The Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop attacks the Internet - the Internet hits back in PR Week WorldWire.

The Archbishop’s Ratner moment


Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury (www.archbishopofcanterbury.org) has just had what I suspect may turn out to be a Ratner moment. His description of blogging as ‘unpoliced conversation’ has a ring of 1984 about it. This is not to say that anyone thinks the Archbishop is a closet totalitarian, or that he believes conversations, on or offline, ought to be policed. Yet that is the very clear implication of his choice of phrase.

The entire speech is still on the Archbishop’s website. There is a lot of thoughtful stuff in it. He says that the web is full of ‘paranoid fantasies’ and ‘dangerous bigotry’. But he does not say if thinks this paranoia and bigotry is more common because of the web, or merely more visible. He doesn’t say if he thinks anything should be done about these trends.

Which is all very puzzling. A speech – like any PR tool – needs core messages as well as soundbites. But what is it that the Archbishop wants to achieve? Is he calling for regulation, or policing, of the web, as his unfortunate phrase implies?

He laments that the rise of blogging may compromise journalistic professionalism, but does not seem to recognise that its speed and interactive nature can expose lack of professionalism by journalists, including the iconic Dan Rather. His speech poses many questions but suggests no answers. If he were the first to ask the questions, that would be a wholly legitimate contribution to the debate, but he must know that he is not.

The Archbishop must also know that he is addressing a country where his product is floundering in the market place. Of 60 million people in the UK, under a million attend an Anglican church on any given Sunday. Those who struggle to find relevance in established church, are most likely to think of it as dated and prurient – which are exactly the words that come to mind when a middle-aged man starts to condemn the Internet, especially with a phrase like ‘unpoliced conversation’.

There are a great many pluses to the Anglican brand. Most people have some warm associations with it – ‘kind’, ‘good’, ‘sincere’ and maybe ‘wise’ as well as ‘dated’ and ‘prurient’.

We have to assume there was a major mistake here: that he did not mean to raise the spectre of policing conversations. Who allowed into his speech a phrase that, while as memorable as Ratner’s ‘total crap’, plays directly to the church’s negatives?

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