Press Column

In the Independent there was a marvellous story by Georgian Rowe about the progress of a young orthodox priest in the New Russia. "He lived in a one-roomed apartment which he shared with his elderly pilgrim mother who, when she wasn’t travelling around Russian churches, slept on a truckle bed in the kitchen. It wasn’t an easy partnership. Sviatos, who rarely eats Russian food, complained bitterly when his mother sent his German yoghourts and Italian spinach pasta down the communal rubbish chute, claiming the barcodes to be a sign of the Devil. On one occasion she nearly fused his laptop by dousing it in holy water."

Most of the broadsheets covered the Birmingham primary school which banned its pupils form taking part in Red Nose day because some of the charity’s money goes to family planning causes. It seems a rather drastic way to ensure a pool of pupils, and possibly not a very efficient one. Read carefully, though, the stories revealed quite a lot about Catholic attitudes to contraception and the press’s attitude to these.

The wire service report whose skeleton was clear in most of the shorter reports simply mentioned contraception and not abortion as the thing to which the head teacher was objecting. The longer and more sympathetic report in the Daily Telegraph put "pro-abortion and family planning charities" as the target, and filled in the background. "Schools in the midlands and North are being sent a circular letter by anti-abortionists urging them to boycott the Red Nose fund-raising event on March 12

"The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children says the letter and the fact sheet are being distributed by its local branches with head office approval." Even here there is something funny going on, for the Comic relief organisers are quoted as saying that they do not fund abortions, and no one denies this. They simply work with charities which in other circumstances approve of abortions.

Mr Caffery, the headmaster in question, told the Daily Telegraph "The very fact that Comic Relief has contact with such groups means that I wouldn’t want a penny of whatever charity money we raise in this school to go to that cause."

I wonder what he thinks of the Church of England, then.

Another interesting sidelight aspect was brought out by Saturday’s Financial Times, which had as its second front a story about the Japanese government licensing Viagra, six months after the drug was first introduced. The contraceptive pill, however, is still officially regarded as unsafe in Japan, and the modern, low-dose versions may not be prescribed at all.

The reason, it turns out, is that Japanese doctors and even religious groups make far too much money from performing abortions to see any need for effective contraception. "Officially there were 337,000 abortions performed in Japan in 1997 but the true rate is estimated to be as high as twice that figure. The reason is that there is systematic under-reporting by doctors so that can underestimate their income and avoid paying tax … even by the most conservative estimate the Japanese abortion industry is worth more that $110m a year and probably much more."

As for religion, there was a chilling passage in the story about a shrine to aborted foetuses. In the gardens of the Purple Cloud Temple, north of Tokyo, there are 14,000 statues. "Each commemorates an aborted foetus. They are decked with bright red bibs, each with plastic flowers before them, many with toy windmills … a few have been clothed in quilted anoraks to keep them warm." These statues can cost nearly £2000 for the largest. The temple also does more usual merchandising to its 100,000 visitors. With that sort of money at stake, it is obvious to the Buddhist priesthood that the pill contravenes natural principles.

The News of the World had story in which an innocent priest was the hero and emerged as morally superior to a journalist. Of course, it wasn’t one of their journalists: "Grovelling BBC bosses have begged forgiveness from a furious vicar for making him look like a sneak thief in front of millions of TV viewers."

Paul Sinclair (possibly a vicar, but also titled "Pastor") had been shown, along with other victims of the stunt, into an ante-room crammed with goodies: food, drink, and designer clothing, and told that these were "leftovers from a from a film set that would only be thrown away" Helpful program assistants urged him to take anything he wanted, and even supplied him with a carrier bag. Then they left him alone with a hidden camera. After 45 minutes in the room, he was invited onto the show to discuss temptation and asked to explain why he had taken a bottle of champagne, some cigarettes and a packet of mints. The News of the World helpfully reproduced the stills of him doing this from the video the program showed.

I seem to remember the story being reported entirely straight when it first happened. In any case, the efforts of the BBC and the production company to apologise were magnificently tortuous: the hea dof programme complaints at the BBC said "The purpose was not to test the honesty of the participants but to see where they drew the line between ‘helping oneself’ and greed." Another spokesdroid explained "The item was meant to be a fun item. They were looking at how far people could resist temptation. It was meant to be a fun item."

It’s the last touch which shows how deeply engrained is the culture of bullying within television. To demand that the victims you have humiliated should laugh at themselves as well is one of the things that gives bullying its particular flavour.

There’s an almost perfect joke in the pocket cartoon on the front cover of the Sunday Telegraph: clerical gent upbraids a bewigged architect who is clutching a scroll of plans for St Paul’s Cathedral. He asks "But where’s the Christian element? It’s just a huge dome!"

If only that were the last word on the subject.

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