Thought for the Week: Change and continuity

Ian Kirk-Smith introduces a new chapter for The Friend

After one hundred and seventy-four years of being published in black and white the Friend is starting a new chapter. It will now be produced weekly in colour. We hope the transition will not be too radical for readers. Your loyalty is the bedrock on which the magazine was built, sustained, and on which it continues to exist.

Earlier this year our printers, Headley Brothers Ltd in Ashford, went into administration. The new printers are Warners Midlands PLC, a family firm based in Bourne in Lincolnshire, and the production cost of a colour edition with them is similar to the price we had paid for a black and white one. The magazine will be delivered in a new polywrap that can be recycled. We are delighted to be associated with a company that takes its commitment to sustainability seriously – a remarkable 99.96 per cent of their waste is reused, recycled or recovered.

It is a time of change, but also one of continuity. The editorial policy of the magazine will remain the same. The Friend is an independent journal. I cherish this. My philosophy, as an editor, has been guided by twenty-seven years in the BBC. It is not pleasant to stand in the rain outside Broadcasting House in Belfast with fellow NUJ members, losing wages, as a protest against government interference in our independence. One reason we did this was to defend the right of some political representatives to have their voices heard on radio and television – not to have their words spoken by actors. These men had failed to condemn those who shot, in the head, the man who sold me ice cream after school, or those who murdered a local prison officer in front of his wife and young daughter. This was, at the time, hard to stomach. However, whatever we felt about those we were defending – I absolutely defend their right to be heard.

It is vital, in a democracy, to respect individual conscience, to protect freedom of expression, and to encourage robust and honest discussion. We should not be frightened of constructive criticism. This applies, as far as I am concerned, just as much to the Religious Society of Friends and the Friend as to politics. There is no reason why people cannot differ and still exercise respect and a degree of tenderness. We must also listen, and truly listen, to those we are not in unity with. Friends have always valued this principle and for me it is at the heart of the Christian message – one of the clearest and most distinctive paths in the Quaker heartland: there is that of God in everyone.

Political debate, however, seems less civilised than it was. There is often more criticism of the holder of a view than of the view itself. Should we not respect difference and defend the right to be different? Why are complex and nuanced positions reduced to a false binary choice? The challenge, surely, is to create spaces for people to grow. Not box them in. Or does that demand too much of us, and our media? We need to protect these ‘open spaces’ and, throughout its history, the Friend has offered one for Quakers.

Francis Campbell, a fellow Ulsterman, recently said: ‘It is intolerance of people and ideas that threaten our democracy, not difference – difference brings it to life.’

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