On the spot with Owen Spencer-Thomas

This article appeared in the Ely Ensign in December 2004 on page 30.

A regular feature of the Ensign was the On the Spot series. For these, Owen would interview members of the diocesan team. In December 2004, he find himself in front of the mike.

When the bishops and other diocesan representatives address the local church and wider community on matters of public interest, they speak as a team. Communications Director Owen Spencer-Thomas, who is also Ely Ensign Editor, can assist and advise them on how best to present their message.

For the greater part of his 32 years as an ordained minister, he worked as a television and radio journalist. This month the Ensign team have turned the tables on him and put him “On the Spot”.

Q. Yours is a wide-ranging job, but let’s focus this interview on the Church’s relationship with the media. An uncomfortable one, I think.

A. I don’t find it so, but perhaps that’s because I’ve spent 20 years working full-time in broadcast journalism. Most of that time has been in this region.

As with any profession, it’s important to build up trust. All this involves the careful cultivation of personal contacts in the media – a willingness to try to understand the needs of journalists and the constrains placed upon them.

Q. Surely journalism and Christianity are incompatible?

A. No, the pursuit of good journalism is wholly in line with Christian ethics. What does “gospel” mean? Good news! The early apostles were instructed to go out and spread the “good news”.

Good communications are central to being a priest or minister. They’re central to the Church’s mission and outreach. It’s about informing people.

Q. Yes but the Christian minister is teaching and persuading. The news journalist is simply reporting the day’s events.

A. That may be so. But a good journalist does like a good Christian, seek after the truth. Both try to gather information and present it in a way that’s credible. Both attempt to make their position clear and appealing. Both spread the news.

Q. But the newspapers are full of stories that wrongly attack the church.

A. Yes, distortion takes place in all walks of life for all kinds of reasons. In the media, one of these reasons is the intense competition. The restructuring of the television and newspaper industries, continuing cutbacks and the fear of job losses all put news journalists under huge pressure to delivery attention-grabbing news stories that sell their paper or boost ratings.

Even so, let’s not forget that being Christian also means being honest. And there are times when we have to take criticism on the nose and admit that some of the tings we do are not keeping with our beliefs.

Q. I guess another reason that news is simply a form of entertainment.

A. A good story must always entertain, as well as informing and educating its readers. To be sure, the journalist who over-emphasises the entertainment value at the expense of other ingredients treads a dangerous path.

But don’t let’s forget that some of Jesus’ best parables were highly entertaining to the crowds who heard them.

Q. But why is the Church such an easy target for criticism?

A. there are many reasons. For starters, the Church believes its clergy are called to speak out publicly about matters that are of concern – on the words of the ordination service “to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord”, “to teach and to admonish”.

The Churches predicament is that we don’t always agree on our understanding of the scriptures. Such variance can be a gift to an unscrupulous journalist on the lookout for a strong story with contrast and conflict.

And what may be perfectly harmless dialogue to you and me may to some in the media be a journalistic coup – an opportunity to tell, or should I say sell, yet another story about the latest pressing issue that threatens to split the Church and tea it apart. That’s the price we pay for the freedom to speak out.

Q. I understand you are a member of Equity. Surely the sense of showmanship that goes with the role o television presenter is far removed from the humility expected of a priest?

A. Well, if you work in any job that has a high public profile, you have to keep reminding yourself that there are many better and more able people who are quietly getting on with their work without any accompanying publicity.

I left full-time television work then years ago, and I do rather enjoy my new-found privacy. However, I still believe that a sermon, like a good news story, should be not only well written, but also well presented.

Q. Your journalistic work must have brought you face to face with a wide variety of situations. What’s one of the oddest you’ve ever done?

A. Hmm! I remember conducing a live television interview at an agricultural show while a goat nibbled on the radio mike aerial which was hanging out of my back trouser pocket. It didn’t improve the sound quality one bit.

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