Media Freedom and Religious Freedom

According to the last few weeks of media reporting, George Orwell’s 1984 has come to roost in Australia. A headline in yesterday’s The Age announced that “This country’s treatment of whistleblowers has strong echoes of Orwell”. While acknowledging Orwell’s novel is set suspiciously in Oceania and that ‘Big Brother’ was headquartered on the Gold Coast, I reckon that the population of Hong Kong have a better understanding of the Orwellian State than we Aussies.

I am thankful for the fact that we live in a country where the press has the freedom to report issues. They don’t need to hide under a blanket and with a pseudonym, uploading stories to those who are brave enough to click on them This is not the case in every nation, and it’s a blessing that we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Journalists perform a vital task in modern societies: to investigate and to inform people of news stories. Media is a key source for attaining information regarding all manner of news items, and so it is essential that they have freedom from Governmental control and influence (and indeed, freedom from the control of big business and influential identities). I’m suspect that self-interest sometimes serves as a journalist’s catalyst which can encourage boundaries to be pushed or even crossed,  whether it is fame, extra clicks and likes, or corporate profit. I’m also sure that many work with personal convictions and integrity and are seeking to do good for the public interest. 

There was been a strong and immediate reaction to two raids made by Federal Police over the last couples of weeks, one in a journalist’s home and the second at the ABC’s Sydney office. Authorities enacting newly introduced laws that are aimed at protecting information sensitive to national security. 

In today’s The Australian, Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally said,

“When freedom of the press — a basic tenet of our democracy — is seen to be under attack, the government must speak up.”

While not all journalists are concerned by this ‘news’, across the media’s ideological spectrum there has been a fairly unified expression of concern. 

In an interview on ABC radio Melbourne last week, Kerry O’Brien commented

”people have to be really clear about what’s at stake here”.

“If they care about democracy, this does go to the heart of democracy and the democratic process”.

Richard Flanagan’s piece for Guardian goes even further,

“The AFP media raids aim to suppress the truth. Without it we head into the darkness of oppression

If mass surveillance is brought in, how will we know about it? Is national security best served by the inevitable abuses of such a scheme about which we are never told and which would go unpunished? Would national security be enhanced or weakened were Mr Dutton to use such powers for political advantage or to enable political persecution without our knowledge?

And if we cannot know the truth of such fundamental matters, what security as a democracy do we have?”

Professor Peter Greste has offered what appears like a more even-handed analysis, suggesting that, 

“We are not suggesting that those laws be repealed – clearly, we need to update our national security framework to deal with evolving threats – but if in the process of trying to make us safer, we undermine the very system that has made us one of the safest countries on the planet in the first place, something has gone terribly wrong.”

The legislation, if accurately summarised by Damien Cave in the New York Times, does seem needlessly broad and vague.

“The most recent expansion of governmental secrecy came last year with an espionage bill that increased criminal penalties for sharing information deemed classified, even if a document happened to be as harmless as a cafeteria menu, and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests.”

It’s a little tricky to work out what all the relevant parties think about the Federal Police raid on the ABC. For example, both the Coalition and Labor last year supported the legislation which gave license to this police investigation. It was also last year that Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, called for Parliament to introduce legislation to crack down on journalists who were allegedly engaging in “hate speech” (by which he meant, social commentary that he didn’t agree with). Last week, he was whistling a very different tune.

The Age newspaper ran with the headline, “without fear or favour”. It is a perfectly sensible ideal and many journalists aim to live up to this high standard. The benchmark is, of course, an impossible one, for no media corporation is without bias and no reporter is morally or politically neutral. Indeed, as society becomes more polarised, we are seeing a diminishment of this kind of “without favour” reporting, with many journalists spouting popular ideology and replacing evidential and reasoned reporting with sloganeeing, sometimes without the faintest idea of the subject matter that they are talking about. The topic of religious freedom is an all too obvious and rather ironic example of this.

There is more than a touch of incongruity in the middle of this public outcry. Many of the same voices who are today yelling grave concerns for journalistic freedoms have been quite prepared to deny similar freedoms to religious people when it comes to speaking and persuade in the public square. 

