Journalism, Opinion

Have journalists misread a moody public? A Faithful & Factful perspective on the question of trust.

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“Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.” – Hans Rosling (2018), Factfulness, London: Sceptre, pg 165.

One of the most enduring memories I have of starting to study theology as a mature student was how quickly I had to come to terms with my own breathtaking levels of wilful ignorance. My entire Christian journey as an adult has been characterised by a series of successive and gradual realisations that my worldview is fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Just like yours, and more or less everyone else’s. Relax, we’re in good company.

Reading Christian Scripture usually impacts my sense of place, purpose, and calling in this world in relation to God and humanity. Having recently finished Hans Rosling’s masterfully written book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, I am not ashamed to say that every chapter had a strikingly similar effect to my experience of digesting biblical literature. They both breathe fresh life into my curious mind, albeit in different ways.

Although I didn’t read Factfulness in the bathtub, I had plenty of eureka moments as I plunged more deeply into a Factful way of thinking. Little lightbulbs kept popping into my head as I began to ponder the enormous potential of Rosling’s fact-based conceptual framework; this is especially the case when I consider how useful it is with respect to the process of forming and shaping my nascent data journalism skills. As Hans puts it:

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.” – Rosling (2018), Factfulness, 192.

As I wrote in my previous post, the Devil in the Data, rooting out vital public interest stories hidden in the numbers, whilst avoiding an overly dehumanising approach to statistic-led journalism, is precisely what I hope to learn how to do in my PGCert in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. Time will tell if the pandemic will have tapered off enough by September 2020 for me to commence my studies in person.

Facing an uncertain future in the time of Corona has not dampened my newfound desire to pursue journalism as a vocation, although it has chastened it. To survive this pandemic and progress into a new career in investigative data journalism, I will have to attempt to remain steadfast and patient. Such is the order of the day for so many of us across the globe during lockdown.

Thankfully, alongside Factfulness as a preliminary guide to getting to grips with data, as a Christian I need not rely upon the numbers alone. Nor do I have to feel unduly pressured to make perfect sense of them. This is in no small part because I frequently read and believe the multiple reassurances in the scriptures about divine faithfulness, which remains my immovable anchor amidst all the storms life tends to hurl at us; including Coronavirus.

As mysterious and overly simplistic as it may sound, believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whose essence and character are variously described as love, light, truth, and goodness combined with absolute trustworthiness, gives me a great sense of comfort and peace. This is especially important and helpful during a time such as this ongoing pandemic, replete as it is with so much sadness, suffering, anxiety, and uncertainty. Powerless though I am to change the course of history, I do my imperfect best to cling to the kernel of beautifully naive, childlike faith which I have been granted to trust that if my vocation in this brief life is to pursue data journalism, I can rely on divine faithfulness to enable me to succeed. Even in the time of Corona.

A Moody Public?

Yet on the subject of trust, according to some vocal critics of my desired profession, it appears that substantial numbers of people across the UK do not see journalism through the same rose-tinted spectacles I have found myself donning over the past twelve months. A recent, already infamous poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sky News, claimed that trust in newspaper and TV journalists has plummeted over the past month, despite a similar poll in March showing that some forms of journalism (i.e. The BBC and broadsheet publications) were enjoying an uptick in public trust since the 2019 General Election. Within barely a month, the national mood appears to have changed dramatically. So much so, that one tweet captured the alleged zeitgeist as follows:

For clarity, according to the Sky News YouGov poll, trust in journalists has fallen into “net minus” figures: Approximately 72% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of newspaper journalists, versus 17% who expressed varying levels of trust. Whereas 64% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of TV journalists versus 24% who expressed trust. Or, put another way:

Source: YouGov

In either case: the final methodology given in the Sky News article was to subtract the distrust from the trust, which was then described as a “net minus” score. E.g. 17-71 = -56 (in the original article it was -55) and 24-64 = -40. Despite my paucity of knowledge or experience with respect to how statistics are typically expressed, I did feel puzzled by this way of putting it. Nevertheless, hold onto those two minus figures. They’ll be important shortly…

Rapid Rebuttals

Since the original Sky News article, accompanied by a seemingly synchronistic flurry of self-appointed social media spokespeople who were suddenly keen to speak on behalf and express the “mood” of an entire nation, more than a few journalists found storms brewing in their teacups instead of the usual Yorkshire nectar. [1] Masterful responses to both unofficial spokespeople and Sky News were forthcoming from a range of commentators. Data journalism guru Paul Bradshaw pointed out the obvious for anyone who has become acquainted with Factfulness:

“News — aside from the odd human interest story or “and finally” piece — has never been the place to go for hope, optimism, faith, or positivity.

