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Faith and the Media

Speech given at Cardinal Cormac Murphy o’Connor Lecture 2008 series

By m. Thompson, Director-General

April 10, 2008

[Again he began to teach them by the lakeside, but such a huge crowd gathered round him that he got into a boat on the water and sat there. The whole crowd were at the lakeside on land.

 He taught them many things in parables, and in the course of his teaching he said to them, “listen! Imagine a sower going out to sow. Now it happened that, as he sowed, some of the seed fell on the edge of the path and the birds came and ate it up.

 “Some seed fell on rocky ground where it found little soil and at once sprang up, because there was no depth of earth, and when the sun came up it was scorched and, not having any roots, it withered away.

 “Some seed fell into thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it produced no crop. And some seeds fell into rich soil, grew tall and strong, and produced a good crop; the yield was thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.” And he said, “anyone who has ears for listening should listen!”

 Mark 4, 1-9]

 Hundreds of years before it was used to describe radio transmissions and long, long before it became the middle “B” in the initials BBC, the word broadcast began life as a term of art in horticulture. As many people here tonight will know, it’s a kind of sowing in which the sower scatters seeds widely over a given patch of ground rather than sowing it in strips.

 You can guess some of the advantages and disadvantages. You get the job done quickly but you never quite know where your seed will go or what will happen to it.

 The English word is only a few centuries old, but broadcast sowing itself is ancient, maybe the most ancient form of sowing there is. And it’s clearly what the sower is doing in the parable we just heard about the sower and the seed. He’s broadcasting.

 For me, this parable is a perfect place to begin a consideration of the relationship between faith and the mass media.

 So many of the conversations about religion and the media begin with the words: “if only”. If only there were more programmes like this Easter’s drama The Passion. If only there were less. If only the newspapers took religion more seriously. If only the BBC would refrain from broadcasting pieces like Jerry Springer – The Opera. If only humanists and atheists were allowed onto Thought For The Day. If only.

 It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the mass media in general, and broadcasting in particular, has a direct one-for-one power to change minds and alter opinions.

 How much wiser the model of communication presented in the parable. Not only do you never know who is going to see, or hear, or read what. More importantly, you can never predict what they’re going to make of it. The same words, the same programmes provoke diametrically opposing reactions in different people. They can mean, they can signify utterly different things.

 And in no subject, no genre, is this more true than it is about religion.

 <…> I have what some will regard as a rather counter-intuitive story to tell. It is how, over a generation – as it happens over roughly the time I’ve been involved in broadcasting myself – one picture of religion has been replaced by another, more complex, more challenging, in many ways deeper one. I’ll talk about some of the new, seemingly intractable dilemmas that this change has confronted us with. I’ll also try to explain why, when I look to the future of the relationship between faith and the media, what I feel, most of time at least, is hope.

 The way we were

 But I’m going to start by looking at where we’ve come from. So I’m going to spend a few minutes looking at how television and radio covered and thought about religion in 1979, the year when I joined the BBC as a trainee. This is how I remember it.

 If you looked at a Radio Times of the period, you’d find that then as now there was a rich and imaginative array of religious output on BBC Radio. On television, you’d find some friends who are still very much with us – Songs Of Praise, for example, early on a Sunday evening – and a few, like ITV’s Stars On Sunday, who are not. Overall, you’d find rather more fixed slots for religion, but rather fewer specials and occasional series. But I want to delve a little deeper.

After a few weeks in the BBC’s equivalent of boot camp I was sent in the autumn of 1979 to the religious documentary programme Everyman as the most junior of junior researchers.

It was a fantastic first posting for any young programme-maker – a place of incredible creative and intellectual energy, a rather amazing gathering of talents – and I enjoyed every moment of it.

 At the same time I couldn’t help noticing that one thing that Everyman didn’t seem to do very often was actually to make programmes about religion.

 Each year there would be a handful of programmes on conventional religious subjects – I worked on one, a profile of Robert Runcie just as he was about to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

 But most editions of Everyman were only “religious” in the broadest possible sense. They’d deal with topics in the hinterland between science and spirituality – cryogenic suspension, for instance, as a hoped-for route to immortality. Or they’d explore the many New Age cults which then, as now, promised some new form of personal revelation. Or they’d use religion as a way into large-scale social or political issues – liberation theology in South America would be an example of that. <…> 

Even among religious programme-makers then, there was a real anxiety about whether religion as a thing in itself was a topic of any real interest. And outside the specialist departments, religion was marginal at best. It was almost entirely absent in mainstream drama, documentary and comedy. Compared to our bulletins and website today, it was also remarkably peripheral in our coverage of news. <…>

A problem solved?

So what was going on? I want to spend a few minutes exploring the worldview which I believe underpinned all these editorial choices. Think of it not as an explicit argument but as a set of prevailing background assumptions, not held by everyone, indeed not held by me as it happens, but so widespread – both within and beyond the media – as to be normative.

It comprised two underlying ideas. The first is that familiar post-Enlightenment claim that the rationalist arguments against belief in God are so persuasive that they spell the inevitable long-term decline of organised religion. Progress brings education and knowledge, and education and knowledge inexorably undermine belief. <…>

  The second idea is a rather different and in some ways contradictory one, though it too draws its roots from the Enlightenment, if not from the Reformation. It is that there is another ineluctable movement in the history of religion and belief, from the primacy of collective and communal worship to that of individual and individually chosen belief.

