Journalism, Opinion

Journalism and Truth: A Christian view on the SPAC Nation scandal

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Corruption coupled with clandestine endeavours, all too often enacted by cash-hungry con-artists within the worldwide Church, is hardly breaking news for anyone who is at least vaguely acquainted with modern religious scandals. Even a cursory glance at biblical literature, and the gospel stories in particular, ought to remind us that the human condition has been devastatingly prone to temptation since time immemorial. Take the infamous villain, Judas Iscariot, who shows us his true colours by betraying Jesus of Nazareth with a kiss, for a paltry bag filled with thirty pieces of blood money.

Although the author of Matthew’s gospel paints a mysterious picture suggesting that these events constitute a prophecy fulfilled, one wonders how often history must repeat itself before people begin to take heed (See Matt 26:47-50; 27:3-10). Amongst the many morals such a narrative may evoke, the tragic reality that even those who appear and/or claim to be close to Jesus are not automatically trustworthy is perhaps one of the most uncomfortably obvious options.[1]

Fast forward approximately two millennia, and sadly the love of money all too often remains a prime candidate for being the root of all evil. Imagine my surprise days after taking the plunge back into the Twitter-verse, following more than a year in a self-imposed digital wilderness, only to discover this shocking exposé on SPAC Nation by the Huffington Post’s Nadine White and Emma Youle. Extraordinarily disturbing allegations of flourishing fraudsters, safeguarding failures, rogue pastors, a culture of control, coercion, abuse, and lies form the jaw-dropping litany of charges levelled against this increasingly high profile religious organisation.

The plot thickened considerably once it emerged that the metropolitan police, serious fraud office, and the charity commission had each instigated separate investigations into the group, to determine whether or not criminal charges/sanctions need to be brought against them. Whilst the Met recently decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the church, and the the veracity of the above allegations have yet to be established, the fact that such claims existed at all is profoundly troubling, to say the least. What has been going on at SPAC Nation?

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the mounting evidence of so many smoke signals means that fires must be ablaze within their midst. However, from a biblical perspective, the truth is that there are always at least two sides to a story (Prov 18:17). Christians of all persuasions should therefore carefully and soberly consider how they approach a scandal such as this one.

PR & Political deadlines?

For what it’s worth, my thoughts and prayers have been with the many alleged victims detailed in the Huffington Post investigation, and any other shell-shocked, fragile followers of this influential group, who have already been affected by the recent media coverage. Who should SPAC Nation’s rattled congregation trust? The media? Disillusioned former leaders/members? Persuasive preachers behind the pulpit? As an increasingly vivid, yet complex and difficult to discern picture of what has been going on at SPAC Nation begins to emerge, public commentators would do well to resist the urge to assume anything.

At present, official responses from the church have sought to control the narrative, denied the credibility of the alleged victims, and refused to engage directly with what they describe as “hastily put together” media coverage. The organisation promises to purge the congregation of pernicious pastors, cooperate with “meaningful investigations” in order to reassure concerned onlookers, and yet casually dismisses the harrowing claims made by numerous alleged victims in the Huffington Post articles. Surely this behaviour ought to strike Christians as an unusual response for a church? Is everyone involved in the story so far, apart from the “management board” at SPAC Nation, a liar and/or acting maliciously against the church, driven by nefarious political motives? SPAC Nation’s “management board” say that it is actually they who are the victims of a politically motivated “smear campaign”:

Does this religious group not wish to express any concern for, or solidarity with, the alleged victims of fraudsters within their midst? Although the organisation expresses a strong desire to curb wrongdoing and hold bad actors accountable for their actions, are the general public supposed to disregard all of the evidence gathered by the Huffington Post thus far as baseless fake news? Purely because this faceless “management board” say so? I find it hard to understand why a more sensitive public response would not be forthcoming from a church under these circumstances. None of this necessarily points the finger of blame at the church, but as PR strategies go this one leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion.