News is also an industry that focuses on facts. And most of the facts right now are not very nice facts.” – Paul Bradshaw (2020), Is the press missing the mood of the country over coronavirus?, Birmingham, UK: Medium.

Data-driven journalism underpinned by Factfulness is not designed to be akin to entertainment. Au contraire, it finds its raison d’etre in confronting and provoking those who might otherwise ignore, suppress, or simply be oblivious to the facts of any given matter. The kind of journalism I hope to learn to do is, at its idealistic best, compelled by an unflinching resolve to seek, find, verify, and tell (or often expose) the truth even if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient for the national mood. Holding governments and businesses to account is an extraordinarily important contribution to any nation’s efforts to survive a crisis like Coronavirus. Democracy crumbles when the 4th estate is reduced to a PR exercise to tow the party line.

Playing with Numbers

Other writers weighed in quickly with various nuanced critiques of the Sky News poll. Charlie Beckett, writing for the London School of Economics, pointed out various issues with the vague nature of how the YouGov pollsters surveyed the nebulous notion of “trust”, and cautioned against missing the broader context of what he otherwise described as a “perfectly reputable” poll. Richard Fletcher, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford university, offered a superbly intricate study into the mix of the wider debate around public trust in journalists and news media.

However the most scathing rebuttal of those clamouring to suggest that trust in the press has plummeted dramatically over the past 30 days was summed up by Will Jennings’ response on yougov.co.uk. Analysing trends in the data around this very question of trust in the media more closely over the past few months, he simply expressed the truth of the matter like so:

“There simply has been no collapse in public trust in news media during the coronavirus outbreak.” – Will Jennings (2020), No, trust in the media has not collapsed because of Coronavirus, yougov.co.uk.

This brings us back to those “net minus” figures from the original Sky News article. Whilst they were actually only presented, quite rightly, as part of a bigger and much more complex statistical picture, even I wondered what was going on in the polling numbers. So out of morbid curiousity, I had a quick glance through the wider dataset and compared some of the other data which sprang out at me with the original “trust” data in the same poll. To my amazement, here’s what I found when I mapped the numbers which sought to gauge the public “mood” with respect to respondents’ perceived levels of increased sadness and anxiety, over their “trust” in newspaper and TV journalists:

Source: YouGov

Did trust in news media figures plummet in tandem with increased public sadness and anxiety brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown? Common sense might dictate that this is eminently plausible. Perhaps journalists really are “missing the mood” of the nation because people are more depressed and anxious than usual during lockdown. If journalists are frequently the bearers of more bad news as the Coronavirus death toll soars, this is surely understandable. The comparison can appear even more fascinating when combined with previous YouGov polls on the question of trust. For example:

Source: YouGov

As others have already explained far more artfully and accurately than I can at present, the broader trend of public trust in different forms of journalism is actually far more nuanced and stable than some self-appointed spokespeople appear to believe. Especially when you compare levels of trust in a variety of newspapers (broadsheets / mid-market / tabloids) over the past 6-7 months. For example (again numbers = % of respondents who expressed some level of trust):

Notice the relative stability of public trust levels throughout October to March. Also the similar ratio of trust between the vaguer categories of “newspapers” and “TV” journalism. Does this point to the seductively obvious picture of a spike in sadness and anxiety during the Coronavirus lockdown being a causative factor in the alleged drop in the public’s trust in news media? What if you plunge further down this rabbit hole and work with another metric, like averages?