Alongside the decline of organised religion, in other words, we should expect to see all kinds of new spirituality and of people mixing-and-matching, picking-and-choosing between the old and the new. Submission and adherence to a common set of doctrines and practices would be progressively replaced by new, essentially personal goals – the goals of spiritual self-realisation and self-discovery. Expressivism is the term Charles Taylor uses in his brilliant new book, A Secular Age.

Connected with this idea was a growing – and in many ways admirable – appreciation of the sheer diversity of human religious and spiritual responses and a strengthened awareness of the need for tolerance, especially of minority belief systems.

Now these two big ideas don’t quite fit together. Hardline rationalist atheists, for example, are characteristically every bit as dismissive of New Age spiritualism as they are of conventional religion.

But it’s worth adding that in a sense this was not just a post-Christian worldview, but a post-atheist one. A generation or so earlier, atheism had been frequently debated on the airwaves. <…> And yet by the late Seventies and early Eighties, and despite the presence of some very powerful individual voices like that of Richard Dawkins, I think it’s fair to say that media interest in atheism had also waned. Perhaps atheism was thought to have done its job, or to have been superseded by the new spiritual eclecticism.

 I’ve put it briefly and no doubt far too crudely, but this I believe was the prevailing intellectual landscape against which editors and journalists and others in the media thought about the coverage of religion in the Eighties. <…> Except for those with a particular interest, religion was regarded as rather dull and safe. It was, it was thought, broadly sorted. It was a problem solved.

Or is it?

Well, how different the world looks today.

One of the most striking things I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years in the media is the way this comfortable background consensus about religion has broken down. Many of the individual themes I’ve talked about – the decline in church attendance in the UK and across Europe, the rise of New Age spirituality, the growing importance of minority faiths in multi-ethnic societies – are very much with us. <…> But the easy consensus, the sense of manifest destiny, the near certainty that this story could only ever end one way – that confidence has largely evaporated.

<…> The first and most obvious factor has been the series of shocks and outrages directly or indirectly connected with extremist or hardline strains of Islam. 9/11 and 7/7 are the dates that many people in the media would cite as the days on which their view of the world changed.

<…> The controversy posed another troubling question: what was the right response in an open, tolerant society when the beliefs of minorities clashed, potentially violently, with other fundamental rights and freedoms – for example, the freedom of speech and artistic expression?

The cognitive dissonance associated with this last point is still unresolved and is still playing out 20 years later.

<…> The churches also found themselves in new controversies of their own. Women and gay priests. Child abuse. The battle within many faiths between conservatives and modernisers. For good or ill, religion began to make the news regularly again.

In many ways though, the biggest single factor was a subtler, more diffuse one. It was, and is, the progressive recognition that the long-predicted global recession of religion has not actually materialised. Indeed, whether you look at the Islamic world, or the success of both traditional and relatively newer forms of Christianity in Latin America, in parts of Asia, in parts of Africa, you can make the case that what we have been witnessing in recent decades is a global religious revival.

Over the next 20 years, the demographers expect the number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all to grow as a proportion of the world population and the number of those who profess no religion or who define themselves as atheists to decline.

This is something which can fill you with optimism – or with gloom – or provoke any number of reactions between the two. The point I want to make is that the world just looks a more complex and diverse place in the matter of religion than it did a generation ago.

 <…>  And of course, for reasons I’ve already made clear, beyond our religious output, faith and religion have come inescapable in the news, in current affairs, in discussion programmes and so on. And old debates have revived. <…>

 The future of faith and religion in the media

 So what does the future hold for faith and the media? Well, in our newspapers we can already see the debate I’ve just talked about, and the renewal of interest in the intellectual and moral battle between religion and atheism, being played out. So too the complex and difficult story of the interaction of religion with some of the world’s geopolitical fault-lines.

 In broadcasting, the picture is also evolving.

 <…> Channel 4 has commissioned some exceptional religious output in recent years and I believe we’ve seen a remarkable creative revival and a new spirit of experimentation in religious programming at the BBC.

<…>  We’ll also continue to do everything we can to reflect the UK’s other faiths and to do justice to belief-systems which do not involve, or indeed deny the validity of, religious and spiritual beliefs.

 But we want to be bold. <…> And we want to go on exploring ways of using non-factual genres – drama, comedy – as well as live events and our growing creativity on the web and multimedia to bring the topics of faith and belief to life for audiences.

 The digital revolution is transforming every kind of broadcasting, but I think its impact will be particularly profound in the case of faith. The ability to use the web to explore topics in greater detail with resources like the BBC’s own religion website, the chance to use on demand applications like our iPlayer to explore great content whenever and ultimately wherever you want it, above all, the connectivity and interactivity that enables communities to form and to create and debate their own content – all of these developments are already enriching and expanding the way millions of people think about and encounter religion.

 At one level, the web is the Wild West, a gift to cults and conspiracy-theorists, at its very worst a dangerous new channel for spreading fear and hate. But it’s also potentially a wonderful new way of sharing knowledge and personal experience and of doing it in a far more individually relevant way than conventional broadcasting can ever do. This is why it’s such a big emphasis for the BBC right now.

