Press Column

Iíve been in Italy for the last week, where it was a little hard to understand why the troubles of Sophie Rhys Jones should preoccupy the British press to the extent that they obviously did. The International Herald Tribune reported that she had described William Hague as "deformed" and that the Palace had denied she had used the word. But it did not do so very prominently. It was only when I returned to England that I realised this was the greatest crisis since the foot and mouth epidemic, even if none of our neighbouring countries seem to be putting special precautions in place to stop visitors transmitting it.

Ten pages in the News of the World I could understand, but there were nearly as many words in all the broadsheet papers, too, and now there are even more in the Church Times; but there is in fact some relevance to the Church of England in the whole excruciating story. Two points are fairly obvious: the first is that ó providing you occupy a sufficiently distinguished position ó nothing you can say is too banal to make a story. In fact, the church is ahead of the royal family there, having gone on to learn part two of the lesson, which is that once you have a reputation for saying nothing but banalities, no one will listen to you no matter how distinguished your position may once have been.

The second point relevant to the Church is that it possible to rise to the summit of the PR world, and to be paid really considerable sums of money, without having the faintest idea of what journalists are like or what they think. Iím not just speaking abut the Countess here. If people doing her kind of PR had any brains at all they wouldnít write the stuff they do. The whole point about that kind of thing is that no one but your customers will ever read a word you write in praise of their products and no one who is not an actor in them will care about the stunts you organise. No wonder that it attracts the people it does.

But Simon Walker, the Palace press supremo, had had 120 people working for him in his last job as head of PR for British Airways: he is said to be paid a quarter of a million pounds a year; I think it reasonable to say that he had reached the pinnacle of his profession. Yet he first negotiated a deal where the countess would give an interview whose contents he approved of in exchange for the non-publication of the famous tapes: this would have had "copy approval" by the palace, which means that there would be nothing printed ó even if she really said it ó which the palace did not wish to appear. He then allowed the News of the World to print all sorts of squirm-making stuff which copy approval should have killed at once, such as "My Edward is NOT gay". She probably is stupid and crass enough to say such a thing. She works in PR. But Mr Walker works in PR too. He is meant to know how such things look in print. And he is, as I say, at the summit of his profession, or he was until a week ago. Why, in terms of prestige among his peers, he is probably even more widely admired than almost any communications person you can think of.

As for the News of the World itself, there are two other stories in that edition which show it in a far worse light. The first is the "exposure" of some poor woman working as a prostitute in a Cambridgeshire village. What makes this particularly disgusting is that the excuse given is that her husband ó also named and photographed ó is a bomb disposal expert working for the army. Her activities, the paper claims, make him vulnerable to blackmail. This explains why the two have had their lives wrecked. What could you possibly blackmail a bomb disposal officer to do? Blow himself up?

The second is a column with the exciting title of "Ruth, the Truth": but this Ruth turns out to be a fat, black-haired psychic who responds to readers problems. The first letter is from a woman with cancer, whose five-year-old grandaughter died some years before. I wish I could believe that these, like the letters to Penthouse, were written in the editorís office. Apparently the little girls is with her teddy bear, has made two new friends, and knows that Nanís special medicine will make her better. Itís not very flippant at all to say that at least the Romans crucified only their victims, not their families too and that the mockery heaped on Jesus did not extend to asking his mother how she felt ó because our readers would like to know. I know that the things the British press does to celebrities are pretty terrible. But the glancing blows struck to quite ordinary people, whose only misfortune is to be for the moment interesting, are much harder to forgive.

There is still some old-fashioned, traditional journalism around. Victoria Combe got two stories out of the LGCM newsletter: the first was Richard Holloway saying that he no longer believed Jesus was the biological son of God and the second that the founder of one of the "ex-gay" movements has now repented of his belief that homosexuals can be surec, and will be expelled from the Evangelical Alliance as a result.

But the most unlikely story this week came from ó well, thatís part of its unlikelihood. This was a long and passionately argued essay about the most quoted scientific literature of all times, which is apparently a Greek poem, the Phenomena of Aratus, which dealt with all that was known of astronomy in 286BC. This poem supplied one of the quotes that Paul used, preaching on the Aeropagos at Athens. "For we also are Godís children", to show that the Greeks too had apprehended what he was about to make clear. And so it becasme the most printed sentence of any work of science in the history of the world, which is why it was interest to the readers of Nature, where I found it. Vol 510, page 635.

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