Journalism & the Shepherd’s voice

Speaking up for voiceless victims whilst listening to the voice of the good Shepherd, and learning how to navigate an increasingly complex, fractured digital realm, is how I would hope to do 21st century investigative journalism. From my point of view as a Christian, seeking the truth and following the one who claims to be the truth, and who also promises that all those who “belong” to the truth, hear and listen to his voice, are not mutually exclusive ways of living (See John 10:27; 14:6; 18:37). Nadine White and Emma Youle have sought to ascertain the truth of a complex matter by investigating the SPAC Nation scandal, and giving the alleged victims a chance to share their stories. I have nothing but admiration for their tenacity, boldness, and willingness to ask difficult questions about the church despite its influential public profile.

Whatever the reality of the situation at SPAC Nation turns out to be, subjecting religious organisations to robust scrutiny in the wake of troubling allegations should never be off limits, especially for investigative journalists. A free press should not fear holding powerful figures and organisations to account, especially those who lay claim to divine authority. [2] As I have been considering investigative journalism as a vocation, I have been dreaming of an idealistic kind of transformative practice which is loosely defined as the pursuit of truth, justice, and the gospel imperative to counteract evil and stand alongside oppressed, marginalised members of society…[thereby providing] a means of speaking truth to power, empowering the poor, freeing those held captive (literally and metaphorically), and bringing light into dark places. Great investigative journalists are already doing a lot of these things, and I would like to join them.

I would, therefore, urge all believers to view high quality investigative journalism, irrespective of whether or not the journalists, or the subject(s) of their reports, happen to be Christians, as one of the ways that God may be at work in the world. Great investigative journalists may not consider themselves Christians, but by chasing truth and standing up to injustice they may discover that they are much closer to the way of Jesus than they realise. The global Church does not have a monopoly on truth and justice, and falling into the zeitgeist of rabidly distrusting the media may (ironically) be more in tune with the spirit of the age than the Spirit of truth. Time will tell what exactly the truth of any matter is, even if it is a long time coming; as Jesus promised his followers:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known…” (Luke 12:2-3, NRSV).

Until then, when confronted with a scandal such as this one at SPAC Nation, we can only wait, watch, hope, and pray for the best possible outcome one way or another. After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

M

End Notes

1. Albeit based on a remarkably naive, anachronistic reading of the gospels; it seems at best highly speculative to suggest that the original authors of Scripture intended Judas’ character to be read this way. In my defence, this post is not intended to be a piece of robust theology or scholarship.

2. Ironically, it was another kind of religious corruption that first drove me away from Catholicism and the Church in general. I still remember the devastatingly familiar trope of the paedophile priest from our local Roman Catholic Church, who was arrested and jailed for committing heinous acts against children who attended my school. Although thankfully I was not directly affected, it did set me on a path away from organised religion for over a decade. It also remains a reminder that, unfortunately, it is wise to adopt an innate scepticism towards authority figures, particularly religious ones who lay claim to divine authority.

Thoughts

Investigating Gothenburg

Staring at a blank canvas can be an unnerving experience. Like muted white noise emanating forth from a carte blanche opportunity, seemingly devoid of an immediately obvious pathway or purpose, fresh starts often feel simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Yet this unexpected invitation of a fleeting glimpse of adventure, security, and comfort, leaked through the cracks of an otherwise formidably opaque vista of incertitude and strangeness as I landed in Gothenburg this week. Such were the sensations I felt as I set foot in a land that feels replete with mystique and allure, doubtless stimulated by my growing fascination with modern Scandinavian society, and old Norse legends. My initial impressions of Sweden made me feel as though I had suddenly been transported into my own private Scandi-noir drama. Subtle shades of grey harmonised the imposing skyline with a groundswell of withered, crimson leaves, and eclectic industrial architecture merging seamlessly with vintage buildings reminiscent of a dystopian detective novel. Facets of Gothenburg felt oddly familiar despite their inherent otherness. Foreign yet familiar.