For instance, by adding increased levels of anxiety and sadness together and finding the average you would get a figure of (45+49) / 2 = 47. Let’s call this arbitrary figure “negative lockdown mood” or NLM. How does NLM compare to an average of the “net minus” figures we mentioned earlier? (See above) According the Sky News YouGov poll, public trust ended up at -55 (trust in newspapers) & -40 (trust in TV journalists). Add those figures together and find the average and you get (-55+ (-40)) / 2 = –47.5. Notice the potential implications? Eureka! The Sky News Poll shows us that there is a direct correlation between increased levels of public sadness and anxiety and decreased levels of trust in news media, which explains everything, right?

In a word: No. At best, I have stumbled across an interesting pattern in the Sky News data, and manipulated the figures to support an assertion, which is almost certainly of no statistical significance whatsoever (of course, if it is, you read it here first). Hans Rosling would likely be horrified at my presentation of the above data if I was trying to use it in a serious fashion to sway public opinion, or inform any kind of government policymaker. Correlation ≠ causation and confirmation bias frequently runs rampant through the human mind in our search for meaning. Randomness is real, and poll data are very often clumsy numbers to work with. Especially when pollsters conflate diverse categories like broadsheets / tabloids / TV journalism / the BBC etc (or when friends on social media fall into a straw man fallacy by castigating impossibly broad categories like “the media / press”: Who exactly? Which ones?!).

If you felt a hint of persuasion in my argument above, consider that experience carefully before you feel tempted to jump on the next bandwagon careening its way through your social media feed. So much for journalists misreading the public mood. It turns out that a decline in public mood may (or may not) have influenced their level of trust in the media. Yet if you believe that and/or the spokespeople asserting the latter, it might be worth pausing to reconsider whether you (or they) are actually in full possession of the facts.

A faithfully Factful approach can work wonders here. As can a dose of humility in admitting that claiming to speak on behalf of > 60000000 people, or casting judgment on all forms of journalism by denigrating hopelessly imprecise categories like “the press/media”, is a foolish (and potentially dangerous) business. Remember the opening quote in this article by Hans Rosling: Categories can be misleading. If in doubt, better to keep quiet. As one writer in the Hebrew Bible puts it:

“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” ‬‬

Proverbs‬ ‭17:28‬ ‭NRSV

End Notes

Miguel Roca

1. For the uninitiated, I am of course referring to the legendary British brew known as Yorkshire Tea. Peerless amongst black tea brands in the UK.

Opinion, Thoughts

The Devil in the Data

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“What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it.” – Hans Rosling.

New beginnings await. I have been offered a place on a PGCert in data journalism at Birmingham City University starting this September. Since beginning to explore the possibility of pursuing journalism as a vocation for almost a year, two doors recently popped wide open for me to begin studying the subject part-time. After giving it some careful, prayerful thought, I believe that the time has come to walk through one of these portals and embrace the monumental change it represents.

I have opted to study with Paul Bradshaw on the data journalism program at BCU for a wide variety of reasons. These include (in no particular order): Multiple positive testimonials and recommendations I have gleaned from current and former students; the specific focus on data and investigative journalism; a diverse selection of optional modules should I progress to the full MA program after a year; great industry links and opportunities for work placements at home and abroad; the excellent breadth of expertise and experience offered by the faculty at BCU; and the simple fact that the PGCert will initially have a lighter and more flexible workload than a full MA, meaning I can fit it around work and family commitments more easily during the next academic year.

I have also already had an overwhelmingly positive, encouraging experience when interacting with Paul Bradshaw & BCU thus far. This began before I had even applied for the course, let alone been given an offer. First impressions really do make a difference.

Rabbit holes & Factfulness

I would have written this post sooner, but sometimes life throws unpleasant curve balls in our direction. Having being caught off guard by just such an unexpected occurrence in recent weeks, which has thankfully been resolved for the time being, I was reminded yet again that I have already been blessed from above with an embarrassment of riches. Life is too short, and I want to make the most of every opportunity.

Alongside this broader sense of urgency to cherish each mundane moment I have been given, receiving an unconditional offer from BCU to study data journalism feels like a green light to plummet down the rabbit hole and see where this new sense of calling leads. As my Irish grandmother often said: “Thanks be to God”, for all of the above and more.