 New dilemmas

In some ways, then, we have been creatively liberated. But we also have to accept that we are also being confronted by some difficult new dilemmas.

When I became Director-General of the BBC in 2004, the conventional wisdom <…> was that the most difficult editorial decisions were bound to be about political stories and about the BBC’s political independence. Perhaps that will eventually turn out to be the case.

To date, though, no decision about political coverage has been remotely as contentious or as widely debated as the decision we made about the programme Jerry Springer – The Opera. In news, one of the trickiest judgements we’ve been called upon to make in my time as editor-in-chief was exactly how much to show on the air of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

 Although people invariably try to parse decisions like these for general trends, we try to approach each editorial choice on its own merits. In the case of Jerry Springer, I believed that the arguments in favour of broadcast – albeit broadcast with very careful warnings so that anyone who might be offended by the programme would know to switch it off – I believed that these arguments, and above all the right of the public to make up their own minds whether to watch or not, outweighed the arguments against.

 In the case of the cartoons, we elected to show a little more of them than the newspapers did and were criticised by some as a result. We didn’t do it because we wished to cause offence, but because we thought that, without some level of depiction, it would be impossible for many viewers to understand the story at all.

But the decisions do not always go one way. In the case of the animated comedy, Popetown, we decided that the balance of argument fell the other way and we dropped the programme.

I have two observations on the new dilemmas that are being thrown up. The first is that we are forced much more often, not just to weigh editorial decisions carefully – we’ve always had to do that – but to stand up publicly for our fundamental editorial values, and to do so in an atmosphere that can sometimes feel rather menacing. In the case of Jerry Springer, one of the things I and some of my colleagues learned is that the depiction of religious figures is not always an abstract or academic matter. Occasionally it can mean the need for a security guard outside your home.

 But there is no point having a BBC which isn’t prepared to stand up and be counted; which will do everything it can to mitigate potential religious offence; but which will always be forthright in the defence of freedom of speech and of impartiality.

 We are being tested in new ways. But we can and will meet these new challenges.

<…> We have a duty to ensure that no group – whether they are Christians or Muslims or agnostics or anything else – feels excluded or that their beliefs or customs will be treated with less courtesy and respect than others. And we have a special responsibility to ensure that, whatever the difficulties and the sensitivities, the debate about faith and society and about the way people with very different beliefs encounter each other – that this debate should not be foreclosed or censored.


 I began tonight by emphasising the serendipity and uncertainty of the effect of broadcasting.

 I’ve said we don’t know how the history of religion itself will work out. Nor do we know what the future history of faith and media holds in store. We don’t know what the seeds will be or where they will fall.

 We don’t know how public attitudes and appetite will develop. They have ears, but will they listen? And what will they listen to?

 We don’t know what will happen to media, though we do know that it is going through a profound and utterly unprecedented revolution. Many of the largest and best established media organisations – our equivalent, if you like, of the great cathedrals and mosques and synagogues – are going through a process of fragmentation of readership and audience very analogous to the challenge facing some churches and faith-groups.

 In this climate, it would be very easy to become downbeat about the ability and willingness of the media to deal with the issue of religion and faith with the seriousness and commitment it deserves.

 In the end, I can only speak for the BBC. But I believe that we can – indeed that we can and are finding new ways of doing it.

 The promise of public service broadcasting was never to reach all of the people all of the time with everything we do. We need a proper humility about the place broadcasting occupies in people’s lives and about the speed and the extent to which any programme, no matter how good, how worthwhile, can impart knowledge or inspire change.

 But I believe, as committed public service broadcasters have always believed, that what we do can sometimes have a transformational power. That it can be a force for enlightenment in the broadest sense. A force for good. And, on those occasions when it does connect, when it really hits home, that it can bear disproportionate fruit.

 Sometimes not much. Sometimes nothing. But sometimes – who knows? – 30, 60 or even a 100-fold.


1. Dwell on the speech opening. Is it an effective communicative technique?

2. How has the perception of religious matters and the way they are depicted on TV changed throughout years?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Are the effects of broadcasting really uncertain (as the speaker puts it)? Explain why you think so.

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the text from the point of view of the social constructionist model. Speak about values, beliefs, symbolic codes etc.

Task 8. Assumed Identities

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “Assumed Identities” by T. David and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

Assumed Identities

By T. David

I came home from school yesterday afternoon feeling sad and sorry for myself. My boyfriend of nearly two years had dumped me for an airheaded cheerleader. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Our senior year is supposed to be special. Actually, he didn’t have the guts. Three of his jockey friends were more than happy to relate the news to me. I hate all of them.

My heart was broken to say the least. There was nothing I hated more than being lonely. I walked home slowly from school on an old dirt road that paralleled a shallow canal. It reaked of dying fish and dried up algae. The sun had been unrelenting for weeks. I stopped in front of the doorstep of my family’s house, wiping my feet carefully on the welcome mat and brushing the dust off of my clothes.

“Why are you home from school so late young lady?” came the first thing out of my father’s mouth when I opened the door. It wasn’t a question. It was more like an accusation.

I walked by him without saying a word. I wasn’t ready to deal with this.

“Don’t you walk away from me! You are nothing but trouble, you know that? Go to your room right now.”

