Press Column Saturday 25 March 2000

What a difference a date makes! If the mass suicide in Uganda had taken place in December, it would have been given the full pre-millennial treatment, and there would have been pages and pages of analysis suggesting that this was in wait for all of us, or at least for cults all over the world. But by delaying until we were all heartily sick of the whole Millennium business, the poor Ugandan cultists, who seem to have committed one of the most spectacular mass murders and suicides in history, have been treated as a tragedy which has no relevance to the rest of the world. This is partly, of course, because almost nothing is known about the victims or their beliefs except that they are dead. Particularly notable in this respect was the Telegraph, which took up half a page to tell us, amongst other things that "Cult members had brought soft drinks, thought to have been for a party to be held by Joseph Kibweteere, the sect’s leaders. … little is known of the cult’s precise beliefs or its leader, but it is thought that Mr Kibweteere had predicted that the world would end on Dec 31 199, and then changed the date to Dec 31 this year when it did not end."

The analysis piece underneath "Failure of African states drives Christians into doomsday sects" was even better for those of us who enjoy the spectavce of a journalist taking 800 words to explain that he knows nothing at all about the story and has been unable to find anyone who does: the conclusion deserves the kind of immortality once accorded to "Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead": "It may be that the latest victims were illiterate peasants led astray by a fanatic. Equally, they may have been well-educated, looking for someone to follow."

Perhaps poor Mr Kibweteere (a former Catholic priest) was driven to despair because he had no Director of Communications to sort the newspapers out on these important points.

The Rev Dr William Beaver, as he has rebranded himself, made the front page of the Times with a comment on the confirmation of Prince Harry: "In ratifying for himself the promises made for him at his baptism, Prince Harry is demonstrating an attractive maturity and commitment which the nation will welcome." A religious affairs correspondent rang me up specially to have a little scream about this: "How could he be so patronising?" my caller wanted to know. I hadn’t realised myself that it was part of Dr Beaver’s duties to speak for the nation as well as the Church of England. But if you follow the logic of the communications department, it all makes perfect sense: Dr Beaver speaks for the Church of England, and the Church of England speaks for 25m English Anglicans — far more, you will notice, than Tony Blair can claim to represent, with his measly 43% of the vote. So of course Dr Beaver speaks for the nation.

The other royal news in the Daily Telegraph came from Robert Hardman, a journalist who has excellent contacts in the Palace, and who claimed that the Prince of Wales had attempted to get an invitation "in a personal capacity" to the installation of Cormac Murphy O’Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. This bears all the marks of a carefully deniable story: it was run in Hardman’s column, and not as a news story; and the Prince will not in fact be appearing because, the Telegraph assures us, it would have clashed with the presentation of some police awards in East Anglia, and no helicopter as available to get the Prince back to London in time. I can’t help feeling that these are obstacles which could have been overcome with greater determination. But the whole point of flying a kite like that is to see if the readers of the Daily Telegraph will be roused to denounce the idea. Certainly, it gives a pretty strong pointer to the Prince’s thinking about the next coronation.

The Independent had a crypto-religious story last week: the Virgin Mary is buried on Anglesea. What shocked me most about this story was the description of its source as "a historian. This is a man called Graham Phillips who has written a book called The Marian Conspiracy, as well as King Arthur: the true story". I suspect they got the name of the second book wrong, too: surely, it was King Arthur: her true story. In any case, he has discovered, "after years of investigation that Mary’s burial site is the church of St Mary the Virgin in Llanerchymedd, and not Ephesus in Turkey or Jehosophar in Jerusalem as had previously been thought."

The Mail itself could not have more skilfully put in the bits that pointed out that the story was absolute nonsense. You had to wait to the eight paragraph before a fromer vicar of the Church in question "agreed that according to Arthurian legend Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury, but said there was no mention of him going on anywhere else. He also said that St Mary’s was not the oldest church on Anglesey and the island had no churches gong back to the time of Jesus."

But Mr Phillips bounced back from this. There is, he told the reporter, to whom this came as news, a theory that John the disciple did not write the gospel of St John " ‘Some scholars have already cast doubt on that’ he said. ‘That means only Joseph could have buried Mary’." You can’t argue with logic like that.

By contrast, the real Mail had a much more restrained story about the Pope’s Sweetheart. Well, she had lived in the same apartment block as him, and they had once acted together in an amateur theatre production. "I must admit I enjoyed his company" she said. Never mind that she went on to say "Of course there was no question of romance. What girl of 18 thinks of a boy of 16 in that direction? Anyway, he was a Catholic and I never forgot that I was Jewish, which was very important to me." A mere detail. Her husband (whom she met in Israel) told the reporter "He was crazy about her" once his wife was safely out of earshot, and the story was saved.

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