As part of my preparation for the data journalism course I have begun, coincidentally, to slowly read two books in tandem: Factfulness by Hans Rosling & The Curious Journalists’ Guide to Data by Jonathan Stray. Both books emphasise the importance of statistics and the art of interpreting them in a meaningful and accurate way in order to develop a coherent worldview. They have already proven to be an eye-opening introduction to the elusive reality behind the often fictitious world we tend to perceive or imagine exists out there (somewhere!).

As a Christian, and a recent MA Theology graduate, I can’t help but see parallels with the kind of epistemology hinted at by the writer of St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, which incidentally inspired the title of my old blog (Cracked looking glass = i.e. At best we see an inaccurate, broken reflection/refraction of reality):

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians ‭13:12‬ ‭(NRSV)‬‬

As partial as human knowledge will always be, I have been struck by the positive aspects of embracing this kind of realism about the limits of our understanding, and how it can be applied to the old fashioned ideal of journalism as the art of truth-telling and holding power to account. Both of these pursuits require data.

To succeed in such a vocation, I imagine any credible 21st century journalist could do worse than to get to grips with facts, figures, reliable statistical analysis, a capacity to read widely enough to be a bona fide jack of all trades who can quickly verify sources, adopt diverse, flexible, and robust investigative methodologies, routinely sharpen their critical thinking skills, and crucially: Blend all this and more together with the ability to accurately interpret and creatively communicate complex data sets and/or concepts to a broad audience. Straightforward enough, no? Time to get to work!

As daunting this path ahead may seem, I feel enormously excited about turning my hand to acquiring these and any other necessary skills to become an investigative data journalist. Counteracting the worst elements of our current post-truth, social-media saturated, fake-news-infused world, which is all too often dominated by a dubious blend of surveillance capitalism, partisan political propaganda, and myriad forces seemingly beyond our control (i.e. Coronavirus/climate change), will undoubtedly require a multifaceted approach. Even if I can only manage to play the smallest of small parts in contributing to this lofty goal, I will at least have done something useful with the gifts I have been given.

A Corona of Stories, Voices, and Contexts

There are so many stories yet to be written, so many voices yet to be heard, and so many ‘explainer’/‘fact-check’ articles needed on a daily basis to demystify panic-worthy social media posts, and/or clarify the reality of any global event in the face of media sensationalism.

For example, on a personal level reading some real healthcare statistics can make quite a difference to an otherwise febrile state of mind when we receive distressing news about a friend, colleague, or family member who unexpectedly finds themselves battling with a serious illness. A Factfulness-led approach can work wonders if we can understand the real world statistics and/or probabilities of what might happen to them. Even the alarming spate of coronavirus epidemics can be helpfully contextualised by crunching and comparing some relevant numbers (e.g. present mortality rates Vs. seasonal flu, or something far more deadly like Ebola; at present, in terms of severity, Corona virus is > flu but considerably < Ebola).

If there is a devil in the deep blue sea, fear is undoubtedly a correlating factor in how it works against our better judgement. A rigorously rational, factful, statistically responsible approach to making sense of the world around us in order to dispel unfounded fears, stave off mass hysteria, and dismantle disinformation whilst helping the general public become more well informed about the partially perceptible reality we currently inhabit, is precisely the kind of data-driven journalism I want to learn to do. I can’t wait to get my teeth into this new discipline at BCU.

After all, to adapt a well known English idiom: The devil is in the data. Time to root him out.

M

Journalism, Opinion

Remain is Dead: The 5th stage of Brexit Grief

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Less than 12 months have passed since that stunning BBC exit poll dashed the naive dreams of Britain’s Remain tribe, and burst the buoyant bubbles of idealistic enthusiasm stoked up by Labour’s radical Corbynite manifesto. A barrage of cut-throat commentary on social and mainstream media alike failed to dim the hopes of many echo-chamber dwellers who dared to contemplate the highly improbable scenario that Boris might fail to win a majority, and Brexit could yet be reversed.