I gave him a “wish you were dead” look and stampeded straight to my room. Good, that’s where I wanted to be anyway. My father had been so mean and discriminating for many months now. I really couldn’t stand the sight of him anymore. I hated him at that moment too. I hated all men.

My bedroom door slammed shut and was locked right away. No way I was letting anyone in. I turned my computer on and took off my shoes as it connected to the Internet. I needed to talk to someone, anyone who would listen.

Making myself comfortable in a small swivel chair, I searched for a chat room for people locally. I found one easily and clicked on the romance section. I needed to feel loved at that moment, even if it was all phony. When asked to enter a log-on name I typed in Lonely Heart, for that’s what I was. There’s no way I would ever give out my real name on the internet. Too many crazy people out there.

“Hello Lonely, what brings you here this afternoon?” came a message on my screen.

I looked closer for the name of this guy. Loneliness. “Well I see we have something in common. I just came to find someone to talk to”, I typed back in my slow hunt-and-peck method.

“Same here”, came his quick reply. “What do you want to talk about?”

Then on the spur of the moment I just told him everything bad about my day and my life. The words came out freely and I really didn’t expect him to understand my feelings. Men never understand.

“Just a minute,” he answered. “I need to do something really quick but I’ll be right back”. He wasn’t coming back. I didn’t blame him. Should have known better than to think a man would listen to me.

There was a pounding on my bedroom door at that moment. I jumped up in my chair half-startled. “Tatiana?” came my father’s all too well known accusing voice. “There’s leftovers in the refrigerator for supper when you get hungry. I’ll be in my study room if you need me.” And then he was gone. Good riddance.

“I know how you feel,” magically appeared on my screen a few seconds later. I couldn’t believe it. He really did come back. “I feel much the same way as you do. My family hates me. I have no friends. They will never understand how much I really love them,” he typed quickly.

“Why don’t you just tell them?” I asked.

“I can’t.”

I decided not to push him any further about it. We made small talk about our feelings and what we wanted from life. This man did understand me. This conversation was a blessing to me.

“Lonely, I’m dying.”

I didn’t quite understand. “What do you mean?” I asked eagerly.

“What I said. I’m dying and I’m scared.” There were no words exchanged for a minute or two. I knew what he was saying. I just didn’t want to believe it.

“How so?” I responded after an eternity.

“I went to doctor a few months ago. I have cancer. He said I might live for thirty days or thirty years. There’s just no way to tell.”

My heart suddenly dropped. Somehow I felt a special bond with this man. He was like an old friend. He couldn’t be dying. It just wasn’t fair.

“I don’t know what to say,” I answered back honestly.

“Don’t say anything. I haven’t told anyone yet. I am so scared and worried of what will become of my family. I love them so much.” Another silence. “And they don’t even know it.”

There was an intolerable silence now. I glanced quickly at my watch. Somehow time had slipped by for morning had already arrived. Suddenly I knew what I needed to do. I needed to meet this man in person to let him know that someone does care. His family was selfish to leave him feeling such despair.

“Loneliness?” I typed.


“I have enjoyed this so much but I have to leave soon. I feel silly for asking this. Is there any way we can meet in person later today or this week?”

There was no hesitation this time. “I would like that very much. You do live in Sanderson right? Maybe we can meet at the coffee shop downtown?” he asked.

“Sure. Four o’clock this afternoon if you can make it.” I looked at my watch again. Nearly eight in the morning.

“Okay, it’s a date then,” came the seemingly cheerful reply.

“I can’t wait!” I typed in and said out loud at the same time. “Gotta run now though. Meet me at the little table by the front window. See ya then!” and I shut the computer down quickly.

I stood up from the swivel chair and stretched for the first time in over twelve hours. I hadn’t gotten up for anything all night. By then I was starving so I unlocked the bedroom door and headed for the kitchen in a daze. My little brother was there eating some kind of bran cereal. I just grabbed a couple of bananas from the marble counter top and headed back to my room to get ready for the day.

I passed by Dad’s study room and saw the light creeping from under his door. I don’t think he ever went to sleep last night. Several times I could have sworn I heard him laughing and mumbling to himself throughout the night. I doubt it though. I just wanted to get out of the house before he started yelling and bickering again.

The day at school today seemed to go by pretty fast. I saw Jonathan, my ex-boyfriend, in the halls between some of my classes. He seemed happier than usual but he didn't have the nerve to look at me. I didn’t see his new girlfriend with him either. That didn’t matter to me though.

I was going to meet the nicest, kindest man I had ever known in just a few hours. I wrote him a letter during my study break. It was basically just to let him know that someone did care and that he was loved. Even if it was only by me, a complete stranger.

The final bell at school finally rang. I saw Jonathan race down the halls like he was in a hurry to get somewhere. It was three forty-five now. I had fifteen minutes to walk to the coffee shop downtown. It was less than a mile away. I was so scared all of the sudden. What if this man didn't like me? What if he was just some sick person who wanted to hurt me? What if he was twelve years old or eighty years old? It didn’t really matter I supposed. We were meeting in a public place and I said I’d be there. Besides, I just knew deep down inside he was telling the truth. He was dying. He needed me.

I walked slowly down the gravel sidewalk to the coffee shop with my heart pounding furiously every step of the way. It was a mile long but it seemed much shorter now. I was getting there too fast. I pulled my arm close to my face and looked at my watch. Three fifty-five.

