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16 January 2015

Fox News, Birmingham and getting past Cartoonishness

Fox News, Birmingham and getting past Cartoonishness

A wise boss once said that in the area of communication there are basically two types of people.

The first are those who understate, and should say more, and the second are those who overstate, and should be a little more circumspect.

I put Steve Emerson in the latter camp. On a live Fox News broadcast last Sunday evening, Emerson, an American journalist, author and pundit on terrorism and Islamic extremism, made the claim that"there are actual cities, like Birmingham, that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go".

Predictably, uproar and ridicule has ensued in the British media, with the Twittersphere trending with witty –and not so witty –#foxnewsfacts, such as: "Nuneaton was named during the daylight hours of Ramadan."The prime minister was not impressed: "When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools' day," Cameron said. "This guy's clearly a complete idiot."

As well as an effusive apology on his website, Emerson appeared tail-between-his-legs on the Today Programme and Sky News, recognising he'd made a terrible error, been badly briefed, and he'd deserved all he got. He added: "Hearing it over when you played it was like waterboarding, I guess."

In such a terrible and confusing week, which raises so many hugely complicated questions, 'Emersongate' seems almost a bit of light relief that we are all happy to latch onto just to break the tension.

What's tragically ironic about all of the events over the last week, is that the day before the Charlie Hebdo murders, I was in parliament at a consultation sponsored by Lapido Media and The Open University entitled, Getting ReligionChallenging Religious Illiteracy in a Time of Global Uncertainty, which was the official launch of an important report on the same topic. Two of the main conclusions are that religious literacy and a wider vocabulary are needed by all, and that religious literacy of journalists should be promoted and improved. Indeed.

To be honest, Emerson's gaffe is something of an easy target, and we like easy targets. But reality is not that easy. It's finely drawn, subtly shaded and not cartoonish. David Cameron can say that Emerson should "look at Birmingham and see what a fantastic example it is of bringing people together of different faiths, different backgrounds and actually building a world-class, brilliant city with a great and strong economy". Maybe. But wait a minute. The education minister had to take action in July in light of Peter Clarke's 'Trojan Horse' report, which had concluded that in a few Birmingham schools there had been a "co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action" by a number of individuals to introduce an "intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos". It was the Birmingham Mail in 2009 that decided to run with this headline: "The areas of Birmingham that are no-go areas for white people."

Don't we need to get past comical exaggerations and extremes, get past Birmingham being a caliphate, or that Birmingham is the new heaven and new earth. Don't we need to get past the idea that it's all to do with Islam, or that it's nothing to do with Islam;or it's all about secularism,or that it's nothing to do with secularism.

One characteristic of good journalism is surely that of trust, based on competence, character, and most relevant here, relationship. Steve Emerson was guilty of 'relational distance', a sin that will often result is generalisations, caricatures and in this case, idiotic statements. Let's not be bitter but better here.

We might not all be journalists or media pundits, but the same characteristics apply to any communication in our lives. We don't have to communicate in cartoonish fashion. In Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself to be utterly competent, perfectly integrous and relationally near.As Christians, we need to be great communicators of reality. What's more, Christians are in that increasing minority who still believe in something called 'truth'. Let's speak of it.

Dr Daniel Strange is academic vice-principal and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London