Press Column

There are some things that the radio does much better than the newspapers; and I can’t hope to convey the tone of voice in what follows, which was lifted from a Radio 4 program about Mali. On the other hand, it does convey an important truth about the PR industry better than anything I have ever read. The journalist fell in with a man who was descended from one of the Malian Imperial families, and so entitled to a the services of a griot or praise singer. When they went to meet the griot he immediately launched into a recital of his client’s virtues and ancestry; after about ninety seconds, he paused, and the journalist asked for a translation. "He has not finished yet!" replied the client, offended by such coarseness. Everywhere he went, it was the griot’s job to explain to the passers-by what a wonderful man his client was. Did he not ever get bored of this? "No! Each time he speaks, I have more power." Greatly daring, the journalist went on to ask "Is there not a danger that you will become vain or conceited?" Patiently, the client explained "If you have a griot, you can’t become vain, because if you have a griot you are a noble, and nobles cannot be vain." He then went on to explain that a griot was a man of enormous power, who could get his client anything he wanted by writing a song about it "even the daughter of the Queen of England". So there’s no danger of confusing them with modern Communicators, which is a great relief.

The story has one further, perfect twist. The man who employed this griot was himself a journalist.

In other news, the Synod reporting was dominated by the Times. It beat the competition hollow, day after day. There are complicated reasons for this. Victoria Combe chose the week to have a holiday. The Guardian has never been much interested in Synod, and its correspondent Stephen Bates has only just started the job. The Independent carried nothing at all. This vacuum was filled by the Times, amongst other things with the inexhaustibly fascinating topic of whether vicars ought to wear skirts. The peg for this was Jayne Ozanne’s focus groups — something for which I know of no equivalent in Malian cultures — which had shown that "young people saw clergy as ‘men in dresses’ and viewed them with fear", according to the paper. Why en in skirts should be frightening is not explained. Perhaps the public supposes they are about to be blessed by a multitude of Beckhams.

Anyway, the Times’s follow-up was a tremendous example of fluff spun into delicious candyfloss. It had everything you need for an enjoyable read. There was an Area Dean who is supposed to take his services in leather trousers; a "boom in clerical fashion" and a couple of Elim Pentecostals launching polar fleeces plastered with the news that Jesus is Alive. There was even a quote from Dr William Beaver, director of Church of England Communications. The piece also illustrated the enormous flexibility of the term "traditionalist". Here it was contrasted with "evangelical", to mean "someone who likes wearing old-fashioned silly clothes as opposed to up-to-the-minute ones."

The Times also had the best shot of the Bishop of Hereford getting his cassock munched by a pig. So there was clearly ground for the Daily Telegraph to make up: in the Telegraph’s picture the bishop was not getting his cassock chewed with sufficient clarity. In fact he looked as if he might have been trying to kick a football out of the picture. It has to be said that the message that came through most strongly from this was not that the Church was on the side of the farmers — surely their pigs aren’t that hungry? — but that if you are going to send a bishop into a pigsty you had better make sure he is what the Times would recognise as an evangelical.

For the rest of the week, the Telegraph determined on saturation coverage of matters religious. On Thursday, while the Times was exploring the future of clerical fashion, the Daily Telegraph followed, two days late, the Mail ‘s line on Section 28: "Church’s deal to boost marriage seals the fate of Section 28." As well as that there was a long report on the translation of ek backed up by a learned piece by Christopher Howse, on the Synod of Nicaea, culminating in the creed, or Mission Statement, as it would nowadays be known: if you’re going to be late with the news, you might as well do it in style.

On Tuesday, by a nice irony, the Daily Telegraph gave far more space than any of the other papers to WATCH’s report on women priests. For the paper that for so long and so fiercely fought against them to run two thirds of a page with the headlines "Church is accused of ‘sexual apartheid’;" "The white male image needs to be challenged", and "Softly-softly approach has won over doubters" suggests either that there has been a revolution, or that Charles Moore was researching his biography of Lady Thatcher. But before then the battle for the religious readership had moved onto the front pages. The Daily Telegraph seemed to have won hands down with its acquisition of Britain’s foremost and best-known pig man, Lord Runcie, to write 900 words on the plight of the industry. But the pig man was upstaged on this occasion in the in the Times by the Vegetarian Antichrist.

This was a report of a speech by Cardinal Biffi of Bologna, who had solemnly warned an audience at a scholarly conference on an obscure Russian theologian that the Antichrist was already on earth, "in the guise of a prominent philanthropist whose concern for human rights and the environment and advocacy of ecumenism masks his real aim: the destruction of Christianity." Apparently the Cardinal, a noted conservative, went on to say that the Antichrist is an expert on the Bible who espoused vegetarianism, pacifism, environmentalism and animal rights." Why not just come out and say it’s Hans Küng?

Front Cuts Book Back

This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.