Press Column Saturday 16 December 2000

It is the ambition of every press officer to reduce a reporter to silent, staring, flappings of the mouth, like the death-rattle of a goldfish; but I do not know who deserves the honour for the feat this week. One sentence in the report on whether we need a third Archbishop had me doing the dying goldfish, but only the Times carried it. "The Archbishop of Canterbury is not just another international business executive" it said. Not just! The whole point about the Archbishop of Canterbury is that he is not an international business executive at all. He canít even cross the Severn or Hadrianís wall without running out of executive authority ó let alone travel to countries where he has to show a passport, where he has no businesses to run at all, even if you accept that the Church of England is a sort of business. If there is one lesson which the last Lambeth Conferences have to teach it is that he has no more chance of acquiring international authority than I have of becoming a press officer at Lambeth Palace.

Talking of which, there is a fine example of the revenge of the goldfish in the Guardianís vile trick of writing down exactly what an official spokesman says and printing it. The spokesman in this case was Arun Kutaria, formerly of the Church Commissioners, and now Lesley Perryís replacement at Lambeth Palace. Here is what happened when they asked him for a comment on the Act of Settlement: "[he] asked incredulously ĎYou want a response from here? We think that the simple answer is that very often seemingly straightforward proposals are often nothing of the sort. We are very aware of the human rights issue but that is by no means the only factor. It is difficult to grasp the whole issues. The process the Guardian is undertaking to raise the issue is obviously at its earliest stage and we will be watching very closely to see whether it comes to anything. Palpably, the canít be a debate unless there is progress in bringing a case. You cannot presume that the Archbishop would not oppose the prince marrying a Catholic. He would seek to follow the law of the land and he would uphold the constitutional settlement."

I think that Arun needs to remember that journalists may be vile, dishonest, idle, cowardly, and bound for eternal torment ó but they donít, for some reason, like being patronised. Even if international business executives need to employ people who can extrude waffle like a demented toothpaste tube itís not clear that this is a service Archbishops canít manage for themselves.

The Guardianís campaign to repeal the Act of Settlement did get a nice quote from Paul Oestreicher: "We have the situation where the heir to the throne can marry an adulterer but not marry a Catholic. He can go against the most basic moral principles of the church and still be its supreme governor." Whatís nice about this story is that it allows the most ecumenical and liberal Protestants in the country to go about being beastly to Catholics: what, after all, has any Catholic done to deserve marrying into the Royal Family?

You wouldnít find a satisfactory answer in the pages of coverage devoted to the gay teacher posthumously accused of molesting pupils at the Oratory school. Whether the coverage came because Tony Blairís children now attend it, or because it was such a shock to the newspapers to discover a Catholic scandal in which no women were involved, was not clear. Either way, it all tended to increase the impression that something is rotten in the Roman Catholic church, because every time one of these scandals breaks, there is a background story listing all the things that have gone wrong before. Even the Daily Telegraph, by far the most on-message paper for Roman Catholics, remarked on its news pages that "Over the past six years, 26 priests have been convicted of child sex offences in England and Wales. This year has seen five convictions and culminated in the inquiry into allegations against Fr David Martin, the former chaplain at the London Oratory School, the foremost Roman Catholic state school." In an age when one fact makes a story, two a trend, and three an established fact, these are worrying statistics.

Perhaps they will be counteracted by the Italian comic book retelling of the Popeís life. For some reason not apparent from the apparent from the text, he is referred to throughout as a "superhero". In the Guardian he went one better, becoming a "Caped crusader": the sort of joke which makes a sub-editorís life worthwhile. I suppose you could call it justification by lack of faith. I any case, it was outdone by the headline in the Daily Express, where, god knows, they need a little light relief these days. Their headline, never to be improved, was "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No itís the Pope."

Strange news from Leeds, where the Yorkshire Post checked out a remark of Michael Nazir Aliís. He had given something called the Paulinus lecture in Dewsbury: not an event at which one would expect firebranding. None the less, according to the paper he launched what was a mere "swipe" in the first paragraph, but had swollen to a "strident broadside" in the second. Perhaps he changes in a telephone booth on the M1 when driving north. "In our part of the world, Frank Sinatraís My Way seems to be a runaway favourite at funerals" But at Lawnswood crematorium, in Leeds, it only comes third, after two hymns, but before Tina Turnerís Simply the Best, which is also popular at football matches. How extraordinary to think that people keep records of this? Is it because the performing rites [stet, prudence, please, acb] society needs to know?

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