The coffee shop was almost empty when I finally stepped inside its swinging doors. No one was in the seat by the front window. I told the man behind the counter that I was just waiting for a friend. He smiled and nodded slightly.

I slid into one of the seats by the front window with my back to the door. Two minutes after four. My new friend wasn’t coming. I was disappointed but a little relieved too.

Then I heard the little bell above the front door ring wildly. Someone had stepped in. I didn’t dare turn around to see who it was. Maybe this was the moment of truth.

There was a strong hand on my shoulder then. It was him. I couldn’t breathe. He spoke the name he knew me by softly, almost like he was crying. “Lonely_Heart.”

I finally had the courage to look up at him directly in the eyes. He was crying. His right hand was covering his forehead like he was lost from the world.

Then I cried with him. We hugged and sat there for hours just enjoying each other’s company. There wasn’t a single moment when tears weren’t shed. This man was perfect. This man was my father.


1. How many communicative episodes are described in the story? Name the participants in each episode.

2. Do you think the father guessed about the real identity of his “chatroom friend” straight away? Prove it.

3. According to the pragmatic model, we cannot but communicate. Even saying or doing nothing is considered a meaningful communicative move. Find evidence in the text to illustrate this.

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. At the beginning of the story father and daughter’s communication fails. It turns out to be successful at the end of the story, though. What led to the eventual success?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the text according to the pragmatic model of communication.

Ex. 4. Problem-solving. Think of any conflict situation you have experienced in your life (with a friend, a relative, a colleague etc.). Act the episode out. Analyse the situation trying to spot the unproductive moves that caused the problem. Do you think the problem might have been solved or even avoided if you had substituted these unproductive moves by more effective ones? Tell the group about your findings.

Task 9. Hazards

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “Hazards” by B. Christensen and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.


 By B. Christensen

Over the years I have learned what harm can come from gossip or just talking about other people.

In my work place, gossip is a big problem, which is heightened by a couple of women who actually feel the need to stretch and twist certain bits of information, simply for the sake of turning staff against each other.

Having been on the receiving end of their back stabbing, I have become very aware of what I say and to whom. I have prayed to God for help in being straightforward with people, and not say anything that might get back to someone who could be hurt by my words.

One night, I was on the phone with my sister-in-law, Dawn. I had called her to let her know our husbands would have to work very late that Saturday night due to some machinery problems. She was carrying on about not getting anything done that day since they were due to move out of their apartment by that next Friday. I mentioned that sixteen hours at time-and-a-half pay would certainly make up for it. She was OK with that, but said it would not make much difference when they had to pay the whole next month’s rent if they were not out by the end of the week. I acknowledged her point, but figured either way, they wouldn’t really be out any expected money.

The next day, while my husband, Arlo, was helping his brother move, my dad called hoping to also enlist Arlo’s help.

I have 3-way calling on our phone, so I clicked over and called my brother-in-law’s house, leaving a message on the answering machine for Arlo to call my dad when he could.

I clicked back over to my Dad and began telling him about the long day Arlo and his brother had put in. We inadvertently got on the subject of Dawn, who was not so thrilled about the time they had lost for moving. Dad agreed that for the money they made, it was worth it. Then I mentioned that SHE should have “gotten off her butt and did something herself...”

Monday evening came along and Arlo walked in the house, looked at me, and began laughing as he headed into the next room. He did a sort of double take and said, “Brenda, next time you are talking bad about someone, make sure the three-way calling is disconnected.”

Almost immediately I knew what he was talking about. Dawn’s answering machine had picked up the entire conversation between Dad and me!

Arlo and his brother thought the situation was hysterical. Of course, men tend not to let things like that get to them. However, I know Dawn well enough to know she would be pretty upset, especially after both of our husbands spent the afternoon laughing at her and making cracks about her getting off her lazy butt.

Wondering how I was going to fix this one, I stopped by to apologize a couple of times, but Dawn wasn’t around. After a couple of weeks, I finally spoke to her. When she picked up the phone I tried to make a joke of it, but she did not see the humor in it.

After this incident, I got to thinking. Lately, I have become very comfortable with some people and have found myself slipping back into the gossip mode I had worked so hard to get myself out of. I sort of wonder if this was God’s way of washing my mouth out with soap. I certainly didn’t forget the taste when I was a kid.

I won’t forget it now.


1. What is the purpose of people’s spreading gossip?

2. Can we call the story-teller’s case gossiping?

3. Compare the reaction of different people (the story-teller, Dawn, Arlo) to one and the same situation.

4. Did the story-teller choose the best strategy to apologise?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Dawn has overheard a conversation which she was not supposed to have listened to. Shouldn’t she have concealed this fact from the story-teller? Comment on the ethical aspect of her behavior.

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the text according to the pragmatic model of communication.

Ex. 4. Problem-solving. Work in groups of three. One of you is a communication counselor the other two are a married couple who are experiencing serious problems in their relationship. The husband and wife must explain to the therapist what their problem is. The task of the counselor is to ask questions (if necessary) to find out all the details and then try to help the spouses uncover the unproductive communication patterns. Together try to work out an effective set of moves that will help the married couple save their family. Act out the conversation for the whole group. Decide if the therapist has managed to help the family.

