WHAT can theologians 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 ailing media, providing it with a new sense of purpose and orientation, both in content and behaviour? Unlikely in any direct sense, you might think. We are too far gone. The media today mediates the culture of atheistic liberalism that undermines both history and ethics. Yet Kuyper, the Dutch journalist, theologian and Premier, believed this was precisely our vocation as Christians-in-the-world.
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. Journalism is a sphere 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 illegally accessed the phone messages of not just celebrities but the family of murder victim Molly Dowler in order to get their 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 the hacking scandal took the time-honoured “blag” into new territory. Not much love for the world there then. “Fake newes”, or accusations of it 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. But the contemporary power of the media to push agendas, exhibit monomania in subject matter, and falsify evidence have all pushed the envelope of unethical, self-serving and therefore unjournalistic praxis seemingly beyond the point of no return. 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. And in November, the BBC actually had to ban political activism among its news staff. This is journalists losing sight of their purpose, which in itself is enough.
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 the Christian doctrines of creation and providence that I maintain gave it birth.
That journalism is a fruit of Christian doctrine remains an obscure fact precisely because of the demise of historical approaches to learning; a demise much lamented by Michael Pickering in the introductory essay to the 2015 Routledge Companion to British Media History.  In its concern to manifest the glory and salvific purposes of God, journalism is one of the fruits of Christian thinking.  True, news purveying was a necessity required from early on by markets needing information about trade routes, about dangers of pirates and storms – but that was a closed shop of rich merchants, and therefore the opposite of journalism. And news grubbing there always was and will be. But of greatest importance 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 spiritual hunger for news of salvation and of God’s providence at a time of almost intolerable wars, plagues, oppression and superstition.
That that history is no longer known is due to a number of causes. Michael Pickering fingers particularly “the postmodernist attack on history’s credentials as a form of knowledge and the relentless adoption in media studies of resolutely synchronic methodologies”. Other causes he includes are “a continual skewing of attention towards the latest issues and development in communications, [which] have encouraged an assumption of the past as settled and over, and so of little relevance to what is happening today” (p. 10). Historians may mention en passant the Reformation, and of course the Enlightenment, but very few bother to go back deeply into the forces that shaped the journalistic ethos and character on the Continent of Europe, and nowhere else.
We shall take a tiny step towards rectifying that occlusion with one example indicative of the real moral atmosphere and the personal orientation in which news stories emerged in the first two decades of the 1600s. News stories began to show then the three most salient characteristics that went on to form what we know now as the newspaper: these were 1) contemporaneity, 2) broad public dissemination, and 3) regularity. I cannot detail these categories here, but we can look at a classic example of how readers were given a proper salvific context for what they were reading.
The news story Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales (1607), is a classic case 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 elsewhere.
Nicholas Brownlees who has does speciliast work on the paratexts 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.” Calvin’s providentialism took Europe by storm, providing the impetus for writers to explore the fatherly ways of God to man. It was this that fuelled the extraordinary engine of journalism. This is the doctrine that finds God the Creator and His purposes in everything. Journalism is rooted in a “lifeworld” (Habermas uses the word Lebenswelt), or interconnected cosmos, governed by a God who evinces 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. And it was sacrificial – but that is another story.
The production of news in Europe was redemptive therefore. When such journalism ceases to be directed “towards God’s creation designs” and for the love of humanity, it becomes self-serving and corrupt, a platform for the exercise of power without responsibility, untrusted and untrustworthy. Identifying and exposing the idols worshipped by journalists is an overdue 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. See also Michael Pickering’s excellent essay ‘Devaluation of History in Media Studies’ in The Routledge Companion to British Media History. Martin Conboy and John Steel (Eds), (London: Routledge, 2015).
 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.
 Xiantao Zhiang, The Origins of the Modern Chinese Press: the influence of the Protestant missionary press in late Qing China (London: Routledge, 2007).
 Nicholas Brownlees, The Language of Occasional News Pamphlets (1600-1620) (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 10.