The Archbishop has got himself into a fine mess. It is curious that despite this I read and hear everywhere that he is intelligent and wise. Intelligent he may be, but he lacked judgement and wisdom on this occasion. It is strange that someone is such a senior position, with access to good advice, should have made such elementary errors in handling the media.
The hostile interpretation of his speech began before the speech was made. It was obvious from the first briefings about the speech both that the Archbishop wished this speech to attract attention, and that it was going to attract the wrong type of attention. Why didn’t the Archbishop review the way it was being presented before he made it, and adjust the text to make it safe?
Why did he allow himself to "assent" to a question which drove him further in the direction of appearing to recommend alternative law codes, when it must have been obvious by that stage how such proposals were going to be received by press and public?
Why did he then refuse to give further interviews the next day when the press had torn into his remarks? Wasn’t it time to come out fighting, to defend what he had said in person, or better still to withdraw the offending comments and end the storm?
Any politician or person in the public eye knows that journalists love to push you further than you wish to go. They understandably want good copy, and good copy is extreme or whacky copy. If you are an opposition politician every day you are faced with a cruel dilemma. Do you say very sensible things that most agree with – in which case you are unlikely to be reported – or do you say something that challenges, that takes the debate on – in which case you will be reported but with the danger of massive retaliatory spin against you from the affected interest groups or the alternative party? Oppositions have to choose their ground carefully, but they have to take risks to be heard.
Government Ministers and Archbishops are in a stronger position. Some of the things they say and do have to be reported, even if they are sensible and boring. They need take fewer risks. Their words reflect actions that affect many people’s daily lives, so they are newsworthy anyway. They also do not need to be in the media in the way an Opposition needs to be in the media. They have power to do good and make changes without reference to the media. Oppositions need media coverage to try to win people over to gain power. Establishments can get by without coverage, or with the lower level coverage that comes with doing the job sensibly.
It makes the Archbishop’s decision to want to lead a public debate on the issue of Sharia Law particularly strange to understand. You would have thought the Archbishop would be working away behind the scenes, out of the limelight of the national media, on how to unite the Anglican movement worldwide during a difficult time. You would have thought he would plan his use of the national media aorund Christmas and Easter, when the Church has more ready access to the news,to find new and better ways of communicating a positive Christian message. The Anglican Church is in retreat, losing communicants and struggling for a role in many communities. Some leadership on why Anglicanism matters would be appreciated. Some moral leadership on the big issues of the day might help. There is an important role for the leader of the Established Church, but he needs to first to secure his base rather than taking such risks as he took this week.