WHAT can Augustine or Calvin, Abraham Kuyper or Lesslie Newbigin teach journalists? Could a retrieval of Europe’s founding doctrines of creation and providence help reform the media? Unlikely in any direct sense, you might think. The media today mediates the culture of atheistic liberalism that undermines both history and ethics. All the more reason to try then!
While it is in my view arguable whether the media can be called ‘a sphere’ in Kuyper’s terminology, and there is not time to discuss that here, nonetheless journalism can rightly be regarded as a proper “workplace calling” in the Kuyperian tradition.  It is one that, properly directed, “serves its purpose in God’s economy and… plays a role in glorifying God and flourishing humanity” – or like any other sphere, it could do. Indeed, I would argue with Bartholomew and Ashford whose timely book The Doctrine of Creation we are privileged to discuss here today, that journalism’s demise is at root a question of false theology: a neo-Lutheran view whose “proponents tend not to see cultural life as part of the church’s mission and may not see it as part of a life-and-death battle”. Journalism has been orphaned by the Church’s neglect of its intended “Godwardness”.
The time for a work of cultural “cleaning” (p. 270) in the media context is therefore ripe, and it must begin with us, with a correct biblical theology “that sees the workplace calling as a direct extension of the cultural mandate, exercised in relation to God’s good creation, and as a means by which God dramatically conveys his love for the world” (p. 271). The Leveson Inquiry into widespread journalistic criminality – the phone hacking scandal – exposed our lost ethical moorings. Journalists were found to have hacked the phones of not just celebrities but the family of murder victim Milly Dowler in order to get stories. It was in some ways a logical extension of what is called, on the newsdesk “blagging” where slightly dubious but not criminal methods are used to nail crooks for instance, but this took the time-honoured “blag” into new territory. “Fake newes” on the other hand has always been with us, as Derek Taylor’s entertaining survey in 2018 explains: “In Tudor England, printed papers branded the monarch a ‘horrible monster’ and were in turn accused of publishing ‘false fables’.”  Sounds familiar?
The contemporary power of the media to push agendas, exhibit monomania in subject matter, and completely falsify evidence in order to secure interviews – consider the lengths the BBC’s Martin Bashir, a Christian, allegedly went to, allegedly falsifying bank statements as evidence of an Establishment plot against her to secure an interview with Princess Diana – have all horrified us. And in November, the BBC actually had to ban political activism among its news staff. But will our momentary spasm of angst go far enough to reform the media radically enough? I do not think so, unless we are radical in our approach – and that means a return to Christian doctrine.
This is not just a personal peccadillo. Journalism is a fruit of Christendom. It remains an obscure fact precisely because of the demise of historical approaches to learning. In its concern for truth and justice, in the opportunity it gives to brave individuals to root out evil or to manifest the glory of God, journalism is one of the fruits of Christian thinking and in fact embodies much of that fruit.  Certainly news purveying was required from early on by markets needing information about trade routes – but that was a closed shop of rich merchants, and therefore the opposite of journalism. Much more important was the biblically-inspired print revolution which signalled the end of an élitist scribal culture, brilliantly characterised by George Eliot in her novel Romola, and described in two volumes by Elizabeth Eisenstein. This revolution democratised the knowledge of God. The hunger for information now available in printed form, was fuelled by and itself fuelled a huge hunger for news – but it was specific news, of salvation and of God’s providence at a time of wars, plagues, oppression and superstition.
That history is no longer known as Michael Pickering laments in his ‘Devaluation of History in Media Studies’ in The Routledge Companion to British Media History. He writes: “The lack of historical reference and scope in media studies has a number of causes, but certainly the postmodernist attack on history’s credentials as a form of knowledge and the relentless adoption in media studies of resolutely synchronic methodologies, along with a continual skewing of attention towards the latest issues and development in communications, have encouraged an assumption of the past as settled and over, and so of little relevance to what is happening today (p. 10).”
We shall take just one example that is indicative of the moral atmosphere, and the personal orientation of the first two decades of the 1600s in which news stories emerged. News stories showed then the characteristics that went on to form what we know as the newspaper: contemporaneity, broad public dissemination, and regularity. The news story Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales (1607), is a classic example of how the reader is provided with clear advice not just as to how a story should be interpreted, but why it is a story in the first place i.e. why effort has been expended to get and tell the facts in print. The author offers a moral framework to the reception of the news. He tells the reader that the account should be read “with that good affection wherewith I doe present it, and I am sure, it both may and will profit thee by putting thee in remembrance why God doth punish others, that so thou maiest they selfe in time looke unto thine own courses, least he proceed in the same or some more grieuous manner with thee.” Says Joad Raymond: “The author sees himself as spiritual guide and declares that the news, far from being written to excite idle curiosity, is instead published to provide moral instruction. And, lest there be any risk of misreading, prefaces were written to underpin the point.” Such paratextual material “controls one’s whole reading of the text” says Gerard Genette.  It is unlikely that news would have emerged without this motive, as indeed it did not in other social contexts around the globe. It was missionaries who founded the printing presses and the first newspapers in China, India and many other places.
Nicholas Brownlees at the University of Florence, on whose paper I largely rely for these insights, goes on: “What we therefore see is that news is understood and recounted within a religious framework. In the vast majority of pamphlets between 1600 and 1620 news stories are not conceived of as being important in themselves, as a stand-alone feature of human existence worthy of expression, but rather as a manifestation of God’s will.”
This is the doctrine that finds God and His purposes in everything within an interconnected cosmos, evincing in His human creatures significance and gratitude. News is news of God and his dealings with man. What happens is important enough to be reported and broadcast for the edification and salvation of souls, and for the glory of God. It is important enough to risk everything for – and many did, but that is another story.
The production of news in Europe was redemptive. When such journalism ceases to be directed “towards God’s creation designs” it becomes dangerous and corrupt, a platform for demagoguery, for the exercise of power without responsibility, untrusted and untrustworthy. Identifying and exposing Kuper’s “idols”, those priorities that skew the humanity and efficacy of journalism, is our on-going task.
 Bartholomew and Ashford, The Doctrine of Creation (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois: 2020), 271ff.
 Derek J Taylor, Fayke Newes: The Media vs the Mighty, from Henry VIII to Donald Trump (Stroud: The History Press, 2018).
 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/08/29/new-bbc-chief-address-questions-impartiality/ The actual extent of this was contested immediately by some lobby groups.
 Some work has been done on this by Marvin Olasky and Warren Cole Smith in the US. See their Prodigal Press (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Crossway, 1988); Reforming Journalism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: PR & Publishing, 2019); or Jenny Taylor, ‘From Prophetic Press to Fake News’, in This Book Changed Everything (SoughtAfterMedia, Pasadena, CA: 2019), 249-271.
 Perhaps it is no coincidence that around 50% of UK and US newspapers closed down between 2007 and 2017, according to the Cairncross Review, thanks largely to the internet colonising its advertising revenue. See the government-commissioned report sub-titled A Sustainable Future for Journalism 12 February 2019.
 Her two-volume masterpiece The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (2nd Edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) gave rise to the new discipline of “print studies”.
 Martin Conboy and John Steel (Eds.) (London: Routledge, 2015).
 Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003,), 7.
 Gérard Genette, (tr. Jane E Lewin) Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.
 Taylor, ibid.
 Nicholas Brownlees, The Language of Occasional News Pamphlets (1600-1620) (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 10.