Bearing False Witness

The Newsnight debacle will be picked over by the media, but I wonder how many will sit down and think through the implications of what we Christians call ‘bearing false witness’? Reporting of the grilling given to George Entwistle, Director General of the BBC, by M.P.s yesterday sometimes gave the impression that he was being held personally responsible for every shortcoming of the Corporation since its inception. I understand that on BBC Radio 4 this morning he was again put through the mill by John Humphrys. What troubles me is that all the righteous indignation surrounding the Savile case and the role of Newsnight in that and the false accusations against Lord McAlpine may not be helping anyone.

I don’t get the impression that children will be any safer, or that the reputation of individuals will be any better protected. Ultimately, programmes like Newsnight and investigative journalism generally depend on the integrity and judgement of those who produce them. And that’s where my worry about bearing false witness comes in. Everyone has a right to his or her good name. In Britain, at least, we seem to have got into the habit of condemning, as loudly as possible, anyone who has not acted as we think they should, without really taking into account whether a case has been proved or whether the level of indignation being manifested is warranted or not. It is as if we quieted our own consciences by being vocal about the shortcomings, real or presumed, of others. It may make ‘good’ T.V. or gripping newspaper copy, but does it serve to advance truth and justice?

Today is the feast of St Leo the Great. He is the pope who wrote so movingly about the Incarnation, teasing out the mystery of God made flesh and its transformation of our human existence. If we really believe in what the Incarnation signifies, I do not see how we can be so careless about truth or justice towards our fellow human beings. I suspect that investigation into the BBC’s editorial failures will merely give the government of the day an excuse to clip its wings and everyone, British or not, will be the poorer. In the meantime, I think we could all usefully examine our own conduct in the matter of gossip, tittle-tattle and innuendo. Bearing false witness begins in the heart long before it reaches the lips.


4 thoughts on “Bearing False Witness”

  1. Bearing false witness has a nuance which is prevalent here in the USA. For the most part, our media highly favors the politically liberal. This means that what we read and watch from the mainstream media is slanted, heavily at times, toward the current president. If the president were Republican, the press tends to overplay his failures and downplay his success. In other words, the reporting of facts, events, etc., while accurate is presented in such a way as to cause the hearer to misinterpret what is being reported. My question is this: is this “bearing false witness?” I find it difficult to answer that question. How far away from the truth can one get before it ceases being the truth? In the aftermath of our recent White House race, this is on my mind, making your blog thought provoking. (To be fair, we do have a conservative news channel. It was quite interesting to flip around the channels on Election Day.)

    • Where politics is concerned, most of us are inclined to perceive bias where, in fact, there may be none. Opinion is not the same as bearing false witness, provided it is presented as opinion and not fact. So, for example, someone in Britain might say, ‘David Cameron favours the rich over the poor.’ That is an opinion. Mr Cameron would probably deny it, but, being a politician, would probably accept it as being par for the course if one is in politics. Were one to go further and say, ‘Mr Cameron has skewed the tax system in favour of the rich,’ one would need to prove that he had actually done so. It’s in that grey area lawyers fight over, looking at context and assessing the likelihood of damage to reputation: is it ‘merely’ an opinion or is it an accusation? If one were to go further still and allege that Mr Cameron had not only skewed the tax system but done so at the behest of X or Y, when in fact he had done no such thing, that would clearly be bearing false witness.

  2. The words that come to mind are “Let he who casts the first stone” .

    We are all quick to leap to judgement, even if we know nothing about what has happened. If judgement is reserved to the Lord, which I believe, we leap to promptly and without any ethical foundation for doing so.

    When a situation is forensically examined and is opened up to the air, we often find that we had acted on our own prejudices and preconceptions and our own judgement is flawed.

    I’m afraid that I get tired by the constant search for scapegoats in the media. It’s about time they took a more measured approach than the one of sensationalising every headline in the hope of getting on up on their rivals.

    Oh for a media with a sense of responsibility and for an audience who think before they speak, that includes myself.
    We might have a clearer sight of what lies behind the headlines.

    • Your use of the word ‘scapegoat’ has lots of overtones. One thinks of the goat sent out into the desert, bearing the sins of Israel. We all want someone to carry the burden for us. As Christians we see that ‘someone’ as being Christ. What we don’t see is how that has changed everything, for ever. I join you in your wish for a more thoughtful media.

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