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World Communications Day: what it means to be a journalist

This Sunday is known as World Communications Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. It is an opportunity to reflect on many aspects of what communications means in the modern world.

It is also an opportunity for those of us who work in the media to reflect on our roles and the values that guide us.

When Pope John Paul II came to the UK in 1982 he handed a simply typed note to all the journalists covering the trip. It was addressed to “My friends in the communications media”.

It was reprinted on the front cover of UK Press Gazette that week. I cut it out and framed it and it has hung by my desk, wherever I have lived, ever since. This is what he wrote.

••••••••••••••••••••••

Wherever the sounds of transmit are heard, wherever the images you capture are seen, wherever the words you report are read, there is your neighbour. There is a person you must love, someone for whose total well being you must work – and sometimes go without sleep and miss your meals.

You are the instruments through whom that person – and millions of others – enjoys a wider experience and is helped to become a more effective member of the world community, a true neighbour to others.

Your profession, by its very nature, makes you servants, willing servants, of the community. Many of the members of that community will differ from you in political views, in material prospects, in religious conviction or in moral performance.

The message stills hangs on the wall next to my desk

As good communicators, you serve them all the same – with love and with truth: indeed with a love of truth.

As good communicators, you build bridges to unite, not walls to divide. As good communicators, you work out of the conviction that love and service of neighbour are the most important business in your life.

All your concern then will be for the community’s good. You will feed it on the truth. You will enlighten its conscience and serve as its peacemaker.

You will set before the community standards that will keep it stretching for a way of life and a mode of behaviour worthy of its potential, worthy of human dignity.

You will inspire the community, fire its ideals, stimulate its imagination – if necessary taunt it – into getting the best out of itself, the human best.

You will neither yield to any inducement nor bend before any threat which might seek to deflect you from total integrity in your professional service.

••••••••••••••••••••••

I know many people reading that will scoff because they have just read or heard something they disagree with and think my fellow journalists fall far short of those ideals. Before you dismiss it I ask you to bear a few things in mind.

We are only human. In my experience, most journalists do strive to achieve many of those ideals but our human frailty means we often fall short. Our job means our shortcomings, mistakes and errors of judgement are there for all to see and criticise. The scrutiny is constant and intense. We should not be automatically condemned for our failings but instead be encouraged to do better next time.

Many journalists face immense pressures because of what they do. 54 journalists around the world were murdered for doing their job last year. 250 journalists are currently in prison for doing their job. Even those of us who haven’t faced such extreme dangers still live with threats, sometimes physical, sometimes financial. I have been threatened on many occasions by people and firms with deep pockets, seen libel writs with my name on them land on my desk and faced demands to reveal sources for doing no more than telling the truth, truths that some people would rather not be known but which I have believed a greater good dictates should be dragged out into the light.

We are not perfect and know that journalism is not a profession that will ever command widespread respect, at least not until it is gone. But the overwhelming majority of us will never stop seeking the truth, nor forget it is the interests of the communities we serve – our readers and audiences – that come first.

There is still a long way to go to produce a Remain majority

There is plenty of excitement among the Remain supporting parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, over the trends in the opinion polls for the European Parliament elections. They believe the polls show a significant move towards remaining in the EU if there is another a referendum.

I don’t want to rain on their parade but I just don’t see it.

I wrote a week ago that it is was being optimistic to believe a Remain majority is emerging in the polls. That is still the case, even after the huge YouGov/Time poll that came out yesterday and showed the Liberal Democrats overtaking the Conservatives.

If you take the latest BBC poll tracker and break down the support for the different parties into Remain and Leave, it suggests there has been very little movement in public opinion since 2016.

The combined Brexit Party/UKIP vote is 35%. That is the Hard Brexit vote.

You have to assume that the Conservative vote is a Soft Brexit vote as sticking with May has to mean accepting her Withdrawal Agreement. That is another 12%.

The pro-Remain vote is still fragmented across several parties with the momentum with the Liberal Democrats as the standard bearers. However, it still only adds up to 31%.

This brings us to the Labour vote, currently on 22%. Out on the election trail the Liberal Democrats and others have been keen to label Labour as a pro-Brexit party, not unreasonable as a campaigning tactic as Corbyn has been working to facilitate Brexit. However, we know that a significant proportion of the Labour vote – at least in the south east – is pro-Remain. In its northern working class heartlands it is a different matter.

Some of the Leave supporting Labour voters will have defected to the Brexit Party. We also know from some of the polling analysis done over the last week that a significant proportion of Remain supporting Labour voters have defected to the Liberal Democrats or Greens.

If we assume that the current Labour vote would split 2:1 in favour of Remain, where does that leave us?

It gives a 54:46 majority for Brexit. If you take a more optimistic pro-Remain view and assume the Labour vote would split 3:1 in your favour you end up with a 52:48 Brexit majority. If you impose the 2:1 assumption on the YouGov/Times poll you also get a 52:48 Brexit majority.

