Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sunday Essay - too much information

Sometimes, there is just too much information. I am awash in it all the time and, I suppose, add to it.

A week back when I began this essay I had been watching the SBS TV news. I felt that I just didn't want to watch another story about trouble, a disaster, another tragedy, a problem. I am not proposing that the news should go to a good news format, that would be silly. Rather, I am saying that I have just had enough at a personal level.

The news began that night with another round of child sex abuse allegations involving the Roman Catholic Church. This was the third or fourth story, I have lost track of the number, yesterday of this general type during the day. One involved a former scoutmaster who in fact appears to have had one of those now obligatory certificates that people must have in this country who are dealing with children or young people. Another was the trial by television of the star of Hey Dad, an older Australian sitcom, alleging that he had molested the younger stars on the show.

A week later the pattern is the same. The Australian news yesterday was almost dominated by the continuing issue of past child abuse by Catholic priests, with the stories set against the Easter backdrop.  

The damage that has been done to important social institutions in this and other countries is incalculable. Some glory in this, but to others it erodes their very faith; not just religious faith, but as importantly faith in the values and structure of society. We have to fight to overcome the dark side of the human spirit, that has always been true. But action here has always centred on beliefs and values, whereas today we focus on laws, regulations and controls.

At a personal level, I find that it perverts the way I look at history. Growing up, I accepted that there was a dark side, that there was a tendency towards corruption in institutions. Good, however defined, was rarely triumphant in the short term. However, I also believed in the possibility of reform and change and that this began with the individual.

Approaching history from this perspective, the bad was, the good had to be striven for. In all this, it was hard to ignore sex and corruption: Suetonius's descriptions of Emperor Tiberius' s use of young boys, Boccaccioi's descriptions in the Decameron of the sexual behaviour of priests and nuns and the recorded attitudes of Athenian men towards younger men to name just a few, all provided ample evidence. Yet it was possible to study things as they were. That has become harder.

It may seem hard to believe, but in looking at the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland to this point, issues associated with child abuse are not the dominant issue in the broad sweep of Church history and the impact of the Church in Ireland and beyond. In saying this, I am not in any way downgrading the significance to the individuals who have been affected in the immediate past.

I suspect that, looking back fifty years from now, what is going to be important to historians is not the abuse itself, but the impact that concerns about this abuse had on the Church. I also suspect that this will be assessed in the context of changing social attitudes and the way this has affected society. I also wonder just how people will judge.

I said fifty years. This is a very short time period in historical terms. However, history has been accelerating.

Never before have we lived in an age of such massive and instant information. Never before have we lived in an age where very different cultures and attitudes are effectively placed side by side,despite distances in space. Never before have we lived in an age with such a focus on change and results in the short term.

All this builds an instability into the historical process. To illustrate.

As I remember it, the second story on SBS news last week after the problems faced by the Vatican dealt with Israel and Palestine. That same issue was covered on last night's news. 

Israel has a population of around 7.4 million, of which 75.5% are Jewish. Palestine has a population of around 3.9 million. Those 11.3 million people absorb a disproportionate percentage of world news.

Like many Australians of my generation, I began with a pro-Israeli position linked back to the events of the Second World War. Like many of Australians of my generation, I read Leon Uris's Exodus and then saw the film, reinforcing my stance. Like many Australians of my generation, my support for Israel has been progressively eroded by reporting on events since.

Now, in the latest dispute on Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, my instinctive reaction is to sympathise with the Palestinian position. Then I read a counter article in the Australian by Greg Sheridan suggesting that the settlement was concentrated in a small area with special features. So all this information pushes me between pillar and post. The only way that I could conceivably begin to reconcile all this is by getting a map of Jerusalem and then investigating in detail. Life is simply too short to do this.

Instead, I have turned off reporting in this area. The Palestinians and Israelis have to sort out their own problems, I can't help. The only thing that I am interested in are the broader repercussions.

Now how does this link to greater instability in the historical process?

Well, the conflict between the two has a long history and simply cannot be resolved easily. It will just take time and then the resolution will come in ways that we can't see now. My best guess is some form of federation or economic union driven in significant part by changes in Israeli public opinion. I would also guess that the process might take as much as twenty years.

In the meantime, the difficulty is that the need to try to achieve change, the constant reporting, creates expectations and perceptions that feeds back into reporting and the political and policy process, further affecting perceptions and processes. Again we can use the Catholic Church to illustrate.

In a report on ABC TV, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted as saying that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was loosing all credibility. It was, he suggested, quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing the clerical collar now:

"An institution so deeply bound in to the life of the society [is] suddenly becoming ... suddenly losing all credibility," he said.

"That's not just a problem for the church - it is a problem for everybody in Ireland."

I am sure that this is true. However, it just adds to the problems of the Irish Church. This is reflected in the response of Roman Catholic Archbishop Martin. 

