Press Column

Less ambitious than Pilate, a journalist need only ask himself what is fact. It is — presumably — a fact that a car stopped or slowed down outside Clyne chapel in Swansea last winter; and that this car contained Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. So, since one fact is a story, all that remains is to discover what the story might have been. The Sun had no doubt. "I want my wedding Dai in Village Chapel" said the headline on its story. The whole story was written with such vim that only a half-awake reader would have noticed that there was nothing to suggest that the couple had planned to marry in the chapel: only the usual complement of anonymous "pals" and "childhood friends". I especially admired the quote from the Vicar of Clyne, the Rev George Williams "The church is a lovely setting. I’m not prepared to talk about private arrangements but of course I will be very happy to discuss a wedding with the Jones family."

There are two points about this quote, which appeared, with small variations, in the Times, the Sun and the Mirror. The first is that he did say something of the sort, but only to a reporter on the local paper, who seems to have flogged it on widely, and good luck to him. That is the way provincial journalists are expected to enlarge their meagre salaries, though it comes as a shock to people who meet this way of working for the first time. The second is that he nowhere says that the couple or any of their representatives have in fact approached him. They hadn’t.

The whole story seems to have started because the people of Swansea want to believe it is true. They are, says Mr Williams, extremely proud of Catherine Zeta Jones. There was perhaps a time when you would expect the chapel to denounce such a strumpet, but that was a long time ago, in the lifetime of Lloyd George. So when the news of their engagement was announced, on Douglas’s web site, and then picked up by the breakfast television news, "immediately the local paper started dreaming" he says. And, since its readers, and the people it quoted, wanted the story to be true, it looked for a few moments as if it was. This is so exactly the way that gossip works that it is well worth studying.

Journalists have two largely irreconcilable views of their own job, which they manage, most of the time, to believe simultaneously. The one holds that our special skills are precisely those required to see in a flash that a story like the Jones/Douglas chapel wedding is nonsense based on wishful thinking. The other is to recognise that these are popular wishes and enjoyable nonsense. Broadly speaking, the tabloid journalist works on the second principle and the broadsheet journalist on the first. But there are some stories, such as those involving the marriage of a film star, where there is nothing serious to say, so if you are going to cover it at all, the whole trick is to find out what people want to believe and tease them with the possibility of doing so. Writing about any sort of stars turns instantly into astrology.

Meanwhile, the struggle between the Express and the Mail for the services of the Mail’s astrologer continues to provide startling glimpses into the present. Jonathan Cainer, the man in question, is apparently paid more than the editors of either the papers tussling over him. He makes about a million pounds a year in all, though a large proportion of this comes from premium phone lines. It’s difficult to imagine a dial-a-prayer service which would generate that kind of income; but what is oddest of all is that few of those who ring him can do so in the expectation of getting something they can really believe. Perhaps I’m wrong, and people really are that stupid. But it seems to me that he is in the business of providing personalised entertainment: stuff that would be interesting if true, like the Zeta Jones wedding or the promises of a televangelist.

Still, predictions can be worth even bigger money, if they are backing a large enough bet. The Financial Times had a wonderful feature on Hayseed Stephens, who has been told by God that these there is a gigantic oilfield 30,000 feet under the Dead Sea. He is a Texan, of course, with the usual Texan born again story: money, women, drink, repentance. But after a period of evangelising, he realised God really wanted him to be an oil man again. "Before long, He was picking the drilling sites. ‘The geologists said I was crazy’ recalls Stephens ‘But God tells me where to drill and I drill.’ At his first divinely inspired exploration project he struck oil 21 times."

The piece — by an Israeli — concluded "Just 1bn barrels of oil at $20 a barrel could wild $20bn worth of oil. Maybe it will not get Jews to flock to Jesus, but it might be something worth believing in." Apparently there is some oil in those parts, and geological evidence as well as the Biblical ones cited by Stephens, among them the fire and brimstone that landed on Sodom and Gomorrah — obviously oil — and a verse from Isaiah: "I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places", or oil traps, as he glosses them.

Few things are as enjoyable to watch as the complex dances of Israeli governments and American fundamentalists in which both sides unshakeably convinced that God has promised them the last laugh at the others’ expense. Stephens’ project involves some very fancy steps indeed in this gavotte. He believes that he will not only strike oil, but that this will convince the Jewish people that Jesus is the messiah. "Israel’s transformation into a wealthy oil-producing country, he says, will also fulfil several prophecies – which Christian millennarians believe will soon lead to a second coming."

So he thinks that success will abolish the Jews: the Israeli government believes that it would enable them to abolish most of their neighbours, or at least to get very rich indeed. No wonder Ness Energy, Hayseed Stephens’ company, claims in its publicity that investors will be joining a company where "God is chairman of the board and His agape love is the order of business."

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