The Press Saturday, August 22nd 1998
Of all human pastimes, golf is perhaps the most futile, and I write with the authority of one who has attended two Lambeth Conferences. So it provides a kind of benchmark for the intrinsically distorting processes of journalism. Here, for example, is a story from the Daily Telegraph. In South Africa last week, a farming family was attacked by someone described as a neighbour. He killed four of them and wounded three, "hacked some of them with a panga, raped the women, injected one with poison, doused others with petrol and set them on fire before shooting them."
This, one would have though, was horrible enough to make it into the foreign papers on its own merit. But the man who thus raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered his neighbours had done something even more newsworthy. He had burgled another neighbour's home. So the way the story actually appeared in the Daily Telegraph was under the headline "Burgled golfer urges Mandela to act on crime." "The South African golfer Ernie Els made an impassioned appeal to the Mandela government yesterday to curb 'the sickening wave of crime which is engulfing and destroying our country.' The world-ranking golfer made the plea after hearing that his home at George, on the southern Cape coast, had been ransacked for the second time this year" only then does it mention "and that four members of his neighbour's family had been brutally murdered by an intruder."
Of course this is only an extreme form of the Yorkshire Post syndrome. "Macclesfield man feared dead in Third World War." Nor is the syndrome unique to Yorkshire, though Michael Brown is its most admired practitioner among the journalists I know: the Jewish Chronicle once covered an Iranian earthquake, in which thousands died, as a short item headed "Three die" because the other victims were gentiles. Such headlines hold a grotesque mirror up to the normal processes of our minds. When I read them I always remember Kingsley Amis's epigram on a town in South Wales
"The journal of some bunch or architects / named this the worst town centre they could find./ But why disparage what so well reflects / Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?" In the end these distortions are not the fault of the editors, nor even of the writer, but they reflect the attitudes of the readers, which is us; and the great truth enshrined in the original title of the television series about TV news, Drop the Dead Donkey was to have been Dead Belgians don't count. The business of newspaper is not actually to tell us of all the horror in the world, however much the desire to do so inflames many of the best journalists. Anyone who really wanted to get the measure of the depths of suffering and evil in the world would not be reading the newspapers but on their knees in a cave like Ignatius Loyola.
Perhaps these dyspeptic reflections are a continuing consequence of the Lambeth Conference, which seems to have had a distressing effect on almost everyone who covered it. Ruth Gledhill has taken to writing excited articles for the Catholic press, in which Dr Carey is described as the saviour of the Church of England, and the Lambeth Conference itself as a foretaste of hell. In her At your Service column she says that "It was the ministry of [Forward in Faith] alone which persuaded me, at least, to remain an Anglican after enduring Lambeth In three weeks at the Lambeth Conference, the only food I was offered was an orange and half a croissant by a woman bishop who took pity on me. She had eaten the other half. When I turned up, hungry, at the Catholic chaplaincy at Kent University to be invited to sit down and break bread with 13 bishops, priests, and other faithful disciples, I was so grateful to be welcomed warmly that I burst into tears."
Speaking for myself, I too burst into tears at some stage when Geoffrey Kirk and Stephen Parkinson from Forward in Faith took me out to supper in Canterbury rather than going to a lecture by some American ex-gays on how they had been delivered into heterosexuality — they don't mind such people practising in private, but find it improper when they proseletyse. But I think my tears had more to do with grappa than with gratitude.
Ruth's testimony was facing an uncharacteristically discreet article by Damian Thompson about Fr Michael Seed. It is astonishing that one of the best gossips in London, writing about a man who is one of his few rivals for the post, should come up with so few startling revelations. On the other hand, the printable facts of Seed's life and ministry are fascinating enough. Born the illegitimate son of an Irish servant girl and adopted at birth by a prison warder and his wife, who finally committed suicide on a stretch of railway line which he had to pass every day as he walked to school. Two years later, his adoptive father died of a brain tumour, and he was sent to a home for maladjusted children.
Yet he seems to have learnt from all these horrors humility rather than insecurity. It makes him an extraordinary man, whose extraordinary charm and sweetness is able to bring out the best in even hardened journalists. Damian is not a man distinguished for reverence: yet his unforced respect and admiration for Steed shines through the piece. It may be the nicest thing he has ever written about anyone; and there was a nice gossipy compliment at the end "The Church should take the risk of promoting him. If Blair does eventually become a Roman Catholic, who better to receive him than Bishop Michael Seed?
Madeleine Bunting has decided she's had enough of being religious affairs correspondent. And no one, it seems, is putting any religious news into the papers.