On Sunday just before lunch, I was invited to be interviewed on Sky News on Monday morning about a letter I had signed calling on the Government to keep churches open even if there was another lockdown. This is what I said—but I also want to offer some reflections on what is required to engage well in the local or national media in this way:
There has been a very positive response to the interview—though listening back I think there are a number of things I could have done better. But these are my ten reflections on how to make the most of opportunities like this, whether they are local or national.
1. Say yes straight away
Those working in the media have pressing schedules. They must fill their slots, often at the last minute, and are desperate to get hold of names they can use. This is especially so in the case of covering religion, about which most of them will be completely ignorant. If they get in touch, then you are potentially the answer to their prayer (pun intended); they don’t have time for you to check your diary, come back to them, or allow you to suggest a change of schedule.
On Monday morning, I was planning to write an article for the blog, walk the dog, then go into a morning’s teaching on Zoom. It would have been easy to say ‘no’, but instead I rearranged what I had to do, including bringing some things forward into Sunday evening, in order to do this.
If you are approached, say yes immediately unless it really is impossible. They won’t ask a second time.
2. Do your research
Offering a good comment means doing lots of research, and then selecting carefully the most important messages. I had already done a couple of morning’s work in order to write my piece at the end of last week on a Christian response to the possibility of lockdown—but there was more to do. I re-read the letter that I had signed, highlighting key elements and making notes, and also read some articles which had commented, for and against. I also read a further set of discussions about the pandemic and the response of lockdown, including one with Professor Sunetra Gupta, who used the phrase ‘ecological relationship with the virus’ which I mentioned.
You also need to do your homework on the piece itself. When is it happening? What medium are we using? What comes before? What is the background? Who is interviewing me (so that you can address the person by name)?
All this might sound a lot of work for 4 minutes on air—but Sky News reaches about 12 million viewers, so that makes it worthwhile. Our local BBC Radio station has an audience of 170,000, so even that is worth the effort.
3. Hone your comment
I was given a remarkably long time of uninterrupted speaking (mostly because I think Kay Burley didn’t really know the best questions to ask me), but even then, I only had about two sentences I could say on each point I wanted to make—and having three points is a good plan!
I like to scribble on a sheet of A4 freehand, then circle what seems important. Take a leaf out of Jesus’ book: he often tells a story, then summarises the main point in a pithy aphorism. On broadcast media, you probably only have time to share the aphorism. I don’t think I did as good a job as a good have done in honing my sayings—but I did do another thing, which is make things concrete and specific. Actual examples of people struggling communicate more than general sayings; mentioning the actual number (1,698) who will die today gives the point punch.
You can practice for broadcasting by preaching short, unscripted homilies in midweek services, or on other occasions. Note that on radio you can look at the words in front of you; on television that is not possible since you need to make eye contact with the camera (which represents the person you are talking to).
This might be too obvious to state—but you need to be constantly listening to how God might direct you. But it is also worth immersing yourself in the usual patterns of prayer. Common Worship Daily Prayer (which I read on the phone app) quite often uses verses from Ps 103 in this season—and when I read it that morning, I realised it was perfect as a summary comment: we are fragile; but God is compassionate. There you have the gospel in a nutshell.
5. Reference forward
Kay Burley started with a lovely open question—which is a real gift in an interview, and does not always happen. Because I signalled immediately that I wanted to say three things, it was harder for me then to be interrupted, though I had to say each briefly. The moment that Sky cut to the general view of a church building, I knew I could carry on talking; an interviewer cannot really interrupt someone who is not on camera.
But doing this also sows ideas for the interviewer, allowing them to ask more detail from something you have said in order to add depth to the conversation. It comes back to the principle of ‘leave them wanting more’ rather than closing down the conversation with exhaustive comments from the beginning.
