KLICE Director Rev. Dr Craig Bartholomew interviews Dr Jenny Taylor as she takes up her Fellowship in Media, Communication and Journalism
CB: We met years ago around the time when the Gospel and Our Culture (G&OC) movement was in full swing and you were handling the PR for the Gospel as Public Truth International Consultation. It is wonderful now to have you as part of KLICE. What attracted you to KLICE?
JT: Yes, it has been delightful to find myself working again after all these years with you Craig – someone for whom Lesslie Newbigin’s work has been central. That was a huge plus for me. And you challenged us in your inaugural address in London not to limit God to our own feeble capacity! That really excited me too. There’s a big job to do and after handing over Lapido Media – a charity set up to work on religious literacy with mainstream journalists – I’m thrilled to be given a niche where I can be supported to go deeper in my calling. I have the opportunity here to work on the impact of secularization on journalism. The Christian vision for it has been all but lost.
You became a close friend of Lesslie Newbigin, one of the great missionaries and missiologists of the twentieth century. How did he influence you?
Both professionally and personally Lesslie changed my life. It is not surprising that when I discovered his writing, my intellect was converted. He seemed to get me! How can you aspire to a nobler world if you have already ruled out a religious vision for it? I had by that time been a journalist for most of my twenties, a Marxist by default, simply by having been through the British university system. To be an independent newswoman meant, I thought, having no truck with so-called ‘beliefs’, and I began to feel absolutely stifled by that. Of course, Newbigin dives right into all that – and literally saved my life, with his insights into how blind secularists are to their own operational belief system, while attacking ours. I became a Christian – at least intellectually – ultimately through his work. So to find myself a year or so later by chance at the mission training college over which he was presiding was an incredible coincidence. We wrote a book together (with Lamin Sanneh) – Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain – because the inability of liberalism to hold a plural society together exercised him greatly at the end of his life. And he paid the fees for the first three years of my PhD on Islam and de-secularization. I was at his bedside the night he died. His last words to me were of the joy laid up for us in heaven (Hebrews 12:1-2). There can be no greater demonstration of faith, naked courage and love than to speak such a thing on your deathbed to a disciple, and it has kept me going.
You describe yourself as a missionary and yet you work in journalism. How do you explain this?
I had a clear calling to ‘write the vision … that they may run who read it’ – Habakkuk 2:2. So that was one thing. I was also burdened for a culture that had nearly strangled me. I offered to serve in any way I could. Both Lesslie and Dan Beeby talked about the ‘gift of the stranger’: they noticed that the G&OC work appealed to people who felt they were outsiders and – because of my difficult upbringing – that was me. They took me on! I was put onto the G&OC Management Committee as its only woman member, with the likes of Vincent Nichols and Martin Conway, despite having read just two works of theology at that point – both Lesslie’s! I made a film for the churches called It’s No Good Shouting – which Lesslie funded personally – to encourage the counter-cultural engagement. It was incorporated into at least two degree courses. And I have seen myself as a cultural analyst ever since, one who is absolutely committed to winning souls from this culture for Christ.
The best journalism is deeply missionary: you approach the culture as a friendly stranger, and offer a critique according to a truth that is deeper and beyond it. That larger biblical narrative – which is what the truth is – is largely lost to journalists now, but it eventually dawned on Lesslie that journalists were or should be allies in their sacred quest for freedom. He eventually said I had converted him!
I was somewhat reluctantly I suspect accepted for missionary service by first Interserve and then the Church Mission Society for whom I became magazine editor, press spokeswoman and campaign organizer. The odd thing is that like Lesslie himself, I learned so much about our culture from my many tours in other cultures that I acquired a fund of stories that rivet the journalists I know. Stories are our stock-in-trade and the Truth gives you the very best there are. So the complexity of attempting to restore ‘the Christian plumbline’ in mainstream news proves to be not so very complex after all. It is a work of love, faith – and offering better, truer stories.
How would you assess the current state of journalism in the UK?
