The media’s false prophets

by Guy Brandon

The link between the Old Testament prophets and our modern media might not seem immediately obvious. The distance between thewikipedia francis_barlow wolf in sheep clothing two grows larger still with the revelations of the Leveson inquiry, which take more shocking forms every day. Last week Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair Campbell, described elements of the press as ‘frankly putrid’, stating that they relied on private investigators and fabrication for the sensational stories that sell newspapers.

Like the media, the OT prophets were supposed to stand outside of the state apparatus. They acted as a source of independent accountability, critiquing the decisions of the king and the behaviour of the people. At times, in the Old Testament, prophets were respected and their words taken seriously; although many people in the royal court must have known about David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, it took Nathan’s message from the Lord to bring him to repentance (2 Sam. 11-12). At other times, prophets could be vilified and persecuted when they gave unwelcome messages.

Prophets have been described as ‘forthtellers, not foretellers’. That is, although there could be an eye on the future, their primary job was to speak into their present situation, critiquing culture. Implicitly or explicitly, the same might be said of today’s journalists. The purpose of journalism – which comes in varying forms – is the subject of a complex debate. However, values such as truth and accuracy, impartiality, independence, public interest and accountability (see, e.g., the BBC College of Journalism’s Essentials of Ethical Journalism) should be a starting point, rather than a bonus.

When the prophets became too close to the state apparatus, they lost their independence. This conflict of interests sometimes led to false prophecy, and the persecution of those whose voices were not welcome – such as Micaiah ben Imlah’s prophecy against Ahab, contrary to the encouragement of the court prophets (1 Kings 22), who merely told the king what he wanted to hear. Power of their own actually diminished their ability to speak into a situation.

Like the Old Testament’s false prophets, elements of our media have become drivers of culture and centres of power themselves, losing their ‘prophetic’ edge in the process.

Is the comparison between prophet and press a valid one? If so, how might we reintroduce that element of the prophetic – the independently critical – into the media?

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Category: Blogs

December, 2011

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