To use a comic book analogy, when the unstoppable force of optimism collides with the immovable object of realism, explosive sparks are bound to fly. In this case the electorate proved to be unwilling to budge from their scepticism about Jeremy Corbyn, or their apparent belief that they must simply allow Boris to “get Brexit done”. Workington man was not to be moved by the unlikely inertia of democratic socialism. Instead, he stood his ground and the so called “red wall” fell into the abyss of populism and resurgent English nationalism.[1]

Dissent drowned in a tsunami of dystopian disinformation throughout the election campaign. The prime minister’s tub-thumping majority was clearly not affected by his track record on having a less than intimate relationship with the truth. Nor were Labour’s hopes of winning over the British public brought in out of the cold by Boris’ decision to hide in a fridge rather than face Piers Morgan. Any prospect of the PM consenting to being drawn over the hot coals of political scrutiny by Andrew Neil prior to retaking office also remained firmly on ice. One could surmise that the Johnsonian mandate to govern genuinely did have a “chilling” effect on democratic debate.

Denial

Since the 2016 referendum, many UK citizens have been coming to terms with nothing less than a full blown identity crisis. The anxiety induced by such epoch-shifting events can manifest itself in something akin to grief, characterised as it often is by five distinct stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

For several years now, Remainers had hoped that their denial would turn out to be a fresh form of the classic British stiff upper lip syndrome; endure the worst of the polarisation and uncertainty long enough to persuade the overwhelmingly leave-voting general public with facts and well-rehearsed, reasoned arguments, and they might change their collective mind. All they had to do was persist and resist any temptation to complain or be too condescending. Eventually, with enough resolve they could see eye to eye with enough leave voters to swing the electoral map back in favour of the EU. It now turns out that this was a grave mistake; Remain have been in denial for over four years.

Anger

The emperor of a second referendum had no clothes. The Remain dream has long since breathed its last. Brexit is now “done” and dusted. Yet No Deal, far from being off the table, remains a genuine possibility before the end of 2020. Boris Johnson has won. Power, privilege, and populism hold sway, and any socialist notions of levelling the playing field in the UK between the have and the have-nots has vanished in a sea of black X’s next to Tory candidates. Any misplaced notion that Britain could become a nation which works “for the many, rather than the few”, has finally been laid to rest for at least another generation. For some, anger is an entirely understandable response to this scenario, and all that Boris Johnson’s government entails. But it is too late for anger to bear any real fruit in the immediate short term. Playing the blame game won’t fix anything. Vitriol may feel good, and even have a cathartic quality at times, but it won’t change the UK’s current circumstances.

Bargaining

The general public could have wrought great change at last year’s election. They could have given themselves a second opportunity to consider the wisdom of Brexit; to vote for a bold new vision of equality and reform. Many Remain voters attempted bargaining with committed leavers, to convince and persuade them to change course. To rage against the injustice of ruling class privilege. To opt for a man of principle and side with social justice over against reinforcing the status quo.

Instead, the people have opted for the latter and given another old Etonian, of Bullingdon club pedigree, unfettered permission to take the UK out of the EU and rule the country as he and his party see fit for at least the next five years. In all likelihood this will stretch to ten, and beyond. By 2030, the UK will look radically different. EU membership will be a distant memory. Further bargaining might feel necessary, urgent even. Yet this too would be mistaken.

Depression

Depression, despondency and/or abject apathy may well be a natural response to the finality of the present political situation in the UK. Anyone who has ever experienced depression will be able to tell you that recovery is not a simple case of clicking one’s fingers and attempting to “snap out of it”. The good old British phrase “chin up”, or hollow platitudes about looking on the bright side, are useless and insensitive to anybody wrestling with poor mental health. So it is with the emotional fallout generated for so many by the Brexit process.

For many remain voters Brexit has hurt. It has dragged them down and dampened their spirits. It will undoubtedly take time to heal if this is the stage you find yourself in. There are no easy answers here, and until you are ready, moving on to the final stage is not easy. Be patient with yourself. Know that you’re not alone. If possible reach out for help and support. Staying in this stage of Brexit grief is not sustainable. As a committed Christian, I am thankful that I have been able to take solace from my hope in Jesus Christ and the peaceful security the gospel of hope brings. Yet even this can be easier said than done in the nitty gritty of day to day life.

