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Moral Journalism

The Richard Johnson annual sermon for the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers
Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm
Is journalistic life a free floating immoral bubble or is there such a thing as ‘moral journalism’, which is grounded in gravitas?
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Cross-posted from Fulcrum

The Richard Johnson annual sermon
preached at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
for the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers

Co-published with the Times Online

Introduction

Thank you very much for the invitation to preach the Richard Johnson ‘Bubble’ sermon this year. I look forward to the refreshment afterwards, which, I gather, does indeed contain bubbles.

Richard Johnson, who bequeathed this annual sermon gave posterity its text: Vita Humana Bulla Est — Human Life is a Bubble. He died in 1795, tragically, at the early age of 38.

Maybe Richard Johnson was prophetic in his will. Like a bubble, life can indeed be blown up, float along and be popped at any time. However, Bulla in Latin not only means ‘bubble’ but, by analogy, also ‘a globular necklace for children’; and ‘a globular club for hitting people’. On which meaning am I supposed to preach?

My wife, Alison, is a psychotherapist and she has a favourite post card of bubble wrap. It says, ‘Therapy is expensive. Popping bubble wrap is cheap. You choose.’

Physics teaches us that bubbles are spherical because that is the lowest energy state. Whether this applies to the shape and energy of journalists, I will leave you to decide. Also whether bubbles — in terms of being blown, floating along, being popped at any time — relates to newspapers in our current climate, we can discuss over lunch.

Is journalistic life a free floating immoral bubble or is there such a thing as ‘moral journalism’, which is grounded in gravitas? ‘Moral journalism’ is not, I believe, an oxymoron like ‘healthy tan’ or ‘Sun reader’ (perhaps that is unfair…) or even, remembering the 1980s software, ‘Microsoft Works’. I am using the phrase not so much about articles of scandal, or unethical ways of gathering news (though the latter is newsworthy itself at the moment concerning phone hacking): I am concerned with weighty, profound writing which draws on a hinterland of accumulated moral thinking.

This is the journalism to be encouraged and we shall be looking at some notable examples through the centuries and today. First, though, to the Scriptures.

1. Moral Journalism and the Bible

This year we are celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible and the Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers have recently held their own excellent commemoration. The King James Bible was published on 2 May 1611 and a note in my diary reminds me that the loose leaf edition then cost 10 shillings and 2 shillings extra, if bound.

The astonishing breadth of the Bible shapes moral journalism throughout the centuries and throughout the world.

Our first lesson, Psalm 19, is intricate and deep. Each verse begins with a separate letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 1-6 concern the sun, and may be based on a Canaanite, pagan, poem. Verses 7-13 applies the sun to the Torah, the Law or Instruction of God. This pivoting is beautifully set out. The conclusion, verse 14, as well as being an opening prayer for a sermon could also be a daily prayer for moral journalism:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart,
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Concerning the life-giving commandments of the Torah of the Lord, Deuteronomy 6:8 says, ‘write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates’ — and I would add ‘...and on your computers’.

In our second lesson, Luke 1:1-4, Luke introduces his writing of the Good News by mentioning an orderly account; interviewing eye witnesses; and careful investigation. A model of a moral journalist.

2. Moral Journalism and Tradition

As well as Scripture, we also have an honourable tradition. I will be drawing on three giants of this tradition: Addison, Johnson and Coleridge.

(a) Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

Addison’s early essays in The Spectator, at the beginning of the 18th century, enlivened morality with wit. Gravitas and Hilaritas. I have greatly enjoyed reading Ophelia Field’s excellent history, The Kit-Kat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation (London, 2008). The Spectator emerged out of this London club, which also included William Congreve, the playwright, and John Vanburgh, the architect. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele — the latter’s portrait hangs in the Stationers’ Hall — were the main essayists.

Ophelia Field writes:

The readers [of The Spectator] sought a moral education outside the Church, a critical education without pedantry and a social education without condescension. In providing this, Addison and Steele transformed the journalistic profession into one as much as about shaping taste and opinion as communicating facts. (p. 245)

(b) Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Dr Johnson, whose house is just round the corner from St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, learnt from, and loved, Addison’s prose style. At the end of his essay on Addison, in his Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1779-81), Johnson wrote:

His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not grovelling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences...Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.

Johnson developed moral journalism with his periodical, The Rambler (1750-52), which appeared twice a week and was written almost entirely by himself. Well worth the delve and the delight. It has more gravitas than Addison’s balance of gravitas and hilaritas, and so was not so popular: he ended it in the year his wife died. Johnson influenced many modern moral journalists, including William Rees-Mogg, who sees him as something of a father figure.

(c) Samuel T Coleridge (1772-1834)

Our third moral journalist in this tradition, who was as voluble in conversation as Addison and Johnson, is the poet, philosopher and theologian Samuel T Coleridge.

Deidre Coleman wrote the chapter on his journalism in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge (Cambridge, 2002), edited by Lucy Newlyn. Coleman states that, in the mid-1790s,

Coleridge stepped forward as a radical young lecturer, preacher and journalist. In a lecture in 1795 he attacked the evil of the Gagging Acts, as they were popularly known and defended the liberty of the press and freedom of speech. (p. 127)

‘Gagging Acts’ … sounds familiar today? Coleridge wrote:

By the almost winged communication of the Press, the whole nation becomes one grand Senate, fervent yet untumultuous. By the operation of Lord Grenville’s Bill, the Press is made useless. Every town is insulated: the vast conductors are destroyed by which the electric fluid of truth was conveyed from man to man, and nation to nation. (Coleridge’s Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, Princeton, 1971, p. 313, cited in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, p. 127)

In 1809 Coleridge wrote and published The Friend, ‘a literary, moral and political weekly paper’. It ran for only 28 issues but had the seeds of his mature thought. He gathered the best articles as A Series of Essays in 1812 and thoroughly revised them in 1818. Again, well worth the delve and delight.

3. Modern Moral Journalism

Finally, a brief consideration of how this tradition developed in the 20th century and into our present century.

Hebrews chapter 11 comments on the heroes of faith and then runs out of space: a well known quandary. The translation in the New English Bible of Hebrews 11:31 has a strange (prophetically) Monty Pythonesque sound to it:

By faith, the prostitute Rahab escaped the fate of the unbelievers by giving the spies a kindly welcome. Need I say more?

‘Need I say more?’ comes at the beginning of the next paragraph, but when read in Church, the pause is often missing.

My series of heroes of moral journalism continues with C P Scott (editor and publisher of The Manchester Guardian) and Sir William Haley (editor of The Times). Harold Evans, in his fascinating autobiography, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times (London, 2009), describes Haley as:

the much-feared editor of The Times who thundered about moral issues — and replaced the classic front page of classified advertising with front-page news. (p. 125)

I suppose the more recent change of The Independent’s front-page from news to campaigns on moral issues is also very significant.

The list continues with Bernard Levin, whose first collection of his extraordinary articles of gravitas and hilaritas in The Times was entitled Taking Sides (London, 1979); William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times); Harold Evans (editor of The Sunday Times, with its ‘Insight’ moral campaigns, and — for one memorable year — of The Times); Hugo Young (The Guardian); Simon Jenkins (The Times and now The Guardian); Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi and, in my view, the most incisive ‘Credo’ columnist in The Times). All these, and many others, I would include in this modern tradition.

Conclusion

‘Human life is a bubble’? Maybe. Journalists and newspapers are bubbles? Maybe.

What endures through the years and centuries, however, is the writing of moral journalism.

Be assured of my prayers for you.
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