Task 10. Chancery Lane

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “Chancery Lane” by M. Binchy and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

1. How many participants are there in the communicative episode? What channel of communication have they chosen? What accounts for this choice?

2. In trying to persuade John to take up her case Jilly resorts to several communicative strategies. Identify these strategies and explain which one was the most successful and why. Why were the other strategies a flop?

3. Trace how the tone and manner of communication between Jilly and Jonh change throughout the story.

4. Why did Monica “misunderstand” John’s words? What was the reason that led to the communicative failure in this case?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express you opinion about the following. Why does Tom fail to talk John out of marrying? What strategy should he have chosen in order to succeed?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the text according to the pragmatic model of communication.

Task 11. The Quest

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “The Quest” by H.H. Munro and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

1. What is the speech community presented in the given communicative episode? Does Clovis belong to this community?

2. Mrs. Momeby was seeking comfort and counsel on Clovis’s part. Why didn’t she get any?

3. Do the Momebys and Rose-Marie Gilpet share the same beliefs, ideas, values etc.?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. First, Rose-Marie Gilpet was triumphant on having found the child. Later, she fell into discredit. Why did she fall into discredit? Did she get what she deserved?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the story according to Hymes’s model of communication.

Task 12. Warren Street

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “Warren Street” by M. Binchy and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

1. What tactics and means did Shirley choose to persuade Nan to accept her as a client?

2. Why was Nan feeling protective about Shirley? How was this reflected in their conversations?

3. Do you think that Shirley overreacted, having read the inscription on the envelope?

4. What communicative mistakes on Nan’s part led to her row with Shirley?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Do you think it was Nan who pitied Shirley, or was it the other way round?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the story according to Hymes’ model of communication.

Task 13. Notting Hill Gate

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “Notting Hill Gate” by M. Binchy and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

1. In what way was Rita’s behavior different from that of other employees?

2. Why didn’t the story-teller succeed in trying to conceal the fact she was prying into Rita’s life?

3. What is the role of the dress code in the communicative episode under consideration?

4. Why was Rita so sure that the story-teller didn’t understand her life story?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Rita answered all the questions. Still, the story-teller didn’t understand a single thing. What accounts for this fact and whose communicative failure was it?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the story according to Hymes’ model of communication.

Task 14. After the Movie

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story “After the Movie” by R. Rayner and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

After the Movie

By R. Rayner

Ed Vickery and his wife, Kate, came home late from the movies. They’d seen that big hit about ancient-Greek guys making a last stand against the Persian hordes. Ed’s mind had been elsewhere, however, with the I.R.S. and dodgy A.R.Ms, not severed heads in C.G.I. He felt flat, exhausted. His back hurt. His athlete’s foot itched. The rich, sickly smell of night-flowering jasmine swamped his lungs, and all of a sudden he had trouble breathing.

“You’re in a lousy mood, and you should go to bed,” Kate said, and Ed grunted.

“I’ll do that,” he said, but before he did he looked in on the boys. Luke and Denis, twelve and ten now, had been only too happy to be left without the babysitter that Ed could no longer afford. They’d watched a couple of DVDs, scarfed a rub of Ben & Jerry’s, probably forgotten to brush their teeth (for sure, in Denis’s case), and were busy feigning sleep. From one side of the room, Ed heard a suppressed giggle, from the other a silence that was too deep to be genuine. He went along with the game. In truth, he couldn’t face talking to his children. He said nothing, not even the usual “Good night, lads,” and pulled the door closed with a soft click. He brushed his teeth, showered quickly, and, while Kate was opening her laptop on the kitchen table, went to their bedroom, at the back of the house. He slipped on a pair of boxers, clambered beneath the covers, and started to weep. Here it comes, Ed thought. The Great Flood. Another one. His face screwed up. His chest was shaken by sobs. He knew he made a comical picture, a middle-aged man, still slim, with a full head of graying hair, sitting up in bed, letting himself go, blubbering, wailing, indulging in wild, spontaneous woe. He was beyond worrying about it. He didn’t feel like Spartan or stoic, or whatever. Instead, he surrendered to the full tsunami of his anxious terror. Hot tears gushed from his eyes, spangling the beam of the bedside lamp into rainbows, coursing down his cheeks, touching his lips with a salty taste, and splashing the yellowed pages of the book he hadn’t been aware he’d taken from the shelf, a collection of stories by Ivan Bunin, one of those writers he’d been meaning to get to for years.

“The weird thing,” Ed said to himself, thinking of his friend Muldoon, “is that once I held your hand and told you not to give up.”

This was true. Years ago, Muldoon, tortured in love and with his career in disarray, had been the one on the skids and failing. Now it was Ed’s turn.

“And it’s different when you’re fifty,” Ed said, choking back a sob. “I’m a dead man.”

Muldoon was a movie director. His small films were nominated for Oscars these days. His big ones grossed three hundred million worldwide. Muldoon no longer flew commercial, not even in first class, but soared above the roof of the world in private jets provided by the studio. He was on first-name terms with air-traffic controllers at J.F.K. and Charles de Gaulle. Muldoon was unassailable. Until a little while ago, his career and Ed’s had been on a par. They’d been comrades and peers. But things had changed.

