The Sin of Spin
It was a lovely picture. Heartwarming. On the day that the UK left the EU, the EU Commission sent ‘Scotland’ a lovely message – ‘Europe loves Scotland’ was projected onto the EU Commission building.
The SNP were of course delighted – this was after all proof that their flagship policy of having another referendum in order to get Scotland back into the EU would be easy. Nicola Sturgeon tweeted:
Peter Grant, the treasury spokesperson for the SNP tweeted: ““What a strange thing to do for a European commission that Labour and the Tories say doesn’t want Scotland back in.”
The only problem was that the projected sign came not from the EU Commission, but from a company called Double Take Projections, who were hired to do it by the Nationalists. Although Kirsty Blackman, SNP spokesperson, did not seem to know what was happening, when she said the SNP did not do it.
But the SNP were being too clever by half. One of the reasons we know that they did it, is that every statement they made was carefully worded, so that technically it would not be a lie. So for example Nicola tells us that the EU commission building left ‘a light on’ – and she could argue that she was not referring to the projection but to the one room what there was still a light. Peter Grant could say that he was only saying what a strange thing to do. And Kirsty could say that it was not the SNP (because it may have been paid for not out of party funds, but from individual supporters).
The point here is not to have a go at the Scottish government or SNP (although they have had a bad week in terms of being caught out over waiting time figures, hiding a £5 billion deficit in Scotland’s economy) but rather to highlight the growing problem of political parties (and other cultural institutions) using ‘spin’ in order to distort and deceive. It’s rare that a politician will get caught in an outright lie (although if you are Donald Trump it does not seem to matter) but the spin and deceit has become endemic. Usually all this is done by those who are claiming to speak the truth. Since the days of Alaister Campbell it seems that to be a political success you need to be particularly good at using the spin culture to bury bad news.
But it’s not just politicians. The same thing happens in other institutions as well. Once trusted newspapers, like The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Mail and The New York Times have become almost caricatures of Pravda the ironically named Russian State newspaper. (Pravda means truth). You don’t need to buy them to know what their angle on a particular story will be. They begin with the conclusion and then seek ‘news’ that confirms their pre-determined conclusion. It’s little wonder that people are so cynical about the MSM (mainstream media). The problem is that people then turn to the Internet where the spin is even more distorted and where algorithms ensure that you only hear what you already believe. It’s not that we believe nothing – the danger is that we will believe everything!
Let me give one example from a reputable newspaper – that involves yours truly. The Times yesterday carried a story about the Franklin Graham ban which quoted both Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance and yours truly (it’s good to know they read this blog!). The main substance of the story was fine but it was distorted by the headline “We are treated like the Uighurs claim evangelical Christians”. But that is not what either of us claimed. It’s a pejorative and untruthful headline which means “look at these dumb Christians claiming victim status as those they were Muslim martyrs, just because a right wing American fundamentalist got banned!”. Most people don’t read past the headlines, or if they do they see the story as confirming what the headline says. The bias, ignorance and prejudice of the journalist(editor) leads to the distortion of the spin.
And the church is not immune for this spinning. Whether it is the well-known pastor paying for his book to go up a few slots on the NYT bestsellers list, or the denomination reports that wonderfully spin the membership figures, the culture of spin has infected the church as well. I can think of so many examples that like John I don’t think the world would be sufficient for the books that could be written about them!
There was the Assembly where a minister solemnly stood up and denied saying that a fellow minister had committed adultery. ‘I did not say that…I said that he had an affair!”. Doubtless he thought that he was telling the truth because he did not say the actual words ‘he committed adultery’. I was astonished at the brass neck and stupidity of it.
I remember the time I tried to play that game at the Assembly. I tried to have a clerk of one of our committees replaced because I said he was overworked and not well. Which was true. But it was not the real reason. He was an officious, eccentric and self-important pain who was already causing a great deal of grief. I should have just said that. I think I was trying to be kind – although perhaps there was some cowardice as well – he threatened to sue the church if we removed him from that post (an unpaid post – he would have retained his paid job as a minister). My attempt to be clever failed…and I learned my lesson. I vowed never to play those kind of games again….
Or the missionary who wrote in his prayer letter home a report, which whilst it did not contain any direct lies, spun so wildly that it gave a totally distorted picture. It was suggested to him that he should just tell the truth – that he was not bringing revival to Scotland (and Ireland at the weekends) and leading Scotland’s church leaders, but that he was doing a small but effective work in helping a few small rural churches with preaching and that this was greatly appreciated. He feared that he would lose support if he did that. He was right. Within a year of the honest report he was headed home.
What about the Christian TV station that solemnly assured us that by giving your $100 you could reach a billion homes? They did this on the basis that there were a billion homes in the world with access to satellite TV. What they didn’t say was how many their particular station reached. It’s like people like me who write blogs under the illusion that we are speaking to the world – when in reality for most of us we are doing well if our audience extends much beyond our mother (in my case not even my mother reads what I write – which is probably for the best!).
And why is it that it seems as though every church or interdenominational group is thriving or having a blessed time? Public reports from them are like the standard answer you get from individuals when you ask them ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’ is the standard response. As an American friend suggested to me – fine stands for Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic and Exhausted!
Which mission organisation is going to say we had a pretty rubbish year, most of our outreach didn’t work (as far as we can see) and there were a lot of failures in how we did things? They can’t because most of their financial models depend on being perceived to be successful. When people give they think they are purchasing success. If you don’t give it to them you lose the money. I remember seeing in a Reformed Seminary an extraordinary advert for an evangelistic programme that suggested that it was only $1 per soul in Poland that guaranteed effectiveness. Tetzel would have been proud!
It’s sad that just as the world has developed banks that are ‘too big to fail’ so the evangelical world seems to have developed ministries that are ‘too big to fail’. So the temptation to spin and distort becomes an all too real reality.
A Time to be Silent
Of course there are times when we should not speak the truth – when it will do great harm and when it would be cruel. But that is a time for silence – not for deception in order to cover up. And it is never right to be silent when you know an injustice has been committed and that the culture of corruption will continue. It was so depressing to hear of an influential pastor who I admire, requiring some staff who had left under ‘difficult’ circumstances, requiring them to sign an NDA (non disclosure agreement). I hate NDA’s and struggle to think of any justification for them – under than to cover up some wrong.
So – yes – let’s have a prophetic voice to the culture. Let’s point out when the politicians, corporations and media spin lies. But let’s make sure we take the beam out of our own eye. And let’s be clear. Spinning the truth is lying. The devil is the father of lies – he often told lies by spinning the truth. The best antidote to that is the Gospel – repentance for past lies and turning to Christ for forgiveness and renewal.
The Solution for Spin?
The Westminster Larger Catechism sums it up fully and clearly. This is something that I, all of us as individuals and all the organisations and churches we are part of, need to take to heart. Or our faith is dead. Read this, meditate and act upon it – and let us ask Christ to make the fruit of our lips sweet, spiritual and saving!
- Which is the ninth commandment?
A. The ninth commandment is, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?
A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbours; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requires; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
144. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth;passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vainglorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumours, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defence; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any; endeavouring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.