Has anything changed since 2016?

Where is this Remain majority so many claim?

The Financial Times has produced some interesting analysis of the likely voting intentions in the European Parliament elections in two weeks time. It exposes some of the shifts caused by the creation of two new parties and the threat to the Conservatives from the Brexit Party.

It also shows we are a long way short of seeing a majority emerge for remaining in the European Union.

The FT analysis shows the Hard Brexit parties already garnering 32% against the anti-Brexit parties 29%. In the middle are Labour and the Conservatives. The FT shies away from labelling them on the Brexit spectrum but they must be considered soft Brexit parties as they are both working to facilitate Brexit. Where is the Remain majority now?

Of course, there are supporters of both major parties who are in favour of remaining in the EU and who will stick with voting for those parties regardless of the fact both are led by people pointing firmly towards the EU exit door. Some of those supporters will also be in favour of a second referendum. Despite those important caveats, what the analysis does show is that claims of a major switch in public sentiment towards Remain are misplaced.

Most of those campaigning for a second (or should that be third?) referendum seem to be desperately naive in believing it will deliver a majority for Remain. They style their campaign The People’s Vote as if they know which way “the people” will vote once it takes place. The arrogance of that stance has unnecessarily angered those who want to leave the EU and has made the Remain campaign an easy target for Farage and his “the elites are against you” message, as crude and dangerous as that may be.

The only way to stop us leaving the EU is to have a second referendum but it is a course fraught with danger.

I find it hard to see how it might unify the country. The 2016 referendum surely shows us that referenda are divisive and polarising. Why should another one be any different?

What the voting intentions for the European Parliament elections show us – if we want to see them as a proxy referendum – it that the country is as divided as ever on this issue. There is no guarantee that “the people” will vote as the campaigners for a second referendum assume. It may produce a majority for Remain, but what if that is 52:48? Does that beat 52:48 the other way?

There is a real danger that another referendum will just deepen the divide and perpetuate the arguments which is why I remain a very lukewarm supporter of the idea. If Parliament cannot pass a Withdrawal Agreement then it will be a Hard Brexit or a referendum and I would certainly support the latter and campaign for a Remain vote but not with any great optimism that it will produce the result I want or solve anything in the long-run.

A Parliament not fit for purpose

The publication of the plans for a temporary home for the House of Commons confirm my worst fears.

Parliament is not fit for purpose, neither the building nor its occupants.

No imagination, no vision

The proposal to replicate the current chamber of the House of Commons is a huge missed opportunity to add to the many failures of imagination over the debate about what to to with the crumbling and dangerous Palace of Westminster. Complete and permanent relocation was the obvious answer years ago but our backward-looking, innately conservative politicians of all parties failed to grasp this opportunity.

Now, they have compounded that failure with this timid, lazy, and unimaginative design for a temporary chamber. It is not fit for purpose. Nor are the MPs who think this is acceptable in the 21st century

This was an opportunity to experiment with a semi-circular chamber that acknowledged the full range of political opinions now represented in Parliament. The two-party system of the 19th century disappeared decades ago but our politicians still grimly grasp its physical legacy close to them.

A very basic requirement should have been a chamber that can accommodate all MPs rather than just two-thirds of them. The sight of MPs standing, crammed in around the entrances to the chamber during the recent Brexit debates contributes to the farce of Westminster politics. It is simply unacceptable that every member of Parliament does not have a seat. Think: they could have even given them a small desk to put papers and computers on, perhaps even equipped with electronic voting facilities.

Clearly, that is all too 21st century for our backward-looking, unimaginative MPs and government.

Sir David Rowland: the man who saved Lloyd’s

There will be many eloquent tributes paid to Sir David Rowland, chairman of Lloyd’s for four turbulent years in the mid-1990s, who passed away yesterday, aged 85. He was, more than anyone, the man who saved Lloyd’s.

I interviewed him on several occasions and heard him present to many different groups and he was never less than impressive, always totally in command of his brief and never with a word out of place. When he stepped into the chairmanship at Lloyd’s the market was under the cosh with years of bad losses made worse by poor market practices and too timid an approach to reforming a capital structure that was no longer fit for purpose. Rowland led a process called Reconstruction & Renewal that transformed the market, in particular by replacing the individual capital of wealthy Names by corporate capital and brilliantly parcelling up past losses into a new reinsurance vehicle called Equitas. Those who want to know how this was achieved should read Andrew Duguid’s excellent book On The Brink.

Equally impressive was how he changed the mood around Lloyd’s, showing almost endless patience with its critics and gradually winning them round. This was especially the case with its vociferous Parliamentary critics. I sat through many presentations Sir David made in Parliament, especially to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Insurance & Financial Services, and they captured perfectly his success in winning people round to his vision of reform.

