Forgot to mention he's the son of God

December 13, 2002

As historians gather to debate history and the media, Huw Richards looks at TV history and Peter Hennessey considers the press's recording of events.

If the Sermon on the Mount had been a government white paper, Christianity would never have got off the ground. It would also not have endured if an advertising agency had slicked it up into a series of soundbites designed to appeal to the upwardly mobile.

In a 1988 article in the British Journalism Review , I speculated on how journalists might cover the sermon if it were a breaking news story. The Times , I said, would probably describe Jesus as a political activist and religious fundamentalist and comment on the stridency of his tone and the austerity of his message. It would surely add in a couple of witnesses saying the sermon was an attack almost entirely aimed at the haves, with the have-nots escaping criticism. There would be an expert on hand to dismiss the significance of the speech and Pontius Pilate's press secretary saying how badly the bit about the persecuted being blessed would go down in the centurions' mess. And it would finish with a comment about the only practical result being the need for a strengthened police presence in the mountain regions.

The Independent 's line would be much the same, though a touch more sympathetic to Jesus's social policy while stressing its potential cost in terms of welfare payments.

The Guardian would be generally favourable, noting the extensive nature of the Palestinian underclass with a backgrounder on an inside page based on a staff writer's half-hour conversation with Jesus in a Bethlehem cafe.

A week or so later, The Economist would print a short piece dismissing the impracticality of Jesus's welfare economics and urging the Central Bank in Rome to ignore it and to press on with its first priority of creating a tariff-free zone within the entire Roman Empire regardless of the unemployment consequences for the poorer parts of the Mediterranean littoral. It would also regret the propensity of leftwing philosophers, however unblemished their personal lives, to come up with political programmes that promised only double-digit inflation in perpetuity.

The Mirror , in an opinion column, would give the sermon a cautious welcome while pointing out that, unlike Sir William Beveridge, the founding father of the British welfare state, Jesus had no background as an administrator or qualifications as a social scientist.

Under the headline "Law and order threat in Mid-East as loony leftie backs 'persecuted and reviled'", The Sun would declare that Jesus had joined a long list of loony lefties who had given socialism a bad name.

The BBC and ITV would ignore the sermon because no pictures were available and Channel 4 News would run a three-minute interview with a Middle East expert who would opine, with regret, that nothing Jesus said would be likely to bring negotiations any nearer on the Palestinian problem and might even make the position of moderate Arabs and Jews more difficult.

In short, the Sermon on the Mount would be business as usual, which would not, of course, prevent Jesus from eventually changing the world, even that blinkered and demented bit of it that goes by the name of the news room.

Perhaps I was too abusive at the time, but I have always been haunted by what I call the what-the-papers-never-said phenomenon. Historians are particularly sensitive to two things about newspapers as a source. First, how absolutely indispensable they are as re-creators of mood and moment, not just what a breaking story looked like at the time, but the adverts that bring back an era - a whiff of Capstan cigarettes, the glisten of Brylcreem on Denis Compton's head have me back in the 1950s in a flash. The second effect of reading old newspapers with the benefit of having consulted declassified Whitehall files is to see just how much they missed at the time.

Reporting on the inner workings of government has got much better over the past quarter of a century, and it is much easier, for example, to tell newspaper readers about cabinet committees since former prime minister John Major decided to publish regular lists of the ministerial ones after the 1992 general election. But in the early postwar years, the press really did fail quite often to fulfil its function of providing a daily intelligence feed for the electorate of the doings of government.

The press had for the bulk of the postwar years some pretty good alibis for this underperformance. Until very recently, the UK was what one senior civil servant called "a basket case" when it came to open government, let alone any notions of genuine freedom of information. But there are several examples when the early postwar press really should have got on the case, for instance over the decision about whether or not to turn this country into a nuclear power. There was some justifiable secrecy about the process of manufacturing an atomic bomb, but once it had been announced in Parliament that Britain was making a bomb, there was scarcely a flicker in the British press. For most broadsheet papers, there was no feature, no analysis and no leading article on a decision that changes the nature of a country usually forever. The Financial Times ignored the story altogether. Only Harry Chapman Pincher at The Daily Express managed to get it on the front page by wrapping it up inside a kind of security story, under the headline "Communist MP sees atom secrets".