Acceptance

When you are ready for it, maybe the time has come to move past denial, relinquish any anger, cease attempts to bargain a way out of this, and do your best to deal with the depression of losing “Europe” once and for all. Acceptance is the only realistic, and healthy way to ultimately move forward. Fighting to change a nation’s mind is a fool’s errand in the current political climate. It would also be undemocratic. Like it or not, the people have spoken.

To accept this reality is to be empowered to prepare for potential next steps, whatever they may be. For each person who decides to take the path away from denial, anger, bargaining, and manages to get through the depression, the unthinkable yet necessary task of accepting the death of the UK that existed before Brexit awaits. It it surely better to embrace this reality, warts and all, than to persist in a futile fight for a forgotten ideal.

The Remain Funeral is booked

Remain is dead. Realignment is imminent. Rather than mourning the loss of freedom of movement, or a sense of European identity, a smarter move now might be to spend the coming months and years planning an escape route into the EU, and leave the UK behind. Either that, or remain and face the music of Boris’ Brexiteer symphony, conducted to imperfection by Dominic Cummings & Co.

Grief is an entirely normal response to loss. Just be aware that to remain in that state too long is extremely unhealthy and destructive. For those who decide, or have no choice but to remain in the UK, the sooner you can let go of being a part of the EU and all that it represented, the better. For those who are able to leave the UK for the EU or elsewhere, the clock has always been ticking. Life is painfully short. Wasting it will only lead you to miss the gift of life that precedes the moment when there is no more of it, and the coffin lid is finally nailed shut. Seize the day before it ends for the last time.

Change has come. Brexit is now the unstoppable force that will shape the future of these islands for generations, for better or worse. Brace yourselves for it, or remove yourselves from it. Such is the path ahead. For me, this will involve sustained prayer and reflection before making any bold moves. Should any opportunities arise to take a leap of faith elsewhere, I suspect that jumping at such a chance is now almost as inevitable as the UK’s EU membership funeral service due on January 1st 2021.

Whatever the future may hold, I can only be eternally grateful that I also have the hope of resurrection and new life springing forth from any form of death; as much during this life as in the next. I pray that by some miracle you would all be blessed with the same.

Godspeed.

M

End Notes

1. See Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, for an incisive analysis of this. Also a recent article in the Washington Post for a snapshot.

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.

Journalism, Opinion

Are Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson losing their faith, or their religion?

Links are highlighted.

R.E.M. were on to something when they wrote the hit song “losing my religion” in 1991, back in the dark ages before the internet, i-device craze, and the tyranny of social media took hold of our collective subconscious in the West. Although the song is reputedly not about a crisis of faith, but rather the well rehearsed pop music trope of “unrequited love” and obsession, it nevertheless provides a thought provoking soundtrack for those of us who have suffered from the former at least as much as the latter. Instead of a social commentary about religion, the song actually took its title from a southern American expression for “being at the end of one’s rope”. In that sense, it is perhaps an entirely fitting way of describing the recent public declarations by Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson that they are reaching (or have reached) the end of their respective tethers as far as their experience of the Christian faith is concerned.¹

Deconstructing one’s religious identity and asking pointedly challenging, searching questions which cast reasonable levels of doubt upon any given status quo is hardly a modern phenomenon. From a biblical perspective, the Psalmist illustrates how the rich Hebraic tradition of lament provides an outlet for the often tumultuous nature of the human condition, as we are forced to wrestle with God throughout life’s struggles (e.g. Psalm 22). By contrast, broadcasting our internal woes on social media, for good or ill, is a distinctly 21st century habit for many digital converts and natives alike. Lachrymose lament in search of likes is clearly not so much a religious expression of grief as a socio-cultural one. Sampson and Harris clearly straddle both of these categories simultaneously, which has perhaps exacerbated the reactionary responses they have received from contrasting corners of the western evangelical soap opera elite

To whom am I referring, you might well ask (you should, if you didn’t immediately do so. Clue: it’s not the Illuminati). Since I have neither the time, space, nor inclination to wax lyrical about the state of public discourse within a digital context saturated with popular subcultural commentators, many of whom all too frequently compose, control, and thereby shape (read: dictate) the narrative connected Christians consume on an hourly basis, a straw man fallacy shall have to suffice:

Western Evangelical Soap Opera?

