Press column 15 April 1997
Press column 15 April 1997
The difficulty with misprints is to decide whether they get through because journalists can’t read, or because they can’t write. The Independent on Sunday had a beauty, describing Barbie dolls in a strap line as "soave and chic." It’s true that the dolls are thin, white, and overpriced, just like the Italian wine; but I still think the sub meant suave. Microsoft’s spell checker accepts soave, so I suspect that this was a case of a journalist who can’t write, as well as another who can’t read. You might also wonder why anyone could want to describe a plastic doll as suave and chic — but only if you hadn’t noticed we’re in the middle of an election campaign.
It also had a very good story about the chapter of St Paul’s accepting sponsorship from an arms firm who wanted to hold a corporate hospitality bash there. The argument put by Canon Halliburton appeared to be that the arms firm in question was one of the superior sort whose products don’t actually kill anybody: they just go into the enormously expensive arsenals of the US army where they hang around until rendered obsolete by a software upgrade or something. The Telegraph was not at all worried by the merchants of death angle, but distressed that the cathedral should be lending itself to secular causes like concerts.
Perhaps they should be approaching the country clergy instead. The News of the World diversified this week into a story about "Britain’s richest vicar." The lead was an excellent specimen of tabloid writing
"Country vicar Dr Edward Bailey spends his days counting pennies from heaven" score double points for inserting a TV reference which also sounds vaguely biblical (with extra bonus points for meaning nothing) "and organising collections to eke out the money he has for needy causes"
So that’s what vicars do with their time! I always wondered.
"Hew motors around his sedate parish in a road-weary C-reg Peugeot and lives quietly in a rented house. Not that he needs to … Canon Bailey is Britain’s richest vicar.
"His family’s business is worth £90 MILLION. His personal stake is estimated to be £20 MILLION give or take a million. For besides preaching to the faithful, Dr Bailey, 61, is on the board of the mighty N.G. Bailey organisation, headed by his brother Noel."
This has the makings of an extremely interesting story. What is he a doctor of? Why should he have renounced all that money? What would his parishioners think? The News of the World has at least one answer to that. "It’s going to get a lot of backs up" said the perfectly named Andrew Brawn, 32: "We’ve reached into our pockets to pay £170,000 for church repairs and all the time his family has millions."
If I were Dr Bailey, a reaction like that would tempt me into spending a week’s dividends on a some reciprocal gesture towards the village – perhaps building a public go-kart track around the village green. People would come for miles around.
And while on the subject of stupid noisy things going round in circles, consider the Mail on Sunday’s columnist John Junor and his attempts to come to terms with the Bishop of Liverpool’s report on poverty. "There may be more pompous, self-satisfied men that the Rt. Reverend David Sheppard, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, But if there are, then so far it has been my good fortune never to have met one.
"He has constantly championed what he would term the ‘poor and oppressed’ and unemployed in Liverpool even when many of them have brought their unemployment on themselves. Now he chooses the middle of a general election campaign to launch in the name of the council of Churches for Britain and Ireland a policy statement which, though they deny it, is clearly an attack on the Government.
"Why? Why at this precise moment when it will do the maximum damage to the Tories?
Does the Right Reverend David Sheppard have aspirations to become the Archbishop of Canterbury? And believe he will have a much better chance of securing that post from Mr Tony Blair as prime Minister than ever he would have from Mr John Major?"
What a blast from the Eighties that is. Junor, once editor of Sunday Express, has failed to notice that nowadays you have to welcome the general involvement of the Church in politics before you can slag off the particular report in front of you. There is also the assumption that prime Ministers appoint Archbishops at their convenience — I suppose this explains the assumption that churchmen should not meddle in politics. Finally, there is the infallible mark of a man who has once been an editor: the belief that anything he believes must be true; in this case that David Sheppard should be pompous, self-righteous, etc. Of all the bishops of whom anyone has heard, he is one of the least afflicted in that way. I can certainly think of a couple whom the shoe fits better.
The rest of the week’s news was letters. There were the letters to the Rev John Ball, who developed a heart condition after more than 200 anonymous letters and phone calls to his vicarage accused him of an affair with a teenage parishioner.
Then there were the letters to the Independent, discussing Noah’s Ark. I had no idea so many lunatics read the paper. One of the delights of the correspondence arising from the Noah’s Ark trial in Sydney was Nicolas Walter took no part in it; another was the letter from Dr Majid Katme, of Islamic Concern, who started: "Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, believes strongly in the Creationist view." I find this very hopeful. Since he is wrong about Judaism and Christianity, perhaps he is wrong about Islam too.
In the Times, the letters were more high-minded, being concerned with Simon Jenkins’s attack on Dr Carey for demanding a return to, or perhaps a recognition of, common moral values. This, thought Jenkins, implied a nostalgia for theocracy. This seems a little unfair but that hardly matters. Dr Carey’s articles are published because he is Archbishop of Canterbury, not because he is G Carey, free range intellectual. It seems perfectly fair to attack him for what an Archbishop should have said, or might have said, even if he didn’t actually say it.
It took a letter from John Habgood to explain in a paragraph and a half what Dr Carey might have been trying to say: "The real debate is not about whether we need a public morality but about what shared moral commitments are essential if we are to enjoy the freedom to disagree on other matters."
Yet if there is one thing the press makes clear, it is that this debate is carried on as a sort of drama, in which the lines the actors speak are far less important than the characters they play.
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