Press Column Saturday 22 July 2000

This is not the week to be Christopher Morgan. The Guardian’s media page carried a long attack on the Sunday Times by Roy Greenslade (who once was deputy editor there). He listed ten stories whose subjects flatly denied their truth; the first four were all recent Morgan exclusives. Greenslade did not have the lack of taste to go back further than December 1999, as far as the Neary story, for example. On Tuesday the papers carried the news that the Stephen Lamport, Prince Charles’ press secretary, had written to the PCC explicitly denying another Christopher Morgan exclusive, the first time this has ever happened. These stories come down to very simple tests of credibility. Either the Sunday Times is lying, or its victims, or both. The matter is complicated because Buckingham Palace and even the General Synod have been known to suppress true stories, and in the case of the Palace to lie about them directly especially when they involve royal marriages. But there are lots of areas in which these conflicts of credibilty appear – politics, for instance. And political reporters who get hotly denied scoops are judged by their peers on whether they turn out to be true or not. On that basis, you need only count the number of Morgan stories followed up by other papers to discover how reliable the Sunday Times is supposed to be.

The Runcie obituaries were huge in the broadsheets and fascinating partly because they were so very much more favourable to him in life than many of the papers had been while he was alive. The Daily Mail, for example, headlined its obit "The kindly war hero who betrayed Diana". You would not have found "kindly war hero" in use as a description of him ten years ago. And the text of the article went all the way through to the end without mentioning trumpets that sounded any notes at all, uncertain or otherwise. In the Daily Express he was "Witty to the end" and a "Good brave man who millions will miss." "Millions" would I think have amused him. Even the Sun put scare quotes round "basher" in "Thatcher ‘basher’ Runcie is dead", before informing its readers, "Lord Runcie became widely famous when he married Prince Charles and Princess Diana."

In part this was a reflection of the process identified by Richard Ingrams in the Observer: "It is at first sight hard to reconcile these eulogies with the pretty well non-stop hail of insults and abuse which poor old Runcie attracted when he took on the Church of England’s to job. As editor of Private Eye during much of his time in office I have to confess that I did my fair share of throwing bread rolls at the man we christened Runcieballs. Yet now all is forgotten and Runcie is regarded with enormous admiration and affection by almost everyone. The reason is not hard to find in the person of his successor, the unfortunate George Carey, a sincere Christian but a dim and uninspiring figure who now makes his predecessor look like a giant and a genius,

The message seems to be that is you want to get a good send-off you should ensure that your job is taken over by a mediocrity. And of course Carey should take heart, because by the same process there is no real reason why he too should not one day come to seem like a colossus."

On the other hand, one element of the Runcie obituaries was that he appealed a lot to lovers of language, which is not one of Dr Carey’s charms. I think I had better resolve now not to write the poor man’s obituary when the time comes: Clifford Longley’s reactions to Runcie’s make it abundantly clear that death does not diminish the pleasure to be had from patronising archbishops. The tone of genial contempt in his obituary is startling: Faith in the City, he writes, "was just a kind of middle-class English sense of fair play: there was no theological backbone to it .. Perhaps such niceness was too naïve for this cynical world. But he eared the Church of England great credit by having so much of it. His strategy will not be long remembered, for there wasn’t one. But he will be, most fondly." I only hope, reading this, that Clifford’ obituarists will give due weight to the lasting transformation of national consciousness brought about by the Catholic Bishops’ pre-election document, whatever it was called.

Anyway, you might ask why the Church of England needs strategies of its own when Clifford is so ready to supply them. He devoted his immediate post-Runcie column to explaining why Richard Chartres should not be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He assumed that he started as favourite since he was Carey’s least favoured successor. One might ask whether this is entirely fair to Rowan Williams; but it is certainly an admirable theory that the Archbishop chosen will always be the one his predecessor most hoped to avert. However, he says, this is no longer necessary "As Cardinal Hume showed, the Roman Catholic Church can nowadays do a better job of upholding the Catholic ethos in national life than any Anglo-Cathlic churchman such as the Archbishop of York of the Bishop of London. The necessary balance, therefore, can now be achieved differently and the frustrating and inefficient zigzag at Lambeth Palace can stop." What is interesting about this is the name that does not appear. Where in this strategy is Cormac Murphy O’Connor?

In other news, a four-year-old girl was married to a dog in a fairly widely reported Hindu ceremony and Cahal Milmo the Independent published the most tangled and illiterate lead to a religious news story this millennium: "Parishioners at a mediaeval abbey yesterday went to court to resolve a burning schism — what they sit on." If I found myself sitting on a burning schism, I would not take it to consistory court but to a doctor.

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