The Press 1 April 1997
If only it had been April Fool's day when the News of the World published its latest, illustrated, dirty vicar story: "He told Bishop they were friends, then sneaked to her marital bed for kinky sex". For the some of the illustrations were grainy video stills, from a tape supplied to the paper by the husband of the priest's mistress. I don't know quite what makes those of us who looked at the pictures. Nor is it easy to imagine the frame of mind of the husband who set up the video camera, and then brought the tape to the News of the World. In any case, this seems to have been a first in the field, and will probably not be a last.
The other example of journalism to be proud of had a slightly delayed payoff: This was the Rev David Templeton, an Ulster Presbyterian minister who was beaten to death by a Loyalist gang for being a homosexual. His condition had come to light when he was stopped at Customs eighteen months ago, returning from a visit to Amsterdam, and they found a pornographic video in his luggage. He was not charged, but the story was leaked to a Belfast Sunday tabloid. The Guardian did his story at some length, concentrating on paramilitary attitude: according to one organisation opposed to punishment beatings, about half of them are cases of mistaken identity. The Telegraph had talked to Martin Lindsay, the editor of Sunday Life, the tabloid that smashed his life up. Mr Templeton, remember, had not even been charged, let alone convicted of any offence. He attempted suicide after the first article appeared; three months later he moved from the provinces to a Belfast housing estate and the paper helpfully published that news too: "Gay porn probe minister resigns."
When Mr Templeton, the minister, was fatally beaten, Mr Lindsay, the tabloid editor, defended his decision to publish the stories: "This man broke the law." He told the Telegraph. "Not only that: he was a clergyman who was preaching morality on Sunday while failing to practice it."
So Mr Templeton's real sin was hypocrisy. How curious it is that the UDA never comes round to beat hypocrites to death — and how fortunate, for those of us in the trade.
Over in England, agnostics were what the Easter bunny had brought most features editors. John Mortimer had a piece in the Mail on Sunday that pressed all the traditional buttons, including the faith-I-could-only-envy: "as the tall bald man in the hacking jacket bowed his head in fervent prayer, showing a faith I could only envy." I've never understood this one myself. Presumably he does not consider his neighbour in the pew cleverer or even better informed, only happier. He would not seriously trade wisdom, or even cleverness for lobotomised happiness. So why does he pretend he wishes he could? Yet this cliché is obligatory among those who prop up the Church of England form the outside, in the manner of Lord Melbourne.
There was rather more to admire in Auberon Waugh's column in the Sunday Telegraph: "In nearly 35 years as a weekly columnist — I started on the Catholic Herald at the age of 23 — I do not think I have yet once been reduced to writing a message of optimism, hope and renewal for Easter, although the search for subjects has sometimes been desperate. But last week brought some truly hopeful news, and it would be perverse to ignore it just because today happens to be Easter Day
"For the first time in British history there has been a fall in average television viewing, from 3 hours and 52 minutes a day to 3 hours 36 minutes a day.
"The biggest reduction in viewing time has been among children aged four to fifteen, and that is the most glorious news to fill our Easter."
In fact religion was all over the Sunday Telegraph: there was a profile of "The agnostic vicar" and a religious consideration of the poor loonies who killed themselves waiting for a comet in San Diego. It seems to me that one of the more fascinating things about the Church of England is that it can accommodate all sorts of people who would in America become cult leaders and finally be driven to suicide accompanied by the immolation of all their followers. In England we just give them the freehold, a much more civilised arrangement. But Damian Thompson did his best to prove that millenarian lunacy could spread here:
"Cast your mind back to the 'ritual satanic abuse' scare, in which innocent British families were torn apart.
"The harrowing myths of baby-murdering covens were invented in Hollywood, from where they spread to American fanatics convinced that they were a portent of the Last Days. They were then picked up by extreme fundamentalists in this country — a growing breed — who persuaded gullible social workers that 'satanic abuse' really was taking place.
"So let us not fool ourselves that our scepticism will always protect us from the destructive force of apocalypticism, which may yet turn out to be as exportable as jeans or Coke"
Damian is not a friend of fundamentalists: he takes it personally when people believe he is going to hell. And he writes very elegantly. It is only when you pick out the adjectives from that passage "innocent", "harrowing", "gullible", "destructive" that you notice just how emotionally coloured the whole thing under the manner of tolerant superiority essential for success in the Sunday Telegraph.
But its main religious news story was "Labour infiltrated by Christian Tendency", illustrated by a brilliantly chosen collage of pictures showing prominent labour politicians all apparently praying or invoking the Holy Spirit. You knew, of course, that these were all random gestures. But the picture of Jack Straw with his mouth open and his palms upraised was absolutely marvellous. The paper assured us that he has said "Mr Blair's ministers will be expected to act as 'agents of a different ethical order.'
It is the most extraordinarily sinister phrase: perhaps we should prepare to write about the Blair government gaining the biggest Parliamentary majority since Oliver Cromwell's.