Our friend Kim took part in a radio ‘debate’ with Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens today. For the next few days you’ll be able to here it here, if you have RealPlayer installed. (The segment begins about 5 minutes into the programme). Well done, Kim - you more than held your own with Hitchens who was obliged at one point to admit that he hadn’t actually read the Rowan Williams’ lecture that sparked this whole controversy.
That’s the most depressing thing about this whole business. Not that there’s a debate, which is always good. But there’s debate based on soundbites and context-less quotes. How can a senior journalist even think about going on a national radio show without having read what he’s supposed to be talking about? It beggars belief.
The gloom I feel about this deepened as I read Paul Vallely’s column in today’s Independent. Headed “Williams is snared in a trap of his own making”, Vallely appears to be arguing that we are no longer capable of having an informed and educated conversation in Britain:
News has little room for the subtleties of academic gavottes around delicate subjects. A canny religious leader – or at any rate his press office – ought to know that. … What sharia means, and most Islamic jurists agree, he tells us, is not a list of laws but a way of thinking that expresses the universal principles of Islam. Codifications of that law, by the Saudis, the Taliban or whoever, are inevitably reductive and therefore false. “An excessively narrow understanding of sharia, as simply codified rules,” he says in the full lecture on which the stories were based, “can have the effect of actually undermining the universal claims of the Koran.” … The trouble is that most people have not ploughed through all that, which is why the Tories called the Archbishop’s remarks “unhelpful”, the Liberal Democrats said all must abide by the rule of law and the Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: “To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong.”
To all of which the Archbishop may say “but you are objecting to something you think I said rather than what I actually did say”. He has a point. But, equally, in a world where perception becomes its own reality, it is important for the leader of the Church of England not to create such fecund opportunities for misunderstanding.
Now this is depressing. Vallely is writing for the newspaper which, in my opinion, sets the standard for print journalism in Britain. What he is urging is that public figures like the Archbishop shouldn’t pursue complex and nuanced issues because nobody in the media will bother to “plough through” the complexities to present them to the public.
Rowan Williams may or may not be right on the specifics of this issue. I simply don’t know enough about Sharia to have an opinion worth expressing.
But I do know that by refusing to give in to the sound bite culture, he is leading a counter-revolution which might yet restore some decency to the standard of public debate in Britain. And in that, I reckon, he’s doing us all a favour.