Press Column

A couple of anonymous letters asking how I could be so beastly about poor Enoch Powell: if the authors would sign their names I would be happy to tell them. One such correspondent claimed that the prophet had simply been making a sociological observation, and not talking about race. Perhaps I should have realised this from Powell’s use of sociological jargon such as "grinning little picaninnies".

The Times had a truly wonderful headline on Friday: "Road protests ignore God, says Carey." To have got such a juicy and readable idea out of a Lenten meditation argues real desperation on Ruth Gledhill’s part, as well as a triumphant overcoming of it. She is also credited with the story beneath, "Fun death irks Archers fans", so perhaps the news desk thinks there is not enough religious news either. I really don’t understand why she should have to write about the Archers: they have nothing to do with ballroom dancing.

The Carey story, though, gets cleverer the more I read it. What the Archbishop had to say was that it was wrong either to put humans at the centre of the natural world, or to relegate them to its periphery. Short of coming out against sin, he could hardly have done anything more to kill the sermon as news. So it really was excellent to find the one phrase that dramatised his position and work it hard. The theological aspects of his speech were not stressed unduly. Instead, the Times gave the impression that God was opposed to motorway protestors. "Dr George Carey, who frequently travels along some of the worst roads in the country, such as the A2 from London to Canterbury, said humans were the pinnacle of God’s creation."

This was accompanied by a rather cruel fact box suggesting that Dr Carey’s theology on this issue derived from his experience of traffic jams: "The Archbishop of Canterbury’s route into his diocese is peppered with congestion blackspots, especially as the overcrowded A2 enters the capital. Roadworks to widen the M2 through North Kent have added to the delays." But the story worked for the best in the end. I don’t see any other way in which the Archbishop’s views could have got into the press.

There is a wider issue here. Anyone with any experience of having a speech or a function reported in the newspapers — and this includes journalists— knows that the media always get it wrong, and stress some wholly peripheral aspect of what we actually said or did. The only exception to this generalisation are those events which are wholly artificial, where nothing happens except some stage show for the television cameras. That is one of the things that made reporting a televised Parliament so frustrating. Any genuine event, sermon, or communication, is open to many interpretations; the difference between art and journalism is that the journalist is constantly trying to eliminate these ambiguities (the artist is simply trying to reduce them to a manageable number). So from all the rich intellectual possibilities with which Dr Carey’s sermon was pregnant, Ruth did quite right to pull out a few salient facts. Which facts are salient depends very much on where you are looking from. Since my own rule when writing for newspapers is to imagine the readers standing on a crammed tube train, being jerked violently from side to side at random intervals and greatly concerned by the difficulties of refolding the paper in a way that does not entail sexually assaulting fellow passengers, I believe that any mention of public transport is newsworthy.

The other sermon to be reported at some length in the papers was found in the Guardian, in Roy Hattersley’s column. It had been delivered by Martin Wharton,when he was the suffragan in Kingston upon Thames. The Bishop, he said "compared the Almighty to a couple of predatory American widows who rejoiced to discover that a new resident in their Florida retirement home had just been released from prison after serving a life sentence for murdering his wife. ‘that means he’s available’ said one to the other. ‘like them,’ said the bishop, ‘Our Lord will take anybody’."

Of course, this is the attitude which has got him into trouble in Newcastle and the rest of Hattersley’s column was devoted to the antics of Reform there. "It has to be conceded that the Bible — particularly the Old Testament — contains a vriety of ludicrous condemnations of homosexuality. But … why do we never read headlines which proclaim ‘Clergy refuse to accept bishop after learning of his investment income’? No Prince of the Church has to my knowledge, ever been excoriated because he had a building society account. Yet the Concordance lists condemnations of usury from Exodus to Ezekiel."

"Clearly, the evangelicals of Northumbria pick and choose from the testaments. To them, a loving homoseual relationship is more sinful than financial exploitation. Perhaps it was only the gay moneylenders who were driven from the temple."

Perhaps such reflections are the only way to make news of the Church’s — all the churches’ attempts to lift the burden of third World debt for the millennium.

A similar difficulty with the scriptures has afflicted Cat Stevens, the artist currently known as Yusuf Islam. According to Monday’s Guardian, the sect of Islam to which he converted in 1977 views stringed instruments as especially displeasing to God. However, on his newly released CD, he does at least sing, accompanied by a drum, and other musicians on other tracks use synthesisers which the article, confusingly, says are even more repugnant to the ultra-orthodox than guitars. The final, bewildering detail is that the Taliban were so impressed by the singer’s renunciation of music as ungodly that his is the only music allowed in Afghanistan. I can’t work out whether this is meant as an unusually refined way of adding to the torments of their rule or whether I have missed some terribly obvious point. This is a story which would be less confusing with fewer facts.

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