Press Column

What is it about the Sunday Times and Westminster Abbey? Christopher Morgan had a wonderful story this week: "Westminster Abbey has caused a row with the literary establishment by charging the widow of Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate, more than £10,000 for her husbandís memorial service." Thereís even a fact to stand it up: "Carol Hughes has received a letter detailing the bill from Wesley Carr, the dean of Westminster, who has been dogged by controversy since he took office two years ago."

Except that she hasnít had the letter. It hasnít been written. Thereís no such bill. Apart from that, the storyís fairly accurate. Faber and Faber, Ted Hughesís publishers, have issued a statement unequivocally denying the report, which it calls "wholly inaccurate". "Carol Hughes is very pleased with the way matters are developing towards the memorial and is very grateful for the enormous support she has received and continues to receive from everyone at the Abbey"

Note, incidentally, that Dr Carr is supposed to have sent out the bill a month before the service actually takes place on May 13th. Even in the alternative reality of the Sunday Times, someone might have spotted that as an unlikely detail. The abbey says that no bill has been sent out; and that the eventual costs will be very much lower than £10,000. And it is true that attentive readers of the Sunday Times will have noticed that the lower reaches of the story contain a number of hard denials, lurking like rocks within the shifting fogs of "Apparently"; "it is thought", and the "The Queen may be embarrassed".

There were only two direct quote in the whole story. One is a flat denial by the Abbey that anyone had requested the Bach choir (which request the Dean was supposed to have vetoed). The other was from Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, who said, according to the Sunday Times, that "This is absolutely outrageous. If anything, the abbey should be paying £10,000 to the estate of Ted Hughes for the privilege of holding the service." A pity, then, that within 24 hours he had denied the quote completely.

Does any of this matter? No one in the business believes a word that the Sunday Times writes about the Abbey now and by extension little that it writes about any other religious subject. This is after all the paper which last year claimed that two of the women priests in the Church of England had started their life as men before surgical alterations. Pretending that Dr Carr is the lost black sheep of the Milosevic family is not really any more outrageous, though more painful and more damaging. Obviously someone is spreading these stories, and many people loathe the Dean of Westminster. But to report their fantasies as facts

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