Parallels between media freedom and religious freedom

Indeed, I suspect some members of the press would squirm at the realisation that there are striking correlations between the media and religious communicators. 

Firstly, both groups have little protection under Australian law. Professor Peter Greste explains,

“Like a lot of people, I’m really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that’s really unhealthy.

“That’s why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”

Two South Australian Senators, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, have announced plans to introduce legislation to amend the Constitution in order to give the press similar protections to those enjoyed by American journalists under their Constitution. 

At the same time, legal experts have also been calling for the Government to give protection to religious organisations, schools, and churches so that they can continue to adhere to their values and to speak, without fear of Government intrusion and without businesses defining appropriate religious belief, as we have witnessed in the recent Israel Folau case. 

Secondly, both groups have a role and responsibility to broadcast and communicate a message. 

It is worth noting that the Biblical language for religious speech is not dissimilar to that of the reporter. To preach means to herald a message. To teach is to inform and to impart information of importance to others. The preacher may analyse social events and cultural trends but foremost they are to present the truth of Jesus Christ without “fear or favour”. In this way, I can empathize with journalists who feel as though the Government is attempting to intimidate and control.

Some of our media have mud in the eye today, or is that a plank? Sadly, I don’t think they’ve spotted it as yet. Freedom for the press, but not freedom for religious speech. Freedom from Government intrusion, unless you’re a religious organisation in which case the Government has every right to interfere. If only some of our most vocal journos practiced what they preached, “without fear or favour”, they might be receiving a little more sympathy today. Despite their lack of concern for the freedom of other Australians to present, speak, and persuade in the public square, other Aussies understand that there is an important principle at stake for both groups. With that in mind, might I suggest the following 5 points.

5 Points for Consideration

As I calculate the actions and reactions in light of the police raids, here are 5 thoughts for consideration:

1. Freedom of the press is paramount for sustaining a liberal democracy. We ought to defend the media’s freedom to pursue and publish stories that are of public interest and importance, without undue external pressures being applied.

2. Journalists shouldn’t work outside the law (I’m not saying that’s the case here with the ABC. The fact is, we don’t yet know). 

3. We should be slow to impute bad motives on our police (and on the Judge(s) who signed the warrants)

4. We should be cautious about making unsubstantiated judgments about Governmental interference. Rumouring and speculating don’t aid the cause of the media, nor that of the public. If we are truly concerned about ‘fake news’, we mustn’t let rhetorical flair escape the evidence at hand

5. If recently instated laws are unnecessarily inhibiting journalists from setting about their work with integrity and thoroughness, it is appropriate for the Government to reevaluate these laws (as well intended as these laws may be).

A Cricket Masterclass in Civility

India not only gave the world a masterclass in cricket last night but also in sportsmanship.

In Australia’s third game of the World Cup that is being played over in England, the Indians batted first and gave the crowd an exhibition of sublime batting, as well as exposing Australia’s lack of depth in our bowling attack.

Late in the innings when Steve Smith moved to field at third man on boundary line, much of the crowd, largely made up with thousands of Indian supporters, began to boo and jeer him. Smith has been booed throughout the tournament so far, whether he is fielding and especially when batting.

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Just over a year ago, Steve Smith was Captain of Australia’s men’s cricket team when he and two other players were embroiled in an incident of ball tampering, which resulted in a 12 month ban from the game. The ban has been served and now Smith and David Warner are back in the Aussie side.

Virat Kohli, India’s captain, was batting at the time when he left the crease and approached the spectators, signalling with his hands and telling them to stop booing Smith, and instead suggest that they clap Smith.

At the press conference after the game, Kohli spoke about the issue,

“So just because there’s so many Indian fans here, I just didn’t want them to set a bad example, to be honest, because he didn’t do anything to be booed in my opinion. He’s just playing cricket.

“He was just standing there, and I felt bad because if I was in a position where something had happened with me and I had apologised, I accepted it and I came back and still I would get booed, I wouldn’t like it, either.

“So I just felt for him, and I told him, I’m sorry on behalf of the crowd because I’ve seen that happen in a few earlier games, as well, and in my opinion that’s not acceptable.”

