Press Column

This column spends enough time banging on about other people’s mistakes, so here’s one of my own. In April this year I rang Jack Spong to find out what he thought would be happening at the Lambeth conference. We had what is known as a wide-ranging discussion: my note of the conversation says: "he vastly amused by my trouble with the press department." It also says that he told me that HarperCollins, his publisher, had used an elided quote of mine on the jacket of his latest book. What I had written was that, as a theologically untrained person, I couldn’t really see the difference between his position and atheism, no matter how well he performed his other functions as a bishop. HarperCollins, putting together the publicity package for his most recent book, and shortened this to something like "An atheist, though an excellent bishop"; and, telling me this back in April, Jack told it as a joke.

Well, I thought, if he thinks it funny to be described by his own publishers as an atheist, this is a usable fact, and filed it away. Two months later, in a preliminary piece on the conference for the Sunday Telegraph, I wrote "He is a man of enormous personal charm who holds no discernibly traditional Christian views at all. His last book has a quote on the back, which he chose, describing him as ‘an atheist who does the job of a bishop very well’."

This is the kind of description that removes the joke from it all. And, he now says, he could not control what Harpers put out in their publicity material. Of course, the timing of the Sunday Telegraph piece, the Sunday before the conference started, meant that everyone picked up on the quote. By a simple process of dramatisation, he became the self-confessed atheist bishop, which really was unfair, since in the book with the offending blurb he had actually devoted a page or so to proving that I was wrong to suppose his position indistinguishable from atheism.

I still haven’t read the book: Harpers have not sent me a copy; so I don’t know if I will find his arguments convincing. But without reading the passages in question I had managed to suggest to that he accepted the description when he was actually struggling against it — and to make this suggestion irresistible to other journalists. I’m sorry.

With friends like that, you might ask, who needs enemies. But enemies can in fact damage you more, providing they are sufficiently unscrupulous and bigoted. This column doesn’t usually deal with the church press on the grounds that dog doesn’t eat puppy. But Andrew Carey's headline on an interview with Jack Spong was a piece of truly professional smearing. By putting the word "witchcraft", which Spong never used, into a headline describing his attitude to African bishops, he ensured that every reference to the North American/African split from then on would involve the claim that an American bishop had accused the Africans of witchcraft.

PA did something like that years ago when it said that David Jenkins had dismissed the resurrection as "a conjuring trick with bones"; but that, I believe, was unintentional. Carey’s headline can only have been a perfectly deliberate piece of black propaganda. It was brilliantly successful. The first generation of quotes, even in those papers most sympathetic to the Right-wing agenda at Lambeth like the Times, did scrupulously mention that Spong had nowhere used the word "witchcraft", but the second and subsequent versions, even in papers sympathetic to the Left, used the quote as if he had really said it.

This was so enormously damaging because it assimilated a prejudice which Spong really does hold — that it is impossible for anyone who has assimilated the discoveries of Western science to believe in the God of the Old Testament — with one that he has a distinguished record combatting — that blacks are inferior or primitive. This trick of being nearly true is one of the real skills of political smearing. Politics is a rough old game, of course. No doubt the evangelicals are sick of being described as homophobic bigots (especially those who are) and felt like getting their own back. On the other hand, looking back at the conference, the most memorable scene by far was Bishop Chukwama attempted to exorcise or deliver Richard Kirker of homosexuality. If either of those two believed in witchcraft, it was not the Western liberal. It was notable that the Times, which was the broadsheet much the most ideologically committed to the defeat of liberalism on this issue, hardly mentioned the incident in its coverage of the debate.

But enough of these old, unhappy far-off things. The Financial Times had a report from the religion of the future, as practised among the rich on the Hamptons. Contact Yoga combines the trend for eastern wisdom with that for personal training. Your personal spiritual trainer will give you a beautiful body and a beautiful soul in the same session of exercising. Clearly a spiritual adviser who provides a painful jog or a cleansing diet is going to be more popular than one who merely suggests a penitential walk in the snow barefoot or a fast.

"Yoga has taken the Hamptons by storm. This wouldn’t sound quite so funny if it weren’t for the fact that those hanging out with their personal yogis, talking yamas and niyamas, are the same guys who buy and sell multinationals before breakfast … Contact yoga, which is done with a partner, is not only fun but a great way to meet a managing directr from Goldman Sachs" according to Helen Kirwan-Taylor. She quotes Deansin Parker a psychoanalyst, and founder of a Wellness Centre in New York. "People today are much more knowledgeable about their bodies. They are aware that beauty comes from the inside…You cannot buy peace of mind. If you’re stepping people all day, you can’t get away from the fact that you’re3 a nasty person by doing meditation or yoga. But just learning to relax is a big step forward."

There is a lesson there for almost everyone who was at Lambeth, journalists included.

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