Ed was a writer. Used to be a writer, until his life started reverberating to the sound of doors slamming. Now he was a worrier, a weeper, a specialist only in the art of freestyle distress. He’d never been clever about money, but he’d always been able to earn it. Not anymore. His failed novels hit the remainder bins. Editors ignored his calls. And the teat of Hollywood had turned mean and dry. Ed’s scripts were unmade, his treatments ignored, his options no longer picked up. One product was currently paying him not in cash but in unsliced Finnish rye bread shipped via Vermont. “I don’t want Luke and Denis to go hungry,” the producer said, uncannily remembering the boy’s names. Was this a fiendish joke or a sadistic gambit? Or did the guy, maybe, think the gesture was kind and would be appreciated? The loaf arrived weekly, resembling gold only in its bricklike weight. Ed’s revolving credit cards were maxed out. He’d been using the house like an A.T.M. He tried not to think about the mortgage. The low five-year interest rate, such an attractive idea five years ago, was about to expire, and spike. They’d lose their home. He saw no way to keep it. The prospect woke him nights in a flop sweat. It seemed to Ed that his world had changed in some awful and perhaps final way.

“I’m at the end of my rope,” Ed announced to the empty room. To nail the point, he hurled the Bunin book against the wall and watched while it fluttered earthward like a stricken bird. “I am a corpse.”

Ede thought often of suicide, of checking into a Las Vegas hotel room and finishing himself off in some spectacular way, slitting his throat in a tub or spattering his brains with a pistol shot. Trouble was, Kate would be left with nothing. Then, there were the boys, old enough to sense that all was not well with Dad but still laughing at his jokes, loving him, depending on him.

“Let them fend for themselves,” he said. “They can starve, for all I care.”

The anger released some juices and perked him up. He remembered that once he’d seen Muldoon, in a dark moment, slap a smaller member of the burgeoning Muldoon brood. How many kids did Muldoon now have? Nine, or was it ten? Muldoon seemed to average two per marriage, and he was into his fourth marriage. “Way to go, Muldoon, way to treat the awful little buggers!”

Muldoon had called him from Amsterdam earlier that day. It had been late in the California afternoon, three in the morning Dutch time. Muldoon had been on a night shoot, between takes on his latest action thriller. Ed – an Englishman who didn’t drive in L.A., a peculiarity understood by nobody, least of all Ed himself – had been wobbling back from Albertsons, a bag of groceries suspended from each side of his bike’s handlebars. He’d lurched almost into the path of a BMW while scrambling to retrieve the warbling cell from his jeans pocket.

“Hello! Hello!”

Would this be his agent, with news of a gig, a miracle? No. It had been Muldoon.

“It’s the writer. His name is James,” Muldoon had said, dispensing as usual with the preliminaries, success having freed up his always considerable admiration for role models like Napoleon and Stanley Kubrick. On his Berkshire estate, Muldoon liked to patrol the legions of trees he’d planted to guard his marijuana plants from prying eyes. “I’ve done him the synopsis. Done him the beat sheets. Done most of the bloody work, in other words, but still James won’t write my scenes. Know what he said?”

By then Ed had heaved himself and his bike up onto the curb, where, with one hunched shoulder jamming the cell phone toward his ear, he’d failed to save a stalk of broccoli that had thumbed from an Albertsons bag and plopped down on the sidewalk, perilously close to a pile of dog shit.

“James said, ‘Writing. It’s hard.’ Can you believe it? He said he was going to fly to New York for the weekend. To recharge his batteries. Stock up on some inspiration. I said, ‘James. The only place you’re going is back to the hotel. To write my scenes.’ Know what happened then?”

Muldoon’s voice rose in sincere outrage.

“Check this out. Bastard did go to the hotel. And two hours later he was on set again, with these two girls. Preposterously young. And there was James, squiring them about like he owned the place.”

For a few wild, deluded seconds, Ed allowed himself to wonder whether Muldoon had fired the miscreant James and was about to ask him to come to Amsterdam – because, of course, it was Muldoon, the director, the supremo, who owned the place.

“I said, ‘James, what is going on?’ He said, ‘I met them in the hotel night club.’ He did go back to the hotel, you see, like I’d told him to, and he went to the night club. ‘They wanted to see the set,’ he said, ‘so I bought them out.’ I said, ‘James! Did there have to be two?’ A hundred and twenty-five grand a week the studio’s paying this lazy sod, and I still don’t have my scenes.”

Ed reeled. “A hundred and twenty-five grand!”

“Dollars, not quid.”

“Jesus! Just give me a week for that,” Ed said, trying to sound casual.

“Nah, you’d hate it, mate,” Muldoon said, as if Ed really had been joking. Muldoon had power, and people dogged him for favors. He expected Ed not to do that. He relied on Ed’s not doing it, the uncharged nature of their friendship being important to Muldoon’s sense of the whole story of his life Muldoon had survived, prospered. Reclaimed, resurgent, Muldoon now needed Ed at the other end of the line to assure him of the fiction that they were no different. They’d met thirty years before, playing football – soccer, as the Americans insisted on calling it – slogging through the rain and freezing mud, chests out against the chill winds that gusted from Siberia across the desolate flatlands of eastern England. They’d been at university together. They’d ported on the green.

“That James. He does make me laugh,” Muldoon said. “United are doing great, aren’t they? Read anything good lately?”

