The Press Saturday, December 26th 1998

There is some news this week: Tony Higton told the Sunday Telegraph that he expects the Second coming within the next hundred years, which is rather sweetly traditional of him, since people have been expecting this for centuries. There was also the curious affair of Abigail Saxon, the BBC religious producer who stripped down to her socks and ran round a Manchester restaurant three times after an office lunch on a bet from one of her superiors. This was treated by most of the papers as an excellent joke, though there were predictably pompous vapourings from Ernie Rea, the head of religious broadcasting. If I were in charge, I would be far more worried that nothing on the Sunday programme is either as entertaining or as revealing as its office parties. This is normally a sign of dangerously low morale. The cure for that is not to demand that employees keep their clothes on at all times.

But I'd rather talk about astrology. The shrewdest line on this, as on much else, comes from Wendy Cope. "Astrologers may not know if you'll win / The football pools or when you'll get a screw, / but one thing's clearer than this glass of gin /their character analyses are true./ Cancerians are sympathetic, kind, / intuitive creative, sentimental, / exceptionally shrewd and, you will find / They make fantastic lovers, warm and gentle. / Amazing really, that you fail to see / how very well all this applies to me."

Nothing of quite this pith and vigour is to be found in the latest Grove booklet on the subject, by Michael Botting. He claims that it started in this country in 1930, when the editor of the Sunday Express, searching for an angle on the birth of Princess Margaret, had an astrologer draw up a horoscope for her. I doubt, somehow, that it predicted the more famous parts of her subsequent life. What is astrologer-speak for "Roddy Llewelyn"?

At the moment, astrology occupies a curious half-way house in the British press. You will find it in the colour magazines, and in all the tabloids; but it still has not quite cracked the broadsheets. Tom Wilkie, when he was the science editor of the Independent, and I once agreed that the introduction of an astrology column would be the only development that could cause us both to resign. But I doubt that this was the decisive factor in keeping one out. Probably it is simple lack of imagination. A "modern", ironic, astrology column could replace an awful lot of boring facts. For in many ways the astrology column is the quintessence of modern journalism. It's extremely popular. It is flattering and apparently personal: the astrology columns in all the papers and magazines may disagree about all sorts of trivial details such as the character of their readers, or what is going to happen to them. But they are infallibly pitched at exactly the socio-economic class that the advertisers want to read.

You can see how far we have advanced by comparing the British ones with those of a country like Russia: a friend sends the horoscope from the a Moscow newspaper. Its advice to me is: "Health complete the treatment. Family maintain a friendly atmosphere. Friends follow you like shadows. Business positive outlook." That last advice must come in especially handy for Russian Aquarians this Christmas.

Yet PR people perform a very similar function to astrologers.  They too explain the workings of a mysterious, powerful and apparently indifferent universe. One of the most notable features of Mr Botting's pamphlet is the tone of hurt misery when he considers what the media do to Christians. For instance, he has a little  story about a priest being interviewed on the Today programme who claimed to have a regular Sunday congregation of 600. "He never got any further. The interviewer was simply appalled that Britain had been informed that at least 600 could attend a Church of England  service on a Sunday morning. The vicar had to be stopped before he did any further damage! The media must not be deprived of one of its favourite whipping boys.."

But this is of course absurd. It's true that the BBC regards Christianity as largely untrue and unimportant. That is why religious department Christmas parties are so lively. But people get cut off on the Today programme because they have run out of time, not because they reveal secret truths. The media, by and large, care as little for the people they write about as the constellations care for Russian small businessmen. Yet people who would be ashamed of astrology none the less believe in co-ordinated proactive media strategies and similar incantations. I can't say that it seems any real advance in human knowledge..

Everyone noticed the fact that Christmas Day marked the outbreak of renewed fighting in Kosovo. But the most creative use of the phrase "Merry Christmas" was, so far as I know, reported only by the Times . Ian Paisley accompanied to the gates of the Maze prison Michelle Williamson, a young woman whose parents had died in an IRA bomb. She chained herself to the gate to protest against the early release of the man who had planted it. He was sneaked out by the back route to avoid her and her supporters, so she gave the press instead a letter she had written to it. The last lines ran: "You are like a disease in my bones, and the only cure is justice. To say I hate you does not begin to describe how I feel about you. I intend to do all that I can to keep you behind bars where you belong. So go ahead and have your drink I hope you choke on it, for you are nothing but a murdering coward. I hope no, I know, you will rot in hell. Merry Christmas, from Michelle Williamson."

There could be no clearer testimony to Mr Paisley's right to be called a minister of the gospel.

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