CTC is running the London Witness programme for the Diocese of London – equipping lay Christians to engage with the media in ways that are confident and constructive. Each week, a participant will be blogging on their experience. Here Elizabeth Harrison writes about week one – which included a residential weekend and the first evening session.
The London Witness Media Training course began on 4-5 February with a weekend away at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Wapping. Unlike the six weekly evening sessions to follow, the focus of this time was not on specific skills, but on building relationships within the group, and on theological and ethical reflection on our media engagement.
Balancing truth and love
The Revd Christopher Landau contributed the theological content of the weekend, and shared his experience of working for the BBC. His teaching, based on his doctoral research, is summarised in the Grove Booklet “E170: Christians and the Media”.
Christopher challenged us with three Bible readings, James 3:1-12, and Mark 4, both 1-20 and 21-23. He held in balance that while our words were powerful and we would be held accountable for them, the gospel was to be broadcast to all and not “narrowcast”, and we had a responsibility to use our skills and our voices in public.
He shone light on some ethical issues we face almost daily, and took questions from the group.
In our generation where 98% do not attend church, we were challenged as to the extent to which our social media feeds have become a Christian echo chamber, and warned against the comfort of curated silos of self-interest. In our interactions with other Christians online, we wondered whether onlookers would witness how we loved one another. We discussed what it meant for Anglicans to disagree well, and how to say that we are all one body, and are all wounded, rather than afflicting one member and alienating another.
Just days before, The Bishop of London had exhorted us: “You do not exorcise the Satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.” We reflected on when to speak and to stay silent, when our silence would imply complicity with oppressors, and what to do when those perceived oppressors were fellow Christians. Continuing the theme of light, Christopher reflected that social media is a place where we see an eschatological reality – the hidden is disclosed, and light is brought to injustices.
Called to embody a time and place
We considered how to portray the Diocese in the media in a way that represented the whole people of God. He challenged us to thoughtful, reflective representation of our true selves.
This call to be the people we are in the place we find ourselves continued through the weekend. In the afternoon we split into teams for an Apprentice-style exercise, travelling to a media landmark of our choosing in London, and telling the story of that place and its significance in different ways. We travelled to Speakers’ Corner and explored ideas of free speech, platforms and “no-platforming”, both physical and online. The existence of such a place brings hope. We interviewed two friends about their experience of hearing Lord Soper, and their thoughts on the religious zealots who speak there today. After an arduous tube journey, I watched with delight as a fellow team member began an impassioned speech at the Corner on the injustice of a “public” transport system which is inaccessible to wheelchair-using members of the public. The exercise built teamwork and friendship, and helped us to appreciate each others’ positions in the world and the perspectives from them.
The group is made up of 13 participants and two staff from the Centre for Theology and Community, mostly young, mostly women, but otherwise quite representative of the diversity of London and the church. While many of us work in the charity sector, sharing a passion for social justice, we’re drawn from churches in a range of theological traditions. Using “rounds”, a community organising tool, we invested in listening to each other well and speaking out clearly. Through eating and relaxing together, and by worshipping together and sharing communion at St George in the East, we built strong relationships in which the challenges of the course can be met with confidence.
Lamps on lampstands
In our final “rounds”, we shared our hopes for the weeks ahead. The lampstands analogy was striking here – some participants wanted to explore where to put up their lampstands, finding their audiences and the places where they can illuminate debate. Others were looking for the skills to shine brightly – while already active in the arena where they wanted to communicate, they needed the techniques to better articulate their opinions. And others felt their lampstands had been shortened by societal barriers or lack of confidence, and were looking forward to building supportive relationships within the group that would spur them on to build their media profile and let their light shine.
The first evening session
What makes a compelling news story? Writing and journalism were the topic of the first evening of London Witness Media Training. The 13 participants met at St Bride’s, Fleet Street on Tuesday 7 February to share a meal, reconnect over the question “who is your favourite writer”, and hear from two Christian journalists.
Helen Coffey, a digital travel writer for the Daily Express, was first up. Helen got into journalism after an older writer recognised and nurtured her potential. Beginning first in a ski and snowboard magazine, she progressed to edit online content for the Telegraph, before taking up her current role. She reflected on the challenge of writing from one’s own perspective, her experience of pitching to editors, and the merits of gaining personal experience and expertise.
Harry Farley’s story was one of pursuing accurate and fair reporting. When working in parliament, he had seen months of work on a provocative report reduced to a headline, undermining the entire debate. Determined to change this, he qualified as a journalist, and now writes for Christian Today. He reflected on integrity – how the few words that influence an article away from sensationalism can establish reputation and show personal character in the grey area of ethical reporting.
Helen and Harry’s Top five writing tips:
1.Practice! Blog regularly and share your work. Choose subjects you’re passionate about.
2.Detail is crucial – hone the basics by fact-checking reliably and subediting your own work.
3.The first five words matter. Make every word work for its place.
4.Read writers you love, and work out why you keep reading.
5.Keep it simple! News stories with short words are punchy, flow well and are easy to read.
Course leader Andy Walton then interviewed both contributors. The group split for an exercise reporting a news story from our local churches in under 300 words, then reconvened to share our work and receive feedback. The evening concluded in prayer.