Ed had been unable to say, “Listen, I’m desperate, I can’t stop crying, I can’t do this anymore.” Muldoon, with his astute generalship, his instincts for self-protection, his radar attuned to the mood and ping of dialogue, had headed him off the pass. Abuzz with shame and humiliation, Ed had gritted his teeth and regrouped his groceries. He’d retrieved the broccoli stalk and lifted it to his nostrils. Could he save this? It didn’t smell of dog shit, or no worse, anyway, than when he’d taken it off the refrigerator shelf in the store. He’d talked carelessly to his old friend about Ivan Bunin.

“Yeah, I read something by him once,” Muldoon said. “That famous story about the bloke dying abroad. They stick him in a crate and shove him in the hold of a ship to take him home. Quite spooky, really.”

There was this thing about Muldoon: he knew movies, his craft, but he read everything, too. Muldoon was, in his eccentric and loopy way, tireless and a bit of a genius. Ed wished he could say the same for himself. Instead, he was on a filthy L.A. sidewalk, worrying about broccoli.

“Great goal by Michael Carrick against Roma the other night,” Muldoon had said, signing off. “The first one. Magnificent!”

Ed wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He clambered out of bed and retrieved the book from where he’d thrown it. He smoothed the cover, which showed a neat, bearded man with his face in shadow. Bunin. Hadn’t he fled the Nazis and killed himself? Or was that Walter Benjamin? Ed’s memory was getting sketchy. Probably they’d both topped themselves. Most people died in exile, one way or another.

Wearily, Ed hitched up his boxers and padded to the bathroom. He needed to piss so often now, his prostate having swollen in recent years to the size of a fist. At least he wouldn’t have to hear about that anymore, the Writers Guild health insurance having run out. His prostate could grow without fear of medical supervision or intervention. Muldoon was right. Life was a farce. But Ed felt sure that his own particular version of the commedia would be finita all too soon. He was a beast being shuffled across the threshold of the slaughterhouse. How had this disaster happened? All those millions of words he’d written, all the forests of newsprint – they’d somehow amounted to nothing.

Kate was still in the kitchen, seated in the breakfast nook, surrounded by books and CDs that she was listing for sale on eBay, trying to keep some cash trickling in. She was testy with Ed, and small wonder, but she refused to give up. She was amazing, still beautiful. Ed took a knife from the magnetic rack and cut into one of the Finnish loaves. The rye bread was thick and moist, like cake, and Ed dropped a couple of slices in the toaster.

“Muldoon called today. From Amsterdam. I told him we were going to see the Greek movie. He said it was crap.”

“Afraid it will make more money than his new one, probably,” Kate said.

“He was complaining about his writer. The production rewrite guy who’s being paid a hundred and twenty-five grand a week to do bugger all.”

“And?” Her question hung out there for a moment, Kate being in the business of believing that something, maybe even in the shambling, looming shape of Muldoon, would turn up.

“Just that. Nothing more.”

She hid whatever disappointment she might have felt. “He was checking that you’re O.K.,” she said.

“Why would he worry?”

Kate’s eyes regarded him coolly, “Muldoon cares for you.”

“Sure he does. He’ll speak movingly at my funeral.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Kate said. “He loves you.”

Ed knew that she was probably right. He was thinking of the time, years before, when Muldoon himself, weeping, had seen no way forward. Ed had taken Muldoon’s hands and stroked his forehead, telling him he must walk toward the light. “Don’t give me that New Age bullshit,” Muldoon had said, but he’d laughed.

Ed smiled at the memory. With regret he found that something like hope was flooding his heart; at this point the despair was almost easier to deal with. “Oh, heck,” he said, tears springing to his eyes. He was starting again.


“It’s nothing.”

The rye bread popped up in the toaster. Ed took out the hot slices and buttered them slowly. Though Kate tried to be resolute, his panic sometimes infected her. And that wasn’t right. She was his best girl. “It’s Ivan Bunin,” he said, noticing on the countertop the book that had travelled with him from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. What had Muldoon said about that one story, “The Gentleman from San Francisco”? “It’s about death, matey, about the indifference of death, about how you die, and death, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”

Ed stopped his crying and suddenly shivered, as if a nameless vessel, carrying his own corpse, had just passed. “Here,” he said, handing Kate the book. “Sell this. Should bring a few bucks.”

The New Yorker. 2007, April 30

1. How many communicative episodes are there in the story? What communicative channels are used in each case?

2. What expectations did Ed have regarding his conversation with Muldoon? Did they come true? Who failed to communicate the message and why?

3. Should Ed have spoken his mind to Muldoon?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Did Muldoon really care for Ed? What led to their relations’ having developed this way?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse the story according to Hymes’s model of communication.

Task 15. A Doll’s House

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the drama “A Doll’s House” by H. Ibsen and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episodes described in the text.

1. What is peculiar of Nora’s manner of communication?

2. Nora was trying to conceal some facts form her husband. Did she succeed in deceiving her husband? Give your reasons.

3. How did Mrs. Linde’s and Krogstad’s behavior affect Nora? What was her reaction to their communicative moves?

4. Why did Nora fail to persuade her husband as regards Krogstad’s case? What tactics would you have chosen in her place?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Who turns out to be the most successful communicant in the story?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse one of the communicative episodes presented in the play according to Hymes’ model of communication.

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