The Press Saturday, April 25th 1998

The whole point of being  specialist journalist is to get so good at the job that they give you something else to write about. Yet newspapers  have an atavistic tradition that it is useful to have journalists on staff who know something about their subjects, of only so they can be ignored. This leads to a silent, bitter struggle in which Victoria Combe, of the Daily Telegraph, has just struck a devastating blow. She has had herself canonised and not by any boring old priest or anything, but by a man with real charisma — Michel Roux, the chef.

Her double act with Bill Deedes the former editor has long been one of the most fun bits of the Daily Telegraph. Bill makes rather a point of being immensely ancient (he is 84) but he is not so old that a clever, pretty woman does not bring out the best in him; so they are sent around the world together, dispensing charm. Last week, the two of them went to Manoir aux Quat' Saisons to learn how to cook: Bill because he has always liked kedgeree and Victoria because she is fairly newly married.

Her piece was not terribly informative on the mechanics of soufflé making: "I cannot recall the exact details of my soufflé class — an exhilarating blur of sugar and eggs — but what I gathered were gems of manoir manners." The moral I drew from her roast lamb recipe was that it is extremely important to have the shopping done for you by one of the best chefs in England.  But the photograph was magic, with the two cooks behind her like putti holding her halo.

I await with interest retaliation from one of her competitors. Ruth Gledhill has the ballroom dancing racket wrapped up. Clare Garner at the Independent might move into painting. She had another wonderful picture story last week. Nearly half the paper's back page was given over to a full-page reproduction of large wall painting showing a group of naked women, equipped with large bouyant breasts, who are dancing away with a coffin labelled "Anglicana Ecclesia". This profound theological statement was produced by a priest, the Rev John Pelling, and is being auctioned to raise funds for Forwards in Faith. Perhaps in the interests of equality, someone should produce a similar work showing fat naked men dancing off with a coffin, and auction that for the benefit of the Forward in Faith too.

In any case, it leads us into the first test of the Church's new communications strategy. MSF released the report that Martin Wroe had leaked in the Observer before Easter. "Women clergy 'face abuse and hostility' said the Times. "Women clergy have been spat at in the street, described as witches, and faced abuses that border on criminal behaviour."

The Daily Telegraph on the other hand had  "Church uses spin and sandwiches to deny sexism," focussing on the Rev Dr's competing press conference, held after the MSF report was launched, where he produced three women priests who called the report unfairly gloomy and very biassed. I'm not sure which headline was better for the church. The other papers didn't bother with the story at all. You'd have thought it was a natural for the Daily Mail, but it seems to have been bumped out by an obituary of Trevor Huddleston that praised him in terms unthinkable twenty years ago.

However, the Mail did have one fascinating religious story on the sports pages. There is apparently a bitter battle going on for the soul (or spiritual emanations: whatever it is that football players have) of the England football team. Glenn Hoddle, the manage who is always referred to as a born-again Christian in tribute to his belief in reincarnation, has appointed his faith-healer an official member of the squad.

"Glenn Hoddle yesterday made the extraordinary admisison that he believes it will take Eileen Drewery's healing hands for England to lift the World Cup.

"Hoddle's revelation that he will install the faith healer with his squad from now until departure for France is a revolutionary, almost evangelical statement of belief for which he accepts he will be ridiculed.

"Yet Hoddle's missionary message may well be derailed by news that Uri Geller, who claims to be one of Hoddle's confidants, is preparing a booklet containing positive stories and prayers for the England players to insert behind their shinpads when they are playing."

I suppose that our players, laden with amulets, charms, and books promoting spiritual healing, will at least have better excuses for losing than the rest. But this story will clearly run and run. On an inside page, the Mail's sports editor says "Hoddle needs to be strong an positive with his players, not giving them the opportunity to mock and belittle him. His outspoken endorsement of spiritual healing is all very well but I say that it has come at the wrong time .. Hoddle suggests that other countries have been involved in these practices for years. Those that spring to mind are Haiti, who spread the blood of a dead chicken on the dressing room floor [is this true? Ed] and Cameroon, who allegedly rely heavily on a witch doctor."

Yet this is in the Mail, only a few pages on from the mumbo-jumbo section where every kind of spiritual snake oil is peddled week after week. I suppose this is another indication of the strict gender apartheid lurking in the newspaper business. Women don't read the sports pages, and presumably few men read the hypochondria supplements. It is noticable that health journalism aimed at women tends to be about getting well, whereas magazines with names like "Men's Health" are all about getting laid.

Masses of coverage of the Shroud of Turin, none of it quite admitting that the thing has been proved to be a fake. The most interesting was John Hooper's piece in the Observer, which contained a fascinating interview with the fireman who rescued it form a blaze a few years ago, and who believes utterly. I don't think Hooper does. Rome correspondents never believe anything. But he finished with the elegant and profound observation that the shroud itself on view is much less moving than the photographs we all know well.

Some news just in: Rupert Murdoch has split up with his wife Elizabeth. This is very heartless, especially after she bought him a papal knighthood earlier this year.

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