice to be out and about these days Michael?’), the highly affable Paterson gave some very candid responses to the more thought-provoking questions. He confided that he doesn’t always feel he’s as explicit about his faith as he could be with colleagues and interview subjects but also highlighted the challenges of being more forthright about it. When asked what he would say to anyone who thinks that being an entertainment journalist is irreconcilable with Christianity, Colin re-iterated the importance of being involved in all walks of life (there being some obvious exceptions).
After a surprisingly hearty lunch of deli sandwiches and Mr Kipling cakes Cole Moreton kicked off the afternoon sessions with a lecture on how Christians in the media could engage an England that is increasingly reported to be disaffected by the Church. Moreton made some cogent points about what our priorities should be and making more of an effort to show the unadulterated love of Christ. Yet his talk felt like it left something off at the end; like a joke missing a punch line. He seemed keen for us to show people what good citizens we could be but not all that concerned if we openly attribute it to the power of Christ working within us. There were some other ambiguities about his session that were discussed in part at the next Strand group I attended about making the redemption aspect of the Gospel more accessible. The angle taken by session leader Andrew Baughen was more generic as oppose to one specifically tailored to Christians in the media. He pointed out there was more to an eternity with God than images of fluffy clouds and harps. Such perceptions are hardly likely to instil a sense of infinite possibilities and purpose in the individual so they need to be re-examined.
As the day drew to a close there was a panel discussion on ambition, struggle and compromise as a Christian journalist (in which the Glenn Hoddle incident was raised again). The final address was by cheerfully mellow scouser David Landrum. For many of us this was the stand out moment of the conference. Landrum has a very humble yet authoritative manner. He expounded on the life of one of my favourite biblical personalities, Daniel bringing into context what it would have been like for a young Jewish man born into a culture so alien from his own, that of the Babylonians. Yet Daniel thrived thanks to his good attitude; his willingness to study and engage with the society in which he worked; his perseverance and refusal to compromise, even when faced with imminent death. David reminded us that this situation is not so far removed from our contemporary society as might at first appear. Babylon could represent any unjust or corrupt system. Landrum also called on us not to forget the importance of prayer and the supernatural; after all, this was how Daniel could achieve and sustain the dizzying heights of being made prime minister of Babylon whilst remaining true to what he believed. This was a devout Jew in a violently pagan environment who found favour with despotic kings even after his faith came in conflict with their draconian decrees. What’s more, Daniel received the ultimate affirmation; he was considered a most highly esteemed man by God Himself. This excellence was at the core of Daniel’s peerless reputation. David believes that in an age when so many are motivated solely by obtaining widespread acclaim this has had a deleterious effect on the quality of journalism as a result. He emphasised that Christian journalists can set themselves apart by striving to be excellent for its own sake.
David’s stirring address brought the conference to an end. Still, none of us were in a rush to go home. We mingled, swapped details; some even went on to get some food at the nearest Pizza Express. We hoped we would meet again soon under similarly auspicious circumstances.
Special thanks go to Liz Hunter who worked tirelessly behind the scenes and on the day itself to facilitate a great event.