Press Column

The split personality of the Times is usually seen as the divide between the op-ed pages, which are still written largely for educated grown-ups, and the news pages, which are aimed at people who find the Daily Mail too rigorous; indeed, they seem to be edited by people who found the Daily Mail too hard. But there is a further divide, between the news and feature pages, and this comes out clearly in the treatment of religion. Itís the difference, if you like, between honest and dishonest vulgarity. Iím biased, because Ruth Gledhill is a friend, but she is also very good at what she does and she knows, by now, a very great deal about Christianity in this country. And she does believe that religion is a serious subject. Her character is studded with little outcrops of reverence, like the rhinestones on her dancing clothes. So itís worth comparing two pieces on the next Cardinal in Tuesdayís paper. The first is a runners-and-riders on the news pages by Ruth, which pushes John Crowley, the bishop of Middlesbrough, who read the homily at Basil Humeís funeral. The other candidates she identifies are Timothy Radcliffe and David Konstant. The piece makes a nice contrast with the Sunday Telegraphís equally confident identification of Patrick Kelly of Liverpool as the next Cardinal. Itís full of anonymous sources, such "a senior lay Catholic in England" (Monsignor Oddie, at a guess). It also claims both that the Papal Nuncio has almost finished drawing up his shortlist of three and that she knows what will be on it. But this is all perfectly respectable speculation. Iím sure that it fairly represents the state of the current rumours and thatís the best you can ask for.

Compare and contrast with a picture feature on the first comment page in the same dayís paper. This strip is the Timesís answer to Deirdreís Photo Casebook in the Sun. Deirdre Saunders is the Sunís agony aunt: in her photo casebook, young models enact various crises which could all be avoided if they only kept on their underwear at all times , though they are usually wearing little else in the photographs. The Times has nothing quite so interesting. It prefers fully clothed mug shots; and instead of speech bubbles, there is a snide running commentary underneath, designed to entertain the writer and inform the reader how clever he is.

The subject on Tuesday is "Papal Nuncios" and it opens with the cover picture of John Cornwellís book, taken in 1927, in which Pacelli, then the papal nuncio in Berlin, is processing in full regalia past a saluting German soldier. The Times glosses this "Swishing round cloisters in cassocks, nuncios are dark, secretive figures. Cardinal Pacelli was big in Berlin and took his fondness for jackboots and helmets back to the Vatican, where he became Pope." Itís like one of those competitions in childrenís comics: spot the deliberate errors: he wasnít, then, a Cardinal; heís not in a cloister; he had no fondness for "jackboots and helmets" .. and so on, through the piece, where we learn for example that "Since Basilís demise, Pablo Puente, the Popeís muddling London nuncio has sampled local talent. He decides which rosary twiddler will lead our left-footers. One thing is certain: unlike George Carey, he wonít be lower middle class. Catholics love a good toff such as Princess Michael of Kent, a convert to the fashionable club of Rome. Left-footers also favour right wingers."

But enough. I hear, from the North a distant groaning and a whistling sound. It is steam escaping from Eamon Duffyís rivets, and those of any other literate and educated Catholic unlucky enough to read the Times. The sensibility that brought us this photo casebook was also evident in the Timesí pull-out-and-throw-away guide to religion in the millennium, which listed "the twelve most revered people" in the world, among them Dr Carey, the Pope, and Heber Jentsch, the head Scientologist. The Daily Telegraph was fairly widely mocked for giving away the four Gospels as a marketing gimmick; and if the commentators in the other papers are to be believed, the marketing department did everything in its power to underplay the gift being given away. But at least what was then on offer was something in which the editor believed, and to which he did not want his readers to feel superior.

The Times also had a story from its Rome correspondent, Rilchard Owen, rehearsing the succession to the Pope. It was pegged on the European Synod of Bishops, which may be unfortunate. The next Pope, if not Italian, is unlikely to be European at all. But he had picked up on a speech by Cardinal Martini, who, he said had "issued what is seen as a call for a Third Vatican council.2 this sounds like an interesting and important story, even if nothing will happen unless Martini or one of his party is the next pope. Will he be? At that point, the Times admits defeat. There are no less than 12 candidates listed as papabile, which is the well-informed and scrupulous way to say "search me, Guv"

The Sunday Telegraph had a very illuminating story about the Childrenís Soceity, and the trouble it has got into over gay and lesbian foster parents. It was one of those stories, though, which grew more illuminating the more you read. The top seemed clear enough: "More than a thousand people have withdrawn their support from the Church of Englandís leading childrenís charity since it lifted its ban on homosexuals and lesbians adopting and fostering children." Further on, however, was another piece of news: the Soceity claims 300,000 people on its mailing list, who are presumably all tapped for money. So we donít know what effect it will have on its finances. Deeper still came the information that the Society only made 16 placements of children for adoption or fostering; not only did none of these children go to gays or lesbians, but no homosexuals have applied to become foster parents. The whole vast battle is as pointless as any First World War struggle over an uninhabitable salient in the mud. But, of course, just as in that war, the purpose is not to win ground, but to grind down the enemy when he tries to defend it.

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