The first time he appeared in Parliament he was faced with a room full of angry MPs and Peers, mostly Names at Lloyd’s facing massive personal losses. It was always rather hard to have a lot of sympathy for them as I used to wonder which bit of “you are liable down to your last gold cufflink for losses on your syndicates” they hadn’t been listening to when they joined Lloyd’s. There was, however, some justification behind their anger as many syndicates had been badly run, often to the point of behaving corruptly.

Thus Rowland inherited a pretty poor relationship with MPs and Peers. His predecessor David Coleridge did not display anything like the same patience with them. He had been sued by one former Tory MP, Tom Benyon, following scathing criticism he made of him in an interview with me that was published in Post Magazine. Over the four years of his chairmanship Rowland turned their mood round completely, so much so that by the end of it Lloyd’s was able to hold a dinner for the All Party Group members to thank them for their support.

Sir David was a generous man and he was always quick to praise those who worked with him and who played a big part in bringing the ambitious reforms to fruition, people like Peter Middleton, Michael Deeny and Ron Sandler. However, it was his contribution that towers over those of other people and for which Lloyd’s, the London insurance market and UK plc should always be grateful.

Pic credit: Insurance Hall of Fame

Ashdown was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals

The news that Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has passed away has already drawn generous and eloquent tributes from across the political spectrum. Righty so, as he was a man who lived several lives, often in the service of his country and always with a deep sense of duty.

He was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals who in the late 1980s felt sidelined and demoralised after the heady early days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance descended into acrimony and electoral failure. To many of us the new party born out of that Alliance seemed an alien place, especially as it tried to expunge the word Liberal from its campaigning name.

He picked the party up after the shambles of the merger and enthused everyone. He was always approachable and reached an audience well beyond the party faithful. Most importantly, he put Liberalism back at the heart of the party and it is from then that its revival can be traced. Perhaps there are parallels for today.

I was lucky enough to meet him on many occasions and many of my memories illustrate his ability to inspire loyalty and also reach people beyond the party and engage them on many levels. He was accessible, human and genuinely interested in people, a far cry from many of today’s political leaders. He was also often simply good fun to be around.

He made you want to go out and fight for the party, its policies and for Liberalism. At the 1990 party conference he spoke at a reception for Liberal Democrat councillors. 1990 was a grim year. We were hovering around 5% in the opinion polls for most of it. Many of us had defended our council seats that May – mine was in Leyton in Waltham Forest. At that reception Ashdown told us that those of us who had fought and won against that background had literally saved the party. It made us feel proud and inspired to strive even harder.

My favourite memory of him, however, shows his human side. A couple of years later at the end of another party conference he wandered into the room where the exhibition stands were being dismantled just as Mariette and I emerged from the creche with our three children. Our eldest daughter was 7 or 8 and went straight up to him with a CND frisbee and asked him to play with her. The children who were regulars in the conference creche knew him well as he always took time to visit it.

He took one look at the bright yellow frisbee with its large CND logo and said that would make a good picture in the papers after the many debates about nuclear weapons. It didn’t stop him. He proceeded to play frisbee with her and several of the other children in the hall. And her school teacher refused to believe her!

He will be missed, especially at a time when his country – which he was proud to serve in many capacities – is so bereft of true political leadership.

Singing Handel’s Messiah in a Cathedral setting with orchestra is a dream for many people

Have you ever wanted to sing Handel’s Messiah in a Cathedral with a professional orchestra and soloists? Well, now is your chance with a special performance I am organising at Brentwood Cathedral on 15 December.

This performance will celebrate Andrew Wright’s 40 years service as a Cathedral musician. Andrew has been Director of Music at Brentwood Cathedral since 1982 and before that was Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

Anyone who has sung Messiah under Andrew Wright’s baton before will testify to what a special experience it is.

The line-up of soloists is superb and the professional orchestra consists of many of the players who performed St Nicolas and other works at the Cathedral last month – everyone who was there will tell just how good they are.

The choir will be made up of singers from the local area, people who have known and worked with Andrew and members of the Brentwood Cathedral Choir. Anyone can join the choir. We will rehearse at 2pm on the day with the performance of the complete Messiah at 7pm. It is a wonderful opportunity for people to be part of a choir full of people who know the work and who are always willing to help those who might be less familiar with it.

I know from having put on several Come-and-Sing Messiahs in Brentwood Cathedral over the years that, for many people, singing Messiah with a top-class orchestra and soloists in a Cathedral is a dream – it is something people have on their bucket list. Well, this is an opportunity to make those dreams come true so do not hesitate – sign up today.

The booking form can be downloaded from the Cathedral or Brentwood Choirs Festival websites:

Brentwood Cathedral website
Brentwood Choirs Festival website

Of course, if you just want to come and listen to what I know will be a tremendous performance you will be most welcome. Audience tickets are just £12 (£5 concessions) and can be booked through the Cathedral Music Department – 01277 288265 or music@dioceseofbrentwood.org 

Anniversary Messiah booking form2