One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt the hard way about blogging is that the content of an article is not the most important part. What will usually make or break it are the few little words at the top in big letters. Get a headline wrong and no matter how good the content is, you’ll struggle to grab people’s attention and they’ll never find out what all that time and effort spent writing was all about. However if the headline sucks readers in, curious to find out more, you can be on to a winner.
In our papers’ newsrooms it will be a sub-editor, rather than the author who has the job of writing a headline that will catch a potential reader’s eye. I always try to make sure my headlines reflect the content of my blog posts, but sometimes you’re left wondering if a sub has understood the implications of the words they’ve chosen or paid much attention to the content of an article. I had one of those moments on Monday night. The Guardian was running an article with the headline: ‘Christians less generous than their clergy and everyone else’. I immediately fell into the sub’s trap, already beginning to get wound up as I clicked on the link trying to imagine how Christians could be perceived as less generous than the general population when giving is such an integral part of the Christian faith.
As I started reading the subheading it didn’t get any better. It went: ‘Christian thinktank finds widespread evidence that church-goers are hostile to benefits claimants’. Once I got going on Andrew Brown’s piece I realised that both of these statements were spurious at best. It was immediately obvious that the article, which focused on the results of two recent polls on attitudes to welfare, failed to fully back these claims up.
For once, the Guardian later admitted this to be the case after a challenge from the think tank, Theos who had commissioned one of the polls. In response it has subsequently changed both headline and subheading, toning them down and removing the unjustified claim that Christians are less generous than others. I suspect that part of the problem is that it was one of those articles where a range of statistics were used liberally to produce certain conclusions that some of which made less sense than others. Unfortunately without going back to the raw data it’s hard to establish where the truth lies. Few of us would ever make the effort to do this, but on this occasion I chose to do just that.
I’m not picking out this article because I have anything against the Guardian or Andrew Brown, but because there has been so much misinformation and ill-informed comment over the last week or so around the bishops’ intervention on food poverty. This piece falls into the same category, adding to the confusion and complications. If we’re going to get anywhere beyond name calling and defensive knee-jerk reactions, some of us need to try to shine some light through the fog.
In his article, Andrew Brown refers to a new poll by Theos which allegedly reveals that ordinary Christians are at odds with the bishops over welfare because the research suggests that large numbers believe spending on social security should be reduced:
‘Theos… found a widespread belief among those surveyed that the poor are to blame for the perceived woes of the welfare system, putting ordinary Christians at odds with bishops who have been protesting about the effect of government cuts. The report said that 90% of the 2,000 people surveyed believed the welfare state was facing severe problems, slightly higher than the proportion of the general public, at 87%.’
Has anyone been listening to what the Bishops have actually said? When (now Cardinal) Vincent Nichols caused this whole frenzy to kick off several days ago, the first thing he said was: “People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure.” The End Hunger Fast letter that the 27 bishops signed only made a brief reference to the reduction in welfare spending, after which they called on the Government to act to investigate failing food markets, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger. Back in March of last year when the bishops took on the government over the effects of welfare cuts on children the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby wrote this:
‘[Iain Duncan Smith] is introducing one of the biggest and most thorough reforms of a system that most people admit is shot full of holes, wrong incentives, and incredible complexity… Having met him, I am absolutely convinced he is trying to do something that he knows more about than most – and with the best possible motives. But, with a number of other Bishops (and we tend to live in, or have lived in, or have clergy living in, the most affected parts of our country), I feel that the particular way the burden is being shared is wrong… This is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about. It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don’t agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave.’
So to believe that welfare spending should be reduced isn’t automatically going against what has been said by the church leaders. The question was actually asked in a poll conducted by Professor Linda Woodhead on behalf of Westminster Faith Debates who is referred to later in the article. The numbers reveal that around half of the Christians surveyed wanted to see the welfare budget reduced compared to 46 per cent of respondents in total, although Catholics were very slightly lower than this average. Christians were also more likely to believe that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency according to Woodhead’s poll.
The numbers from Theos do find that 90 per cent of Christians consider the welfare state to be facing severe problems compared to 87 per cent of all those polled, but 3 per cent is not a significant difference. It also has to be recognised that the question is only asking for an opinion on the state of the system, not whether the system itself is bad or flawed or whether those who claim are deserving. In a similar way, wanting to see record levels of spending on welfare lowered or believing that Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, which enough experts would not disagree with, does not give good reason to infer that you are hostile towards those living on benefits. There is just as much evidence to imply that Christians have a better understanding of the issues relating to welfare and are keen to see it continue in a sustainable manner over the long-term. This may or may not be the case too, but without asking direct questions about whether someone feels a level of hostility towards those on benefits there will not be a definitive answer.
The real problem with this article and so many others that have been accusing the bishops of being too left-wing and out of touch with both their churches and wider society, is that for the sake of a good news story or some political manoeuvring, the heart of the issue is being pushed into the background. The bishops may not be approaching the issue of food poverty using exactly the same language that the average person who identifies themselves as Anglican might, but they are not there to represent a constituency or a majority. Instead by signing this letter they have sought to draw attention to the struggles that many who have sought help from foodbanks are facing. If unelected newspapers are more than willing to tell the Government how to run its business, what makes a few bishops sharing their concerns any worse?
There are hundreds of thousands of people who have accessed foodbanks over the last year who probably have little interest in a letter that a group of bishops have signed. Some may be thankful though, for the churches and Christian volunteers who have helped them to put food on their tables. Politicians, newspapers and church leaders arguing over the morality of this situation is of no consequence to these recipients unless something changes as a result. As Lord Carey put it in the Times on Tuesday: ‘There remain urgent questions about governance, spending and subsidiarity that are simply not being addressed. It is better for politicians, church leaders and others to address these questions together and avoid false ideological divisions.’
Cardinal Nichols and the bishops have made their point. The Government would do well to take the time to listen to them some more and be willing to draw on their resources and the experiences of their own churches in order to seek to provide a welfare system that is not just based on what we can afford, but – in David Cameron’s own words – ‘is also about doing what is right.’