6. Deliver with pace
I have a tendency to speak too quickly when I get excited—so on my scribbled notes I have SLOW written in large letters. At the time I thought I spoke too fast, but listening back it was actually a good pace. Rowan Williams (who was on Radio 4’s Start the Week twenty minutes later) is a good example of someone speaking slowly and with gravitas, as if each thought has only just come to him, drawn from a deep well of previous thinking—which is fine in other contexts, but actually not what is needed on Sky News as we approach 9 am on a Monday morning.
It is always worth remembering that, despite broadcasting to 12 million, you are really only speaking to one person—the interviewer, but also each individual who is watching or listening. So your style needs to be conversational—I have mostly eliminated ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ from my speaking, but I had a few in this interview. I don’t think it mattered, though, since it made the conversation seem more natural and less rehearsed.
*Additional comment* It is also good to start and end with a smile and be positive. Being conversational (rather than confrontational) means communicating that you are working in partnership with the interviewer, not against her or him. That is a good way to undercut antagonistic questions.
*Second additional comment* If you have a choice, go live not pre-recorded. That way you are in complete control of what you say; pre-recorded comments can easily have your most important gems edited out.
7. Be realistic
There was some little local difficulty amongst some of the signatories of the letter as to whether there was the implication of civil disobedience, and one or two individuals got a bit upset about that. But if the letter hadn’t been misrepresented in this way in a report in the Sunday Times, Sky News would never have shown any interest. ‘Church leaders believe they are important’ really isn’t a headline or a news item; ‘church leaders in rebellion against the government’ is.
Christian leaders need to be a little less worried about what news outlets want, and a little less focused on our internal differences for the sake of making the most of opportunities that are out there (Matt 10.16).
Why was I picked out of the list of 700 signatories? I suspect it was because I had added to my name ‘Member of the Archbishops’ Council’. To a media person, that looks like establishment and something important. Was that a good choice? Who cares.
8. Be bold
I have a suspicion that most broadcasters find Christian leaders on the media rather dull—concerned to avoid controversy, not wanting to upset the apple cart, not wanting to criticise the Government, particularly if they are part of the established church. As a result, during the pandemic, I think most comment from church leaders has skirted around the fact that we are confronted with our mortality, and that the major existential questions are being presented to us. What is odd is that other commentators have not shied away from this.
So I wanted to raise and address the two questions of fear and death. There is no need to be ‘preachy’ about these big issues—I was very happy to preface everything I said with ‘Christians believe that…’ But it is worth being bold and clear about what we actually believe, since so many in our culture simply don’t know.
Part of this is not allowing yourself to be distracted—keep the main thing the main thing. Kay Burley followed my first comment with ‘…and I am sure all faith leaders will say that’. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? But it didn’t need a response. Her second question also could have derailed me, by asking about civil disobedience. That was not the point of the letter—so I got back to the point as quickly and naturally as I could. It is worth taking an ‘undefended’ approach to possible distractions; there is no time to be side-tracked on self-defence. And there is simply no point dodging around things you imagine your critics will later pick up on. Think through your message carefully—then stick to it.
9. Focus on what God has done
Again, I think a lot of formal media comment from Christian leaders has focussed on the practical implications of the pandemic—what we ought to do. But this just leads to a ‘hardening of the oughteries’ and a sense of earnestness. By contrast, focussing on what God has done (taking a theocentric rather than anthropocentric approach) is actually at the heart of all good preaching and proclamation. It is what is mostly missing from the media, and what we ought to supply.
As part of this, it is actually worth talking about Jesus…which doesn’t seem to me to have happened nearly enough.
10. Review and learn
When I have been involved in a broadcast, I alway listen back several times, make notes, decide what went well, and think about what I could do better next time. We should all be doing this with all our preaching, and it is particularly important when being involved in broadcast media. And when you have made notes about what you should do well and what you could do better, keep them in a place where you can reach for them easily the next time around.
So those are my reflections and observations. Do share in the comments your own observations, either from this interview or your own experience.