Press Column

"Cowboy Rabbi in nude bar urged to quit". came from the Daily Telegraph’s stringer in Tel Aviv, Ohad Gozani. Photographs of the teacher were passed around his students which showed him wearing a cowboy outfit, boots and a stetson hat; the story does not specify this, but he was presumably garnished with nude waitresses as well. An official of the seminary explained "He made a supreme sacrifice by going to this abominable place to see if any of his students frequented it." The cowboy get-up must have been a disguise.

Further light was cast on Jewish sexual mores by the indefatigable Hyam Maccoby, the librarian of Leo Baeck College, who wrote to the Times to protest at the assumption that President Clinton had been displaying unbiblical morality, amongst other things. "In a polygamous society, the definition of adultery is limited. President Clinton’s alleged affairs with unmarried women, for example, would not be classed as adulterous by Leviticus. Many revered characters in the Hebrew Bible had ‘concubines’; for example Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon … Ruth Gledhill’s statement, ‘For merely seeing his sister naked, and man should also be cast out of his community’, is a misunderstanding, There is no penalty for seeing one’s sister naked. The Hebrew expressions ‘to see naked’ or ‘to uncover the nakedness of’ are euphemisms for sexual intercourse."

And, continuing this generally silly theme, there was a front page story in the Sunday Times: "Church warns PM of moral muddle". At least that’s what the first edition said. The second edition headline was much harder: "Church warns PM over mistresses and ministers." The story beneath had, if anything, softened. Nowhere did it say what the headline, in context, clearly implied: that Dr Carey had rebuked the Prime Minister or other politicians over Robin Cook’s affairs. The first edition had gone further: one paragraph read "One source close to Carey referred to ‘an ambiguity at the heart of government’ over marriage, and said this was revealed by the controversy over the break-up of the marriage of Robin Cook, the foreign secretary."

Lesley Perry, the Archbishop’s press secretary, got on the phone to complain about this juxtaposition: apparently the remarks about "an ambiguity at the heart of government" had been made before Christmas, when, so far as Lambeth Palace knew, Mr Cook was just another stressed telecommuting husband. So the second edition broke the offending paragraph, so that it read "One source close to Carey referred to ‘an ambiguity at the heart of government’ over marriage.

"The remark coincides with the controversy over the break-up of the marriage of Robin Cook, the foreign secretary."

Note that this is still not true: the remark was made before the scandal broke. But it no longer claims that that it was made with reference to the scandal. This claim has been moved up to the headline instead, and set in 36pt type. There is nothing journalists like better than the opportunity to "correct" a story like that.

People think the difficulty with news stories is finding things out, and so it sometimes is. But more often, the difficult part is forgetting that other people have already found things out, and gazing at the world with the innocent wonder of an amnesiac. A really good newshound could write "Sun to rise tomorrow!" as a front page splash.

This story is made up from two parts: what Lambeth people said in December, and the news that Dr Carey has written to Tony Blair asking for policies that support the family. This last was all in Clifford Longley’s column in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, as an illustration of the Church of England’s wisdom in co-operating with the Roman Catholic church. None the less, putting together two facts well-known to anyone in the business and presenting them as an important novelty is a large part of the specialist journalist’s skill

Since Lambeth is still frozen in the ridiculous and undignified posture of refusing to say whether this letter has been written, the story died fairly rapidly in the next day’s papers. The one man who might have given it a bit of impetus was Lord Habgood, who had written to the Times about the Cook imbroglio in scathing terms. But he does not give his phone number out, so no one could reach him. The following day the Daily Mail rose to the challenge of this non-story with a leader which packed clichés in archaism as tightly as potted shrimps in butter. Dispensing with all suspense about where the phrase would appear, it even got "sound the trumpet" into the headline.

"Almost shyly, George Carey has revealed his concern over what he sees as ‘an ambiguity’ at the heart of government towards the family and marriage." [Anglice: we can’t get anyone to stand the story up, boss]

"What we think the good man is trying to say is that, while Labour Ministers are ready enough to champion family values, they tend to choke on the M-word" [Anglice: but he probably agrees with The Editor, and he’ll be sorry if he doesn’t.]

"For if most politicians are mealy-mouthed about matrimony, then how many contemporary clerics actually trumpet the blessings of holy wedlock from their church towers?" [It is left as an exercise to the reader to imagine what such trumpeting would actually look like.]

Yet the front page of the same Daily Mail had as its splash a poll suggesting that more people now believe in the paranormal than in God. What is really bad news is that the poll was reported in a language as lively and free of cliché as possible, in the confidence that it would matter to readers. And elements of the poll were fascinating. 37% of adult British women have consulted fortune tellers; and 38% believe that objects can be moved by the power of mind. It also shows that 72% of the population feel déjà vu from time to time, but I think we knew that already.

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