Opinion

Mustard seeds in the newsroom

Greg Clarke on having a voice

Is it too ambitious to think that Christian media could be the ‘fourth estate of the Fourth Estate’?

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The term probably owes its use to the dominant Scottish intellectual of the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle. As well as labelling economics “the dismal science”, Carlyle described the reporter’s gallery in the British Parliament as more important than the three Houses of Parliament together – hence, the Fourth Power or Fourth Estate. In the age of instant global media, his analysis seems to hold.

But the Fourth Estate itself is made up of competing powers. Open any newspaper, or browse its website, or watch a TV news broadcast or listen to the radio: the media is not a neutral or unified realm. It is highly politicised, often run by private interests, and shaped by the views of editors and producers. Some media groups have charters that guide their activities (e.g, the ABC and SBS); others seem to operate at the whim of those who hold the purse strings.

So, how can Christian voices be heard, and what role can they (and should they) play in the power struggle of public language?

Eternity has been a living attempt to answer this question for 100 editions. It has played at least four roles:

Amalgamation. Since Eternity is owned by the multi-denominational and non-denominational Bible Society Australia, it is able to pull together Christian voices that might otherwise only be heard within their own scene. The most common compliment we get at Eternity from Christian readers is that it is heartwarming to hear about what God is doing outside of one’s own particular brand of the faith.

At a time when Australians by and large understand very little about the distinctives of Baptists, Sydney Anglicans, Melbourne Anglicans, the branches of the Uniting Church, or the variety of Pentecostals, Eternity plays a storytelling role across them all, seeking where the evidence of God at work can turn into some seriously good news.

The voices of the “Exhausted Majority” can’t be heard. They are too quiet.

Adjudication. We don’t do a lot of this, because we perceive that we are here to serve the wider church and reach beyond its walls into society at large. But should we do more? Perhaps our role is to discern, applaud or critique attempts in other media to engage with Christianity. An example is John Sandeman’s piece in the March issue of Eternity on The Monthly’s misunderstanding of Scott Morrison’s faith. We’re not here to make a political comment, but we do want to set the record straight on misuse of Scriptures, misunderstanding of the gospel of Christ, and misinformation about the history, ethics and philosophy of Christianity.

Agitation. Most news outlets are activists in one way or another. Some are explicit, such as Sky News’s blatant political agenda. Some are imbued in the journalists themselves: Miranda Devine, David Marr, Phillip Adams, Andrew Bolt—the list is long of writers who have an agenda or two. And that’s what we love to read. We love strong opinions that compel us to take sides, think harder, react to issues. Eternity wants to give voice to the agitators as well as the peacekeepers. Jesus himself was an amazing combination of both.

We need Christians in every part of the media, committed to truth-telling as well as kindness, shining a light as well as extending a hand in grace. Heaven forbid that the Christian media become a fortress of believers disconnected from the rest of the scene.

Amplification. This year’s Richard Johnson Lecturer, Tim Dixon argues in his “Hidden Tribes” report that Western societies are not as polarised as the media would have us believe. It’s just that the voices of the “Exhausted Majority” can’t be heard. They are too quiet. Eternity can amplify Christians across the spectrum, giving them significant presence in discussions.

The main problem is that people don’t get what Christianity is about. They don’t know the core of it, the message (gospel) of Jesus. They have a caricature of Christianity in mind.

That’s partly the fault of us as ineffectual Christian communicators, but also due to not having sufficient media resources to be there in the action. How do you compete with News Corp, ABC, let alone Youtube and Facebook? Think of Eternity as a mustard seed, looking for sufficient watering and nourishment to get this potentially massive tree growing.

We need Christians in every part of the media, committed to truth-telling as well as kindness, shining a light as well as extending a hand in grace. Heaven forbid that the Christian media become a fortress of believers disconnected from the rest of the scene.

The four estates in the Fourth Estate might just be: the right-leaning conservative media, the left-leaning progressive media, the national or state media, and the Christian media. Could Christian media in Australia (not just Eternity!) grow to have that kind of impact?

In Australia, the Christian media is several harvests and several billion dollars behind the big media ‘farms’, but mustard seeds can grow quickly. It shouldn’t take an eternity to see the branches flourishing and the flowers blooming.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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