Archbishop of York tells of his own captivity in repeated call for release of Alan Johnston
Standing among you all, I feel like the youngest, the put upon and the most inexperienced lion in Daniel’s den of lions!
According to recent statistics, the increasing number of people who use the internet for obtaining their news means that the last newspaper will be published sometime between 2034 – 2043. There are similar statistics which claim that the decline in church going over recent years means that at around about the same time we will be holding our last service in the Church of England.
On the basis of those statistics can I say how very pleased I am to be with you here today given that statistically speaking in about 40 years time you won’t be here to celebrate your achievements and I won’t be here to congratulate you upon them.
Such doomsday statistics as I believe they are, highlight that tendency to extrapolate the worst case scenario from the most celebratory of times. Just as it seems unlikely to me that there is no future for the Church when I experience the vibrancy of faith amongst the young people in our churches so it seems ridiculous to contemplate a world without newspapers as we come together to celebrate the achievements of those who have demonstrated excellence in their chosen field of the media. Even in P.D. James’ The Children of Men, the birth of a child, baptised in tears of joy, thereby overcomes years of sterility and infertility and gives real hope to the dawning of a bright future.
In his book, My Trade, Andrew Marr noted that one of the first Northcliffe Editors, Kennedy Jones, said his perfect newspaper could be contained in four words: “crime, love, money and food.” If this were to be the case then the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper would certainly qualify – the crime of betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver, the bread and the wine and Christ’s love for his disciples, would be not only the stuff of sermons but also that of editorials.
But Andrew Marr adds two more ingredients to Jones’ recipe, that of “power” and “disaster”.
Which leads me naturally to the story of a jumbo-jet that developed serious engine trouble in mid-Atlantic. The captain told the passengers and asked them permission to open the hold and dump all their luggage in the ocean. “Yes, yes, yes”, they all cried. It was done.
Thirty minutes later the captain said, “We are still losing altitude. We must get rid of all your hand luggage. The cabin crew will collect them and when we have dropped to a safer height they will throw them out.” “But of course”, the cries went out. And it was done.
An hour later the captain said, “We still need to lose more weight. Fifty people will be safely dropped into the water with their life-jackets. This airline operates an Inclusive Equal Opportunities Policy. And we shall now put it into operation. We shall use the alphabet to guide us.
A – are their any Africans on board? Silence.
B – are their any Blacks on board? Silence.
C – are their any Caribbeans on board? Silence.
A little black boy turned to his father and said, “Dad, what are we?”
The father replied, “We are Zulus!”
But it would be ill-judged to be here today and speak about the media and its achievements without also calling to mind those who cannot be here with us today – and I do not mean just those who have had to stay in the office or go to Sedgefield to cover Tony Blair’s announcement. No. Rather I mean those journalists who cannot be here because they are unwell. And we remember especially Alan Johnston, still held in captivity in Gaza.
Last week marked the fiftieth day of captivity for Alan Johnston, and on that day I was able to pray together with the clergy from the Diocese of York at our conference for Alan’s safe return and release. Fifty days is a long time to be away from those you love. Speaking from personal experience, though from a totally different environment and context, the temptation to give up hope of release is always present, but the prayers and concerns of others are instrumental in being able to survive each day in captivity.
Last week also marked World Press Freedom Day, when the Committee to Protect Journalists published a worrying report highlighting those regimes whose records on arresting, jailing and even murdering journalists is quite atrocious. Countries such as Ethiopia, China, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Pakistan and Zimbabwe have all demonstrated those totalitarian tendencies where the right to question and to criticise is met with the full force of the state’s brutalising power.
To such States the response must be the words of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
In his sermon at St. Martin in the Fields last year on World Communication Day, Tim Dean, the Director of the World Media Trust, noted that “Free societies are built on the old truth that intellectual, religious, and press freedoms are inextricably linked - and are vital for individual and community liberties to flourish. So both the faith communities and news media have a proper vested interest in ensuring each others freedoms are jealously guarded. Such freedoms don’t exist for their own sake, but for the building of open communities.”
One only has to look at the development of totalitarian regimes whether in the then Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Amin’s Uganda to see that in their oppression of their own peoples the state first sought to subject those independent voices of opposition, the Church, the intelligensia and the Press. For all three the desire to educate and inform according to different sets of values both feared by the state, meant an unacceptable opposition to totalitarianism.
And whilst the recent report of the Committee to Protect Journalists highlights this continuing trend in states which seek to repress journalists who question, so organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International and Amnesty International continue to work for those individuals whose Christian faith has led them to be held as prisoners of conscience.
My continuing prayers for Alan Johnston’s freedom are grounded in the belief that the journalistic enterprise is a noble and worthy one. As Tim Dean also noted journalism at its best is always undertaken in service of the reader, listener or viewer and in the common cause of human rights and personal liberty, and therein lies the moral responsibility of the media. Journalists, whether imprisoned or not, deserve the supportive prayers of the faith communities and the critical solidarity of all lovers of freedom. It is also true to say that those people persecuted for their religious faith or laudable opinion deserve the attention of journalists.
The Hungarian-American newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, once remarked that the purpose of a newspaper was to “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."
My prayer for all of you this day is that you will be guided by the light that shines in accuracy and truth. That through truth you may inform and educate and that through education and information we may together build a better society where the way of truth and the light of truth becomes valued above all else.
It’s for freedom under the law that you entered into journalism. Do not give away the birthright of helping to preserve the rule of law for the very thin stew of so called “social justice” – the contents of which can be rarely agreed upon. As guardians of the rule of law you must be at the same time, political philosophers, jurists, historical and moral theologians. And dare I suggest, biblical scholars, insofar as the issue of freedom under the law is extensively treated in the Sacred Scriptures, a solid dictum of experience which we have to take seriously – the journalist cannot afford to ignore it.
I salute you all. Continue to be sojourners after truth. God Bless. Thank you for listening.