Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Wikipedia - the JA Point of View

The thing with encyclopedias, or so we are accustomed to expect, is that they are written by disinterested parties whose only motivation is to distill the facts into an easily understood and accessible document. There is some considerable debate about the issue of points of view and bias when encyclopedia entries can be written by just anybody. So it was wise of the Jesus Army's PR man, John Campbell to write their own entry himself and subsequently to edit out anything which might put them in a bad light.

John Cambell (and other members of the fellowship) keep a close eye on the entry and edit it, applying Wikipedia's rules about evidence and citation scrupulously, forcing critics to provide back-up for any contentious claims. However, the concessions Campbell allows his critics are disingenuous, leaving the impression that credible opposition has been minimal, that at worst all the church has ever suffered has been a little inevitable "muck-raking" by the tabloid press. No mention is made of concerns expressed by a judge, a coroner, MPs, a House of Commons Select Committee, by the EA, Baptist Union, FAIR, CIC, the Christian media, numerous TV programmes including Newsnight, etc.

My understanding from having read the discussion tab on the JA's Wikipedia entry is that several claims about their history of being regarded as a cult and the very great deal of concern felt by many about their activities have been removed on the grounds that this is mere opinion, despite there being considerable evidence for this. You have to wonder if it is worth amassing the evidence if it is only going to get wiped the following morning.

Campbell has also removed from the external links list any which were to anybody too obviously critical of the Jesus Army. It will be interesting to see how long my own link survives. Amusingly, there is a short bit at the bottom of the discussion page suggesting that blogs should be deleted from the entry on the grounds that they push a "Point of View"; while, by implication, the Jesus Army's own entry itself is neutral! I have put my POV across in a blog because I am not terribly IT savvy and I find it easy to use. But if the JA block my "blog" I shall just have to learn to use another format.

But fundamentally, should it be acceptible for any organisation with a strong Public Relations remit to control the supposedly neutral medium which it uses to sell its point of view, to the exclusion of other points of view? Should it be allowed to present its point of view as fact and delete any counter-claims or alternative positions on the grounds that they are just contentious opinion? Isn't all writing socially constructed, at the end of the day?

It strikes me that Cambell's insistence on proof and his dismissal of opinion is disingenuous, as the JA are not required to prove, for instance, that what they claim to believe is the same as what is actively taught; their claims are documented, the latter is not; but it is the latter which is, among many other things, cause for so much concern. Furthermore, their inclusion of a pdf link documenting their beliefs would ordinarily be disallowed by Wikipedia as "self-serving". And their only included source is a book which they published themselves!