Accuracy will never suffice for truth. Public interest journalism gets confused with journalism that the public is interested in. Both these things are underpinned by the disavowal by both the National Council for the Training of Journalists and the Ethical Journalism Network of the biblical dimension of moral philosophy, believing particularly post-Leveson that ethics applies to codes of conduct, and that truth can be discovered from facts alone . But which facts do you prioritise? What do you look for? And who calls the shots?  Although attributable to market forces and the digital revolution, it is in my view unsurprising that the ten-year period from 2007 to 2017 saw a fifty per cent decline in revenues for local and national newspapers, both here and in the US. When ‘truth’ loses its Christian moorings, we’re all at sea. The online world is now geared almost totally to the individual; it is very seductive and as T S Eliot predicted, we are now endlessly distractable.
You recently published an important chapter on the Christian roots of journalism. What can we learn about this for today?
Yes, I’ve just written a chapter called ‘From Prophetic Press to Fake News’ in Vishal Mangalwadi’s new book This Book Changed Everything – which has just been published in Kindle and paperback on Amazon. My chapter makes the case that journalism as we know it emerged in the maelstrom of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, when truth itself was at stake. A passion for truth combined very effectively with the needs of commerce to produce the world’s first newspapers.
Paul prays that the ‘eyes of our hearts’ might be enlightened. That passion for truth and justice led W T Stead to expose the Victorian child sex trade, in his truly horrifying series of articles ‘The Maiden Tribute to Babylon’ which led to the age of consent being raised to 16 – where it remains to this day. And it led McCandlish Phillips on the New York Times in the 1960s – he kept a Bible on his desk and got away with it! – to persevere with a story about the Ku Klux Klan that nearly cost him his life. A crucified mind is one that is prepared for any amount of hassle and vilification for the truth. A quick glance at the World Press Freedom Index tells the story, with most of the top freest countries in the world being cultures either built on the Reformation, or profoundly influenced by cultures that were.
As our KLICE Fellow in Media, Communication and Journalism, what do you hope to achieve?
Journalists are – or were – trained to be independent and impartial. But absent the Christian lodestar, confusion reigns. Words like fairness, objectivity, neutrality are not interchangeable, but they are used as if they were: accusations of bias are everywhere. I want to help unpack some of that. I want to reflect on the stories that were ‘missed’ – or ignored – such as the sex grooming in Britain; the war against children in Northern Uganda that went on for 20 years because no one could take seriously a war led by a witch that deliberately accessed demonic powers; and the campaign to stop the London Megamosque that would have given Europe its biggest Islamist training centre, and which almost no journalist could be bothered to cover. I intend to draw on recent reflections by journalists like Martin Bell and Alan Rusbridger and contextualise it in Newbigin’s work on the hermeneutic of suspicion, Bernard Williams on how you do truth, Marvin Olasky’s work on the Christian plumbline in news, Jacques Ellul’s work on propaganda. All these are relevant to this study in truth in the media.
I want to see if we can at least re-state the case for public interest journalism based on its biblical underpinnings, in a way that Christians can own and run with – before it’s too late. And yes, I want to see lots more Steads, and McCandlishes and Muggeridges and Levins in a UK press worthy of the name.
At present, courtesy of a generous grant, we are able to employ you part-time. As you know we hope to move this to full-time. How would full-time employment with KLICE enable you to move your vital work forward?
The media are in deep crisis, because of the digital revolution. We have a very rare moment as a nation, and as news consumers and democrats, to draw breath and re-think what we want and why. Frances Cairncross has done us a great service with her recent Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism. She recommends a retrieval of Public Interest Journalism – something Christians should be hugely excited about and lobbying government about! But are they? Fifty years ago CS Lewis said the following:
‘The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and textbook undermines our work. … We must attack the enemy’s lines of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. … The first step to reconversion of the country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and Thinker’s Library on their own ground’ .
I say, Amen to that.
 Note EJN founder Aidan White’s comment in the video available here, after saying the first key value in the 400 codes of conduct for journalists that exist around the world is accuracy. ‘I don’t say truth because truth is a very long word and that gets us into a discussion about what is true and what is not true.’ He goes on to say that the first principle is ‘no deceptive handling of the facts. We work in facts.’
 Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s autobiography Breaking News, which came out just last year, breaks with the past when he makes the startling claim, writing after Wikileaks: ‘Now the best journalists had to be moral philosophers and students of ethics … But the accelerating and violent forces buffeting journalism meant there was never enough time to pause and reflect’ (p.253). The KLICE work is about pausing and reflecting; ‘going deeper to go farther’.
 “Christian Apologetics” in Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics and Theology (London: William Collins, 1996) 66-7. Emphasis added.