Press Column Saturday 10 February 2001

Talking to people about the row in Lambeth Palace last week, I began to wonder whether there is any future for religious specialists in secular journalism. Itís fairly obvious that an organisation which employs Bill Beaver and Arun Kutaria to deal with the press at the highest level doesnít actually want very much written about itself. This is a perfectly understandable attitude: if the last tree is about to fall down in what was once a substantial forest, do you really want to invite the world to hear it? Perhaps, if no one hears, it wonít ever fall.

But there is no obvious reason why this discouragement of journalists should be effective as it obviously has been. No one could have been less competent or less encouraging than some of the press officers who were around in the late Eighties. That did nothing to stem the flow of coverage about the church then. And however often Ruth Gledhill was reduced to tears at the Lambeth Conference, she still found stories when she dried her eyes. So there must be other factors involved.

One possibility is that there arenít any truly ferocious reporters around. They were giants in my day, you know. But actually, the present crop are in many respects much better newshounds than the pack I hunted with. Clifford Longley knew everything, but for that very reason could seldom be excited by anything. I was ó in the phrase of Steve Doughty ó a feature writer moonlighting as a news reporter. That was also the opinion of my newsdesk, though less gracefully expressed. Jonathan Petre was a ferocious digger, but heís still digging away on the Sunday Telegraph, ferocity little diminished. I admit that there is no one any longer who can match Damian Thompsonís imitation of a blood-crazed ferret which was so impressive when first he burst upon the scene; even Damian no longer tries. But his stories are better now, too. As straight news reporters, Ruth Gledhill, Steve Bates and the rest of them have nothing to fear from these old ghosts. And none of the old farts had the bold imaginative sweep that distinguishes Chris Morgan.

No, if there were any stories, the present lot would find them. Perhaps, if they went abroad, they would find them still. Itís hard to believe that there wasnít a wonderful comic feature to be written about Dr Carey in Nigeria. There is even a fairly serious piece to be written, if anyone cares about the balance of Christian-Muslim power there. But unless he gets kidnapped, or assassinated, there are unlike to be any news stories. I suppose he might make an unscripted speech or two that sparked off a diplomatic crisis. But no one seems to have thought to ask reporters if they wanted to come along for the ride, and I quite see that if you look from Lambeth Palace and conclude that two of the best-informed and most experienced journalists of the last decade were me and Damian Thompson, you will wonder what good a well-informed journalist can do you.

But if it is the policy of the church that nothing should ever be written about it for consumption by the outside world, then that had better be made explicit. It is just not fair to anyone to have expensive press offices or, worse, "communications departments" which do not understand that the first imperative of a working journalistís life is to get stories into the newspaper. Otherwise, he will stop being a working journalist.

As I look around my colleagues and friends and think of them settling to their desks, surrounded by the highest of high technology: the computer to tell them everything about anything, the mobile to shout at a press officer with, the laptop carrying 302 versions of Solitaire, I am reminded of nothing so much as the last shattered and dispirited remnant of some tribe of hunter-gatherers who have slumped outside a deserted petrol station in the outback. Disease and time have thinned their numbers terribly. All of their widgets and web sites are no more than an aborigineís digging sticks. Every morning, they survey the dismal heap of dull-coloured envelopes, in front of them, as their spiritual brethren survey the wide and ochre-coloured desert. Every morning they have to decide where in this hostile wilderness there might be something nourishing, some few juicy maggots that they can bring home to the hideously scarified tribal elders huddled round the news desks. Of course, the aborigines at least have hope. If all else fails, they can take refuge in alcoholic despair and no one will notice. This is not the case for modern journalists.

These people are quite simply doomed unless they can find stories which will let them cling on to their traditional way of life. The need is not just economic, though thatís part of it. Any modern newspaper keeps computer-generated records of the stories that its staff gets in. There have been three religious news stories in the Daily Mail in the last six months. No wonder the paper has no full-time religious correspondent. So the jobs will go, if they are not generating stories, but long before that, the spirit of the journalists goes. Journalists do their job because they think someone is listening. They love to get stuff into the papers, and they loved to do so well before it was all counted by computers. If they have no scope for this, they die inside like hawks kept in a parrot cage.

Of course, there is a reason for the central bureaucracy to build elaborate parrot cages. It wants parrots and thinks that this is the way to attract them. But outside that narrow circle of self-delusion, does the rest of the church really want to drift off the national radar? This morningís Times has a story in which the Archbishop of York makes a passing mention of "Careyís Curia" in the course of a wide-ranging denunciation of the whole Turnbull project. Ten years ago, this would have been delicious front page stuff in all the papers. I agree itís not the sort of story that shows up GodCo in a very good light. But think of how sympathetic it could make Christians appear: as people worried, like the rest of us, about whether committees and corporatism are really the best way to do anything.

Front Cuts Book Back