The Press Saturday, March 1st 1997

In grizzled and despairing old age, I shall write a dictionary of newspaper English. "Exclusive" will be defined there, exclusively. It has two meanings. In the broadsheets, it a warning that what follows is either extremely boring or  almost certainly untrue - if it were neither, you wouldn't need a tag to make people read on. In the tabloids, it means "We found this in our rival's first edition and it certainly look interesting.” “World exclusive” means “It was in their second edition, too. We think it might be true.”

Like “literally” or “incredible” , “exclusive” has had almost every trace of its original meaning rubbed away. None the less, it was delightful to find, in the recesses of the Sunday Mirror, the following headline: “Why sex just isn’t enough to keep a marriage alive. Exclusive, by Sharon Feinstein”. The only plea of mitigation that can be entered is that it appeared on the books pages. But I doubt any jury would convict a sub whose job was to interest the readers of the Sunday Mirror in books.

Perhaps they should be reviewing Norman Mailer, instead, who has effortlessly trumped A.N. Wilson by writing a first person life of his distinguished Jewish predecessor, Jesus Christ. And you can say that again. The Times had a lovely little piece about this, quoting Stuart Burrows, a writer and critic at Princeton University. “Only a megalomaniac like Mailer would have the audacity to even to attempt to speak in Christ’s voice. The only surprise is that mailer has chosen to write as the Son of God, not the Almighty himself.”

That should be rolling through in May. Now back to last week’s news. Bishops are praying for a Labour victory. This story - the result of an exclusive Observer survey - found 25 diocesan bishops who said “either that they supported Labour or that Conservative rule should end”. There is news in this, but it is not that the bishops are going to vote against the government, like every other member of the  middle classes. It is that 25 bishops are prepared to be quoted on any interesting subject. Of course this might simply mean that the election is not very interesting, but that is a thought not to be endured.

All the serious stories, however, were about unAnglican concerns. The Observer also had an extraordinarily clumsily written and subbed article on its op-ed page about a week in which a row turned into an inferno”: “What is happening in Jewish life is close to becoming its death throes” was the pull quote, and I had to read it twice before I was sure it meant anything at all. This is not the quality you want in a pull quote, which is meant to sacrifice almost anything to clarity and impact. The writer, Michael Freedland, was agitated to the point of incomprehensibility. “Jews in Britain are being wrenched apart as never before...Wrenched apart? That makes it sound too passive. For centuries these were the victims of pogroms - the Holocaust the worst of all. This time, here in Britain, Jews are doing it to themselves.”

A new holocaust here in Britain, and all the papers have missed it! That really must be an exclusive. Actually, the article is all about Hugo Gryn’s funeral and the Chief Rabbi’s refusal to attend it. This may have been a cowardly or misconceived decision, but I don’t think it deserves that kind of hysteria. Still, the article, all about incomprehensible feuds pursued with inexhaustible venom, offers a useful glimpse into how Anglican battles must appear to the world outside.

All this does not bode well for Dr Sacks’s new book, which he started to plug in the Times on Monday and Tuesday. This was not, I thought, an impressive performance. His predecessor, Lord Jacobovits, once told me that he thought adultery should be made illegal. This had at least the merit of simplicity. Dr Sacks can’t bring himself to say that sort of thing. So he says instead: “With grave trepidation, therefore, I want to say what others, no less wise, believe cannot be said: If we have any moral responsibilities at all, then we have moral responsibilities to those we have brought into being.” The italics are his, and one can sympathise: without them, this is a statement whose news value would be easy to overlook.

Of course, it is difficult to get platitudes heard.  This must be the justification for the behaviour of the very wonderful the Rev Earlsley White, who arranged for his sermon on the dangers facing missionaries to be interrupted by a man with a gun. This would certainly have appealed to Raymond Chandler. It had a less desirable effect on his congregation at Uddingston, in central Scotland. According to a wonderful story in Tuesday’s Telegraph: “</summary>The intruder, whose face was painted, held a handgun to the minister's head and told 250 Cubs, Scouts and Guides, their parents and leaders, that religion had caused a lot of trouble in the world. Most of the adults realised that the incident had been staged when the man talked about missionaries being persecuted for their beliefs. But some of the younger children started to cry as the Rev Earlsley White was tied up and led out of church. The congregation then heard two shots being fired.” The drama was heightened by geography and coincidence; the incident took place a fortnight before the anniversary of the Dunblane massacre, and 25 miles from Dunblane. The congregation were not the only ones disturbed. The story continues: “The Sunday afternoon service, to commemorate the founders of the Scouting movement, was stopped by the police a short time later after a member of the public reported seeing a gunman enter the church. Armed police sealed off the street outside the building and a police helicopter hovered overhead as the 69-year-old minister was interviewed. Mr White told officers from Strathclyde Police that he was trying to illustrate the theme of his sermon. He was later charged with obstructing the police, and the 40-year-old ‘gunman’, a friend of the minister, was charged with firearms offences and a number of weapons and a quantity of ammunition were later taken from his home. One local man described the stunt as ‘the sickest joke ever’.”

This is a truly wonderful story. So far as I can find, it appeared only in the Telegraph; and what makes it even better is that there was no question of tagging it “exclusive”.

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