"The unequivocal and unqualified comment... has stunned me," he said in a statement.

"As Archbishop of Dublin, I have been more than forthright in addressing the failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I still shudder when I think of the harm that was caused to abused children. I recognise that their church failed them.

"But I also journey with those, especially parents and priests, who work day by day to renew the Catholic Church in this diocese and who are committed to staying with their church and passing on the faith in wearying times.

"Archbishop Williams' comments will be for them immensely disheartening and will challenge their faith even further."

  Archbishop Martin's response shows clearly the difficulty the Church has as an institution in trying to manage under the interlocking media and political barrage. Now some might say, that's tough, that the Church deserves it for past mistakes.

My point is a different one. It is actually quite difficult for any organisation to handle this type of pressure. The longer term becomes lost in the need to manage the immediate.   

Chatting to people, one common comment is just how badly the Church as a whole has managed public relations. That may be true, but it also highlights another aspect of present difficulties.

By its nature, public relations is concerned with presenting things in the best way. Within public relations, crisis management in a sense deals with the presentation of things in the least worst way. Public relations as communication is important. Public relations as a device to try to manage the media and public opinion can be quite pernicious, because public relations needs themselves start driving broader responses.

The problems that the Roman Catholic Church faces go to questions of history, faith, values and organisational structures, as well as the management of normal human frailties. These are not questions that can be addressed through PR. The most PR can hope to do is to present.

I have used the Church as an example, but it's true for other institutions too.

I have argued previously that one of the reasons why, to my mind, many Australian organisations have become less effective lies in the rise of short term reactavism. A related problem has been the tendency to respond to problems through controls and processes that, driven by perceived immediate needs, add new layers of complexity without really addressing underlying issues.

The Phrase Finder suggests that the words "spin doctor" first emerged in the US during the 1980s because of the need to respond to TV. That fits with my own memory of the current use of the words spin and spin doctor. By its nature, spin deals with the current. Once PR and spin become drivers, the longer term is lost.

We can see another example of the whole process at work just at present in the announcement by Australian PM Rudd that Australia is to have a Minister for Population whose first task over twelve months will be to develop a population strategy. Now I actually think that this is quite a good idea. I also think that it is a good idea to make the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry responsible for this in addition to his normal duties and to place the new ministry in the Treasury portfolio.

Was the move due, however, to any sudden belief by Mr Rudd that all this was necessary? I suspect not, but rather it is a reaction to a debate that I have been tracking in the community and in the media. There is nothing wrong with this of itself. However, it didn't take any degree of foreknowledge to know that this was going to happen at some point because of the sheer size of the recent migrant intake.

The response by Opposition leader Abbott to the suggestion is another matter. Whether driven by the need to respond instantly to the media or by the way in which the Opposition has been using border protection as an attempted political weapon, Mr Abbott instantly linked the question of population strategy (a broad issue) to border strategy (a narrow question). So far as a population strategy is concerned, the question of whether we get 2,000, 4,000, 10,000 or even 20,000 people is neither here nor there.

The problem that we now have is that Mr Abbott's attempt to establish a linkage for immediate purposes is likely to twist the whole discussion.

I accept that with so many media outlets operating on a 24/7 basis we are going to continue to be deluged. I also accept that ministers, agencies and organisations will be forced to respond, reinforcing the cycle.

From a purely professional viewpoint, I do continue to monitor for patterns and to try to identify issues that are likely to become important. However, in a world of information overload, I, for one, have stopped listening to the day to day.


Winton Bates said...

A few year ago I briefly took an interest in the history of ancient Rome (just to try to fill in a gap in my education). One of the things that sticks in my mind is that there is apparently some evidence that prior to Constantine the early Christian church apparently had a reputation among Romans for being kind to widows and orphans.
I wouldn't know where to look for a source for that, but I find it a comforting thought when I read about corrupt church bureaucracies that protect their employees who molest children. There was apparently something good in the church before the bureaucrats took over.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. Sorry for the delay in responding. There is actually quite a bit that was inspirational in church history even during the bad times.

The bit about the bureaucrats is interesting. Part of the RC response to the problem is what we can call bureaucrat modern: all sorts of testing techniques for potential priests. I suspect that this is the wrong way to handle the problem.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim. This is a most thoughtful post. I only noticed it today since I've been so busy.

I'm saddened by the negativity in news media and the tendency to refract all the shades and hues through some sort of polarising filter. I've had recent contact with Radio National, on this very issue. I'm even finding Fran Kelly's morning program at times suffers from 'soft shock jock journalism' with it's frequent rendering of social and political complexities into sports metaphor driven polarities.

The fear factor has also become common news marketing device.

On the early eastern church, Winton Bates comment accords with my understanding.