Lost yet found

I embarked on this trip for the sole purpose of sampling the Master’s course in investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg. With no idea what to expect, I booked myself haphazardly into a hostel that transpired to be within walking distance of the university journalism department. My dastardly plan was unfolding with gusto until I managed to take my first misstep in investigating my whereabouts. After a pointless tram trip across the city and back, I finally realised that the building I needed to be in was, in fact, not the main university building. It turns out that a modern over-reliance on Google Maps is doomed to dampen the much coveted journalistic ability to follow one’s nose.

Far from picking up the scent, I ended up chasing my tail and basking in the fetid aroma of momentary confusion. Imagine the potential memoirs in years to come, as the legendary Anglo-Irish/Peruvian investigator recounts taking his first tentative steps on a thrilling new journey, by wandering aimlessly like a bewildered buffoon around the tram stop nearest to his final destination. Instead of “rat-like cunning” (ala Nick Tomlin), this aspiring journalist exhibited an almost farcical, comedic ignorance as to where he was actually supposed to be going, a good hour before discerning the truth of the matter. In hindsight, at least I now have a broader perspective on what it means to “stumble” into a new career, as my latest mentor put it when describing his own humble beginnings.

A wise man once told me that there are no such things as “failures”, just new learning opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this is a perennial lesson I keep having to relearn. Much like I gradually came to understand when completing my first Master’s degree in Theology, serious, rigorous research of any kind must at least attempt to leave no stone unturned when navigating around a topic. Perhaps library research skills can translate into real life after all. New learning opportunity digested: figure out where on earth you are actually supposed to be going before starting out on an assignment. Moreover, put the wretched smartphone aside when staggering around the streets in a dazed state of befuddlement, whilst struggling to form new neural pathways to adapt quickly and safely to the fact that everyone in Sweden drives on the right (or wrong) side of the road. Point taken, I hope.

Breaking in on the News

I eventually sauntered hamfistedly (read: kindly escorted, despite my tardiness, by the puzzled looking course administrator) into the all day journalism seminar to which I had been graciously invited by the course leader, a distinguished British journalist called David Crouch. The university department was relatively modern, well equipped, and resonated with both industrial minimalism and architectural nostalgia in its overarching design. As I entered the fray, group upon group of highly engaged students were presenting on what I presume must have been an assignment to critically evaluate new forms of investigative journalism, with a particular focus on business models. A substantial proportion of this year’s course intake had prior experience of modern journalism, which added to the credibility of the Master’s degree in my naive, yet rapidly widening eyes. Once I had smeared some of the exploding ink from my shocked fingers, as my fountain pen reminded me that it has serious issues with flying, I scribbled notes as fast as my handwriting would allow me to. Note to self: learn shorthand, fast. Dated it may be, but it remains faster than alternative methods for the informed communication connoisseur.

All in all, I watched nine contrasting talks led by teams of two to three speakers a piece. Pros and cons of each startup were discussed and critiqued, numbers crunched, gaps filled, and cross border journalism featured heavily in several presentations. The atmosphere was relaxed yet serious, as significant amounts of information, and attempts to answer searching questions, were delivered with a marked tone of professionalism and zeal. One student even presented remotely (in a manner of speaking) by pre-recording her power point presentation as a YouTube video, with accompanying audio. Apparently she’s already published a book, so at least the bar hasn’t been set agonisingly high (!?).

I was treated to a dizzying array of stories touching on a variety of issues involving undercover prison guards, niche “Long Play” journalism chiming in with monthly 50000 character articles for highly educated Finnish “elites”, collaborative European journalism funded by controversial donors such as the Open Society (founded by George Soros), an Italian team squaring up to the mafia, local journalism from Gothenburg uncovering toxic spiritual abuse which ostensibly contributed to a spate of child suicides in a purportedly cult-like religious school, awkward questions around how impartial Chinese investigative journalists can be in the face of state sponsored oppression and censorship, and plenty more besides.

A taste of the future?