Kohli has exhibited the kind of leadership that is unusual in this highly charged and partisan age. At a time when the temptation is stop playing the ball and instead throw insults at those with whom we hold disagreement, a little grace and kindness is a powerful alternative. It is amazing how a few drops of perspective can breakdown a wall of irrational and unnecessary antagonism and bullish behavior.  I reckon our political leaders and leading social commentators could take a lesson from last night’s cricket. I suspect that even Christian leaders could do with learning to play few balls like this.

India didn’t lose anything by Kohli’s actions. He batted well and he captained his side to victory. At no risk to India’s performance, Kohli exercised fairness and tolerance, dressing down his own fan base for unsportsmanlike behavior. In doing so, he gained the appreciation of Smith and other Australian players, as well as that of the general public.

It was Jesus who said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Peter would later write, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”

The Apostle Paul added,

“clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

We don’t lose by exercising these qualities. But in this season of outrage we too often wrongly conclude that the only way to combat opposing ideas is to respond with throwing insults and alleging the worst of motives in others. Kohli last night proved that theory flawed. Of course, the issues being debated and argued on the world stage are of greater significance than a game of cricket, and yet this doesn’t lessen the power of civility and grace. Indeed, such qualities are of even greater necessity and value today.

The President went to Church and the Pastor prayed for him

President Donald Trump went to Church today. After playing a round of golf on Sunday morning, he visited McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia. A spokesman from the White House said that President Trump was there to “visit with the pastor and pray for the victims and community of Virginia Beach.”

David Platt is a Pastor at McLean Bible Church. Platt was formerly the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board and is a Council member of the Gospel Coalition. McLean Bible Church is a nondenominational church located just outside of Washington DC. The Church describes their aim as, “We glorify God by making disciples and multiplying churches among all nations beginning in greater Washington, DC.”

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What does a Pastor say when the President of the United States arrives for Church? One could conflate Christian faith with conservative politics and therefore deflate the Gospel and create needless divisions in your church. One could condemn the man and his politics and so initiate another unnecessary division in your church and once again confuse the Gospel. One could use the opportunity to campaign either for or against President Trump.

The Scriptures provide us with examples of how to navigate such scenarios, although I don’t recall a specific example of a national leader visiting a church service. There is Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar, and Paul before Agrippa, Festus, and Felix.  As David Platt made mention in his prayer, 1 Timothy 2 gives us instructions as to how to pray for Governing authorities,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

It is clear from Platt’s prayer that he shares this Pauline view of the world.

I’m not privy to the arrangements made prior to the President’s visit (reporting suggests that it was quite an impromptu visit), but it is worth noting that Mr Trump did not speak or share while on the platform; Church is not a political rally. Mr Trump did not pray or read the Bible, as Church’s sometimes feel obliged when dignitaries visit. Pastor Platt and the Elders of McLean Bible Church respectfully guarded their pulpit and they rightfully acknowledged their nation’s leader with them and prayed for him and for the country.

We need more examples like David Platt.

How would we greet our political representatives, should they turn up to our churches next Sunday?  What would our reaction be should our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison or our Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese decide to drop by for church? Or if you live in Victoria, what if our Premier Daniel Andrews wished to attend? Placards or prayer? Posturing or Gospel presentation?

In an era where social outrage and political partisanship are on the rise, and where the culture drives people to the poles of icy extremes, David Platt offers us an example worth heeding.

Take 3 minutes to watch the video and listen to the pastor’s prayer for the President.

 

Since writing earlier today I have received some pushback. For the most part, Christians have expressed gratefulness for the way in which David Platt prayed, but some are suggesting that it’s all about optics rather than the content of the prayer. I don’t know what motivated the President to turn up that morning (I’m not naive enough to think politics wasn’t at play), but I also believe that the God to whom we pray is more wise and powerful and can outwit even the optics created by the President of the United States. The will of God to whom we pray will outdo the intent of any who wish to spin it for their own short-term political ends.


David Platt has since written this letter to his church. I appreciate his love for the Gospel and for his Church https://www.mcleanbible.org/prayer-president?fbclid=IwAR1nxkslWRJlU7kxOquyYYmyQxsjilfOHIp5nCtKKbG5GZwuAjn2vMfvRlI