To be fair to today's press, a serious nuclear weapons story would get extensive news and analysis treatment. It was extraordinary, though, how little leaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Despite some windfalls and the odd intrepid reporter, the press by and large was kept out of the very considerable cold war "Secret State" that was constructed alongside the existing one from 1947-48. Only in the past decade have politico-military historians been able to reconstruct some, though not all, of the secret state, thanks to successive releases of material at the Public Record Office after the "Waldegrave initiative" of 1992. Since the cold war ended, Whitehall has been more forthcoming on the UK's nuclear weapons capability.

Most journalists would accept the need for national security override in connection with certain cold war-related activities, capacities and plans before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The same still applies to some aspects of the war on terrorism. But one state activity, by its very nature, raises perpetual problems for both journalists and historians in the UK - the world of British intelligence.

There is more fantasy per column inch written about the clandestine services than anything else bar the Royal Family and perhaps, of late, the Beckhams. Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli have between them a great deal to answer for here.

Acquiring reliable information on the British secret world remains immensely difficult even in the years since the clandestine agencies were put on a statutory basis. This area is bound to remain a generally well-concealed missing dimension from press coverage of the state.

And what of those areas not covered by official secrecy legislation on whose coverage the press has failed to distinguish itself? Intriguingly, from a historian's perspective, it is the very biggest of changes that can go unrecognised by both scholars and press until they are well across their benchmarks. Eric Hobsbawm, a master of the grand historical sweep, recognised this recently when he gave the example of what were later called the "30 golden years" of sustained and unprecedented economic growth in western economies from the late 1940s to the "oil shocks" of the mid to late 1970s. According to Hobsbawm, neither the beginning gilded phase nor its sudden tarnishing was foreseen. The same, he said, was probably true of the explosion of a new youth culture in the 1960s.

It has always been very difficult to interest newsdesks or features editors in big broad-brush thematic changes for which there is little beyond feel to justify a reporter's time and energies and rarely a news peg on which to hang a story.

Newspapers are still, however, the swiftest way of reconstructing what the world looked like at a particular moment. They are indispensable, therefore, to the task Raymond Aron quite rightly assigned to the historian of restoring to the past the uncertainty that characterises the future. This, I believe, is why the journalism and contemporary history course, started two years ago by the City School of Journalism and my department at Queen Mary, University of London, will be of such value as its graduates accumulate over the years and infiltrate UK newsrooms.

Despite all the progress, though, the great and continuing danger to historian and journalist alike that George Orwell identified right at the beginning of the postwar period is the contaminated language that infects political discourse and thought in a mutually reinforcing cycle of debauchery.

Orwell hated what he called the "smelly little orthodoxies" of politics with their agreed lines and the chunks of prefabricated words intoned routinely to buttress them. Today we are depressingly familiar with what I would call mantra politics. Once the first sentence has been uttered, one knows what's coming next. It is the politics of Blue Peter - "here's one we made earlier". Sometimes a mantra can be reduced to a single word. "Prudent" will forever be associated with Gordon Brown's tenure at the exchequer. He has rendered it both boring and virtually meaningless - especially as he often deploys it as a smokescreen to disguise extra public spending.

Some pieces of political linguistic litter appear as indestructible as scraps of polythene blown hither and yon round a supermarket car park. The word "situation" is one of those. In virtually all its contexts, it is both imprecise and meaningless. The protagonists in Northern Ireland cannot get by without deploying it. Fuel or weather crises cannot be described without it.

Individual politicians could and did bore for Britain not just with single words such as Brown's "prudent", but with formulaic sentences that they would attach to virtually everything they uttered. John Major was particularly hobbled by his own verbal foreplay. "As far as x, y, z is concerned, I have made my position absolutely clear." Political correspondents, as if on cue, would tell us on the television news bulletins that "today the prime minister made the government's position on x, y, z absolutely clear".

To Major's immense credit, in a burst of candour in his memoirs, he confessed how the sloppy language of political deception had added "immeasurably to the electorate's cynicism about politics".

"I longed to move away from politician speak," he said, "but feared misinterpretation. I should have been bolder; it is appalling that we sometimes inflict such nonsense on the electorate as 'the government's position is clear' (which it isn't); 'we have exciting new plans' (which we don't); and 'we want a better future for our people'. They do not belong to any political party. They are individuals who are worth more than those who patronise them."

Indeed, "the people" is now a concept used so indiscriminately by Tony Blair and his people as itself to be meaningless.

Peter Hennessey is professor of contemporary British history, Queen Mary, University of London. This is an edited version of his Tim Curtis Memorial Lecture, given at the University of Central Lancashire in November. He will be speaking on journalism and history at the History and the Media Conference.

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