For a fledgling pre-trainee journalist like me, imbibing a thimble of the heady complexity which characterises the modern investigative journalism sector proved to be an intoxicating cocktail of diverse angles on the same emerging story. Enlightening, eye-opening insights showed how the industry is adapting to overcome a relative paucity of funding in the post-social media digital era. Reassuring flashes of a glimmer of hope that journalism remains a viable career path ricocheted across my field of vision. Whilst considerable challenges and risks remain, there is clearly a market for independent, investigative journalism which could, potentially, become sustainable. Whether such new journalism (investigative journalism 2.0?) survives remains to be seen. If it does, it will surely require sustained engagement with an incessant shape-shifting process in order to cope with the onslaught of sociopolitical and technological flux, shimmering apparitions in the form of latest zeitgeist, forced and/or self-imposed reinvention, market forces, and the prophesied singularity of A.I, to name but a few salient factors. Idealism notwithstanding, reports of the death of investigative journalism are apparently greatly exaggerated, at least for the time being.

An entrepreneurial spirit coupled with boldness, an acute awareness of the ethical dimension robust investigative journalism provides to buttress its role within the 4th/5th estate, and a willingness to experiment shone through as prerequisites for anyone wanting to plunge themselves headfirst into this compelling critical industry. I found myself relishing a brief foretaste of not just what life as a journalism student on the MIJ course at Gothenburg might look like, but what it might feel like to actually work as an investigative journalist in the modern world. My palate remains piqued with more than a soupçon of intrigued fascination, especially by the revelation that long form, slow-news journalism has a place in this new digital sphere. What is more, people can be persuaded to pay for it, which drives a coach and horses through the notion that #TLDR advocates rule the roost in a world suffering from increasingly decreased attention spans.

Singing before supper

A highlight of my trip was the opportunity to pick the course leader, David Crouch’s brains (albeit briefly), and hear a little about his life and work thus far as a journalist. Alongside extraordinary mental images of his time writing news stories in the former Soviet Union, his penetrating insights and questions were perhaps best summed up by a sudden chorus of a cappella singing, which erupted forth on the table next to us as we ate lunch together. It is fair to say that this left both of us staring at the songsters with gleeful puzzlement. I interpreted the event as being at least partially prophetic, in the sense that you never know where an adventure might take you. Taking risks might just lead to unexpected melodies that catch you off guard by their sheer spontaneous beauty. If life as a journalist could look anything like the picture such an occurrence might tempt one to paint, surely it is worth pursuing?

My closing conversations with David, and a subsequent cadre of eager and inspiring students, certainly pushed me closer to wanting to seriously consider taking the leap of faith such an endeavour would undoubtedly require. This is particularly true for me since moving to Sweden to become an investigative journalist would have to be a family affair driven by faith and grit; one which works for both me and my loved ones, some of whom remain very small indeed. Counting the cost, further research, and considering an application will be the next step in the process.

Parting gestures

I have never explored a new city overseas on my own, which makes this short Swedish sojourn all the more extraordinary. After wandering around the historic Haga district, taking innumerable pictures of the locality, and posing for more than one pretentious selfie along the way, I ended my trip with a fascinating two hour conversation. Being of a robustly religious persuasion (though not in a ritualistic manner per se), it felt fitting to attempt to coordinate a meeting with a local church leader who might be willing to give me some idea of how people of faith coexist alongside the general populace within an infamously secular culture.

God willing, I was blessed with just such an opportunity, and enjoyed another fabulously fishy and fascinating lunch with a friendly Swede called Fredrik. I left encouraged that despite the ubiquitous challenges of blending life and faith in the 21st century post-Christian West, authentic spirituality need not be deterred from thriving in what might otherwise seem like as chilly a cultural environment as any typical Nordic Winter. The Spirit, as some say, continues to hover over the waters of Gothenburg, and fishermen like myself willing to take the risk of casting their nets overboard may yet discover that such simple acts of faith can yield all manner of pleasant surprises.

Make of that what you will. Until such time as I may, or may not find myself setting sail with family in tow towards the imposing shores of Scandinavia again, all I have left to say is Tack så mycket (thanks so much, in Swedish).

Miguel Roca