As a former press secretary in the Catholic Church, it was a source of constant amazement to me how the media loved any story that involved monks and modernity – while being entirely uninterested in a carefully-crafted intervention in the public square by a cardinal.
The sort of story that is now running in the UK – about how a community of 15 monks on a Welsh island have switched from dial-up to broadband internet.
I wish I could give you some more detail that would explain how this gets to be a story at all.
A conflict in the community over the issue, for example – which could be used to illustrate the dilemmas faced by communities wishing to preserve a particular way of life. Or a paradox, such as the monks wanting faster internet and local islanders opposing it. Or an uplifting story of community organization, where the monks carry out protests against a telecommunications company on behalf of the island to persuade them to upgrade, even though it’s not profitable.
But no. There’s nothing at all. The story is simply that monks have upgraded their internet connection. Yet that doesn’t stop it being run at length by the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and countless others.
There are two reasons why they are running it, and neither leaves the media in a good light.
The first is that it is taken off a press release by the telecommunications company involved, which is using it to get free advertising. The same inane corporate quote -- "We are absolutely delighted to have been able to provide the community at Caldey Abbey with state-of-the-art wireless broadband access" – appears in all the reports.
This is a classic example of “churnalism” – rehashing corporate press releases – identified by Nick Davies’ brilliant indictment of modern British journalism, Flat-Earth News. Journalists no longer leave the office, but rewrite copy at fantastic speeds – with barely time to check or follow up facts. The media have become simply an outlet for corporate PR.
The second clue comes in the headlines: ‘Monks get broadband upgrade’ – ‘Monks join 21st century with broadband upgrade’, ‘Monks’ prayers answered by wireless’ etc. You get the idea. People imagine monks as being medieval, old-fashioned, anti-modern and stuck in the past. So they think it’s cute to find them grappling with choices about broadband connections.
But the assumption behind this is absurd. Monks live, as they always have, in the contemporary world, and avail themselves of anything that makes their lives easier or their time more efficient – as long as it doesn’t distract them from the contemplative life.
Rather than try to correct the misconception, the media simply pander to it, renouncing their responsibility to educate and inform.
I’m sorry that the Abbot of Caldey has allowed himself to join in this charade, supplying a cute quote -- "Patience is one of the characteristics of monastic life, but even the patience of the brothers was being tested by our slow, dial-up internet service" – which will raise a patronising smile.
What he should have said was: “It is condescending to assume that because we’re monks we would somehow be happy with second-best. Like everyone else in modern Britain, we want the fastest internet connection available. The assumption that we wouldn’t betrays a deep misconception of what people who consecrate their lives to God are about.”