The perennial problem of growing toxicity levels within online debate has seemingly metastasised throughout our social media echo chambers, and is fast approaching a terminal prognosis. Bolstered by ignorance, group think, mob mentalities, celebrity culture, a temptation towards adversarial rhetoric, virtue-signaling, sensationalism, and the potent, habit-forming, dopamine dependency all users of the digital drug smorgasbord (aka social media) end up hooked on, the popular postmodern mantra of “joining the conversation” has become an ominously loaded term.

The “Western Evangelical Soap Opera” is a term I coined to describe both:

a) the hordes of Christians, often with some kind of platform to shout from, who seem to feel the need to publicly tear strips out of their brothers and sisters in Christ whilst stoking up faux outrage amongst their followers, thereby playing from the same rule book as all the other, allegedly more worldly, unbelieving participants of this digital danse macabre;

and

b) the troubling, all too human tendency to develop an unhealthy appetite for scandal and controversy involving Christian public figures, organisations, and ministries, usually giving rise to a raft of new reason(s) to disagree with them and vent self-righteous indignation at any given opportunity (and sufficient click bait: hence back to the first definition in a cyclical fashion).

The Western Evangelical Soap Opera is exactly that: a form of perverse entertainment for (un)discerning consumers who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, [and] craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14, NRSV). It turns out that people of all faiths and none are not immune to the overwhelming centre of gravity generated by such an agitated environment. So much for the popular evangelical recourse to Matthew 18 as a model of settling disagreements within the body of Christ (See Matt 18:15-22). Airing disputes on Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally the Christian blogosphere, all too often masquerades as a modern day form of godly, biblical confrontation (which of course it’s not!). Consider James, chapter 3, by way of counterpoint: tame the tongue or it causes wildfires to spread.

Pocket Slot Machines

Small wonder then, that the daily dramas taking place in this febrile context frequently end up being blown way out of proportion, and disconnected from lived realities. Storms and teacups spring to mind, except that would be to minimise the acute anxieties so many of us face alone in our increasingly solitary online worlds. Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson are real people, not avatars or ideas to be debated, maligned, or dismissed by legions of blue screen-toting social media junkies who regularly perform the modern day miracle of navigating blindly around vast metropolises, whilst seemingly not looking where they are going; eyes glued to their shiny i-fondle-slab task masters.

The phrase “a slot machine in your pocket” speaks volumes about any audience of self-appointed judges, jurors, and executioners, who see fit to publicly ponder the deeply personal, emotionally traumatic journey that Harris and Sampson have found themselves on. Addicts rarely display sound, sober minded reasoning whilst getting their daily fix.

Casting stones or grace?

Against this dysfunctional backdrop, and particularly inside the distinctly Evangelical Christian subcultures within which Harris and Sampson find themselves wrestling with their faith, is it not understandable that they have both finally reached the end of their tether?

Have they lost their faith, or are they merely losing their religion? As someone who has found themselves unexpectedly wrestling with God, faith, the Church, and what it means to be religious throughout my life so far, I sympathise far more than I expected to with Harris and Sampson. Of one thing I am certain, as I attempt to stay close to Jesus, the Good Shepherd of my soul: If certainty is a prerequisite for receiving divine grace, even Jesus Christ himself would have been a failure when he cried out on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, c.f. Psalm 22).

I believe Jesus would extend grace and love to Joshua Harris Marty Sampson. Even if they have finally lost their religion. I’m not convinced that the best way to extend that grace is necessarily in public, via a pocket slot machine.

Anyone care to cast the first stone?

End Notes

1. I make this nuanced distinction between the Christian faith, and one’s experience of the Christian faith, to highlight the reality that what we experience in our complex, messy lives, particularly within Christian subculture, is not necessarily indicative of the truth, who is of course a person (i.e. John 14:6).

2. Perhaps there are some subtle parallels between biblical lament, and openly sharing the sadness of inner religious confusion and conflict, which get overlooked by the legions of (non)expert analysts who feel qualified to cast judgement on the likes of Harris and Sampson.