The Press Saturday, April 4th 1998
Oh dear. Oh dear. There must be worse jobs than doing PR for the General Synod — a friend of mine makes part of his living trying to enlighten readers of the Sunday Times about brain science — but it looks as if Bill Beaver has cracked under the strain already. A front page story in PR Week magazine announced last week that "the Church of England is to launch a new communications strategy in a bid to manage its public image. The new policy is in the process of being approved by the Church's governing body, the General Synod, and is being steered by the Rev Dr Bill Beaver, its director of communications."
There is a photo of the Rev spin Dr to illustrate this: he is wearing a sharp suit and a silk tie, and standing outside Church House looking decisive. The photographer seems to have been got down on his knees to take the shot: anyone unfamiliar with this artistic convention would suppose that its purpose was to disprove once and for all the vile calumny that Dr Beaver has hair in his nostrils.
But maybe the photographer was driven to his knees by admiration for the Rev spin Dr's intellect. "The church is not looking for a spin doctor," he told the magazine, "because we're into consistent, coherent, constructive communications, not spinning. We have a new communications strategy through which we will manage our debate intelligently."
Who we? The unspoken premise of all this is that the debates within the Church of England are staged by the Communications Department, or perhaps the Archbishops' Council, to display an edifying Christianity for the press. But the only debates worth reporting on, whether inside the synod or outside, are those which are not staged by anyone but are instead genuinely dangerous because the sides involved think their causes are worth far more than the integrity of the Church of England. That was what the woman priest debate was like; that is what the fighting over David Jenkins' theology was like; and that is what some of the rows at Lambeth will be like. They are news because they are out of control, and might have interesting consequences.
"Beaver's plans will provide support at local national and international levels and include appointing members of the clergy as official spokespeople on controversial religious issues." Most of this is just GodCo corporate claptrap. There is a lot that can be done by parishes dealing with local papers, but it shouldn't be done by press officers.
The sensible bit is the appointment, or designation, of a couple of bishops who can actually answer questions on specific subjects. It's not inevitable. There have been press officers who felt able to answer simple questions about "what is the policy of the Church of England on ..?" themselves, though this must have eaten into their time. And all the signs are that the Rev spin Dr sees his real job as keeping the bishops out of the papers. At February's Synod he was greatly upset by a grumpy opinion piece of Madeleine Bunting's in the Guardian. She offered space on the op-ed page to any bishop who cared to reply, as rudely as he liked; but all, said the Rev spin Dr, were too busy. So he ended up following her down the street and shouting as she hurried to lunch with a bishop. You can get away with that sort of thing in politics. Perhaps you can get away with it in corporate PR, where the first task that any communications department sets itself is to strangle all communication that it does not control. But it's not going to work for GodCo, or even the Church of England.
The Rev spin Dr's only real ally is the Sunday Times, which has clearly mounted a campaign to persuade the bishops never to speak to any journalist again. After the wheeze of sending round a reporter to their door pretending to be homeless, and then recording the reactions, they had some trouble finding bishops to co-operate with a survey on extra-terrestrial life. The final story carried to ridiculous extremes the tradition that if ever a bishop says anything sensible it must be news. "An overwhelming majority of Britain's Anglican bishops believe there could be alien life forms out there." That may come as news to Martians, but surely not to anyone else. So the story was given another twist. "The bishops' spaceman theory departs from the traditional Christian teaching that God created the world and made man as a unique species in his own