Surprising News

“Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it” (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, p.66).

“Journalists often end up in jail because of their commitment to reveal important matters that those in power want kept hidden” (Tim Dean, in The Guardian, 14th May 2005).

Two fairly extreme versions of the journalistic calling; the negative and the positive faces of that central and demanding task, which is to surprise the reader or viewer. Because journalism as a profession largely exists to surprise. Something that attracts the attention of a chap who doesn’t care much about anything requires some professional skill in its presentation; more seriously, the liberating surprise of uncovering what too many people want hidden is – potentially – a moment of real moral change and needs some quite substantial resources to make it happen. The personal courage and commitment of certain journalists in the service of such moral change and vision is indisputable; and last week’s award to Frank Gardner of the BBC is testimony to this.

The difference between the positive and the negative is something like this. A journalist may want to pursue surprise because he or she assumes that where most people are starting from is boredom – and so the surprise has to be at some level entertaining. Or they may start from the assumption that the real problem is not boredom but the fact that certain people have decided what’s good for you to know (and are therefore quite happy that you should be alternately bored and entertained); what needs to be challenged is such people’s right to decide for others.

— Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, The Media: Public Interest and Common Good: lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace