Off on the wrong track?

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Photos: Adapted from Fatmawati Achmad Zaenuri
By on June 1, 2022

The #ACCtoo controversy has some wondering if it’s time for a new look at the policies governing the Anglican Journal

In a footnote to their open letter posted this February, #ACCtoo organizers Michael Buttrey and Carolyn Mackie blame the Anglican Journal governance policy General Synod adopted in 2019 for enabling the alleged breach of confidentiality and privacy for which the letter calls the church to account.

“We believe this abuse of power was enabled by a motion adopted at the 2019 General Synod meeting in Vancouver that changed the mandate, oversight, and reporting structure of the AJ,” the footnote reads.

The subject of their open letter is the sharing in spring 2021, by senior church management, of a draft article intended for Anglican Journal sister publication Epiphanies containing allegations by anonymous sources of sexual misconduct in the church, with four institutions related to these allegations. By the time this article was being written, #ACCtoo’s open letter, which calls for the Anglican Church of Canada to apologize, make amends with the survivors and require the resignation of Archdeacon Alan Perry, general secretary of General Synod, had attracted the attention of several news outlets. But very little of the media coverage had dealt with the governance issues the letter raised—the policies that govern the Anglican Journal.

#ACCtoo and other critics allege the 2019 policy, which among other changes, removed the stipulation that the newspaper be editorially independent, gives church leaders too much power over a newspaper tasked with reporting on the very institution they head. And when former Journal editor Matthew Townsend resigned from the paper in protest against the alleged breach and what he considered the church’s inadequate efforts to address it, he cited the same new policy.

A key architect of the changes, however, disagrees.

Found in appendices B and C of the Handbook of the General Synod, which contains canons and other church rules, the 2019 governance policy calls the Journal “to adhere to the highest standards of journalistic responsibility, accuracy, fairness, accountability and transparency,” and with “tackling important issues, asking and answering difficult questions.”

But the paper’s ability to do so, Townsend wrote in his May 2021 resignation letter, conflicts with the fact that the Journal editor, according to the 2019 changes, is answerable to the non-journalists who head the church. (Buttrey and Mackie posted Townsend’s resignation letter on ACCtoo.ca in March, along with a statement by Townsend in support of their open letter.)

The 2019 changes name General Synod as the publisher of the Journal, replacing the Anglican Journal coordinating committee.

“I am charged with journalistic responsibility but I must answer to people who are not journalists and, thus, may not be fully aware of the consequences of their actions,” he wrote, referencing the sharing of the draft article. “Given this latest incident, in which journalists were effectively used to communicate confidential information to those who would benefit from that information, I can no longer distinguish whether I am in the church’s employ as a journalist or as a spy.” Townsend wrote that the “catastrophe” whereby the draft was shared shows that the church “desperately and urgently” needs to reconsider the rules governing the Journal.

Senior church leaders have issued apologies over the sharing of the draft, and committed the church to do better. In a September 2021 statement, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, acknowledged the incident had been painful for many “but especially so for the sense of betrayal felt by the sources for the article and for the journalist and editor who felt it necessary to resign.” She also affirmed the value of the Journal as a “mirror of accountability and critique” for the church. The incident, she said, made clear that the 2019 changes had not been adequately clarified, and this had resulted in confusion of roles. Nicholls pledged to undertake a more complete implementation of the 2019 policies. And in a March statement, general secretary of General Synod Alan Perry said he was “heartbroken” at the harm caused by the sharing of the letter.

Canon David Harrison, a priest employed by the diocese of Toronto at the time this story was written, was a member of the Anglican Journal coordinating committee from 2016 to 2019. He says he was reluctant to accept some of the changes to the Journal’s governance policies when he heard about them prior to their ratification at the 2019 General Synod, in particular the removal of any reference to editorial independence and the decision to fold the Journal into the portfolio of the church’s communications committee. This latter change was billed as a way to combine the church’s news and communications into a single channel, he says, both making it easier for parishioners to follow developments and streamlining the staffing requirements and process of disseminating that information. But Harrison argues it also muddied the distinction between communications, which state church policy, and journalism, which examines it.

“I was a slow convert,” says Harrison. And when he eventually agreed to the changes, it was “with the understanding that the editorial board would ensure the [Journal] continued to have independence and be able to ask and say hard things.”

The editorial board is another element of the Journal’s governance created by the 2019 policies. Appointed by the primate, the members of the editorial board are “chosen for their expertise in both journalism and religious affairs,” and tasked with overseeing any journalistic material published by the church to ensure that it complies with journalistic standards. The board also advises the Journal’s editor on decisions of journalistic policy and practice.

However, Harrison says the fact that the primate picks the roster gives church leadership a great deal of control over how the board is fashioned. And the fact that the names of board members are not available online or printed in the Journal leaves a blind spot in its operational transparency. (This omission, editorial board chair Michael Valpy told the Journal, is the result of an oversight rather than deliberate practice.)

Harrison says in hindsight he has some doubts about the 2019 changes. “What happened with the sharing of a draft of an article has caused me to wish that I had been a little more reluctant—and a little more focussed on ensuring that the editor and Journal staff could continue to act independently,” he says.

But Canon (lay) Ian Alexander, who was on the communications committee when it drew up the new policies, says it’s too soon to say they aren’t working. For one, while the old policies stipulated the paper’s editorial independence, just saying it doesn’t make it so, he says. “It was asserted, but we saw no evidence in the governance structure that there was any provision to ensure it actually existed.”

By contrast, he says, the new policies are intended to provide for what the committee thought was more important: journalistic integrity and standards. While critics suggest that the change in governance either failed to prevent or even paved the way for the 2021 breach, Alexander says, “My view is that the governance change created the circumstances that allow us to better manage incidents like this.”

One key change, he says, was making General Synod the official publisher of the Anglican Journal. This means that General Synod’s dealings with the Journal can be evaluated based on whether it lives up to the responsibilities that being publisher entails.

#ACCtoo specifically references that role in its open letter, calling for the church to hold its leaders responsible for having “abandoned their duties of confidentiality, and fail[ing] to care for the survivors’ privacy” in their capacity as publisher. (Honouring the confidentiality of anonymous sources is a standard journalistic principle.)

And while it is unclear how much church leaders consulted the board in the early days of the breach, the board still has an important role to play in responding to the controversy, says Alexander. Ideally, it would work with the editor of the Journal to create editorial policy and determine how the principles laid out in Appendix C are applied. He says the pandemic interrupted an expected series of follow-up meetings between the communications committee, the editorial board and Anglican Journal management that would have further fleshed out their agreed-upon editorial policy.

“That would have created some track for us to run on,” he says. Instead, the #ACCtoo controversy has prompted a more urgent return to that process. “Now we’re building the track as we go,” he says.

In an email interview with the Journal Townsend wrote that by far a more pressing issue for the church than its governance policies was for it to respond to the harm the breach did to the survivors of sexual misconduct whose personal information was revealed. “From the moment this crisis began, I felt the church was trying to bypass essential steps required for reconciling with the sources,” he said. Until church leaders address those primary issues, he added, the hundreds of words they have released about journalistic practice in statements on #ACCtoo are at best unhelpful, “and, in fact, they might be quite distracting.”

As far as policies regarding the Journal go, Townsend said his view now is that the 2019 changes have proven to be inadequate, but were far from the beginning of the conflict between the church’s interests and the Journal’s mission.

“As long as the Anglican Journal is charged with journalism, it will run afoul of its parent institution,” he wrote. “There is a clear and dangerous conflict of interest in having the institution in charge of a journalistic enterprise that covers it, and that conflict isn’t well managed by current policies.”

On April 21, #ACCtoo published another letter—this one a response to its original open letter from the Journal’s editorial board. Much of the letter is critical of church management for the sharing of the draft and for its subsequent actions. (The letter notes that does not express the views of one board member, who believes the board’s responsibility extends only to guidance of the Journal and not to critiques of the church.) The letter also states that the majority of the board commits to communicating more with the editor about editorial direction and story development, to better offer advice; and to “advocating for changes within how the Anglican Journal and its staff relate to the national church and its management” to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The board says it will begin this work by making recommendations to the church on the creation of a “handbook of guidelines and principles governing the Journal’s operations that would be required reading for all members of CoGS and General Synod management.”

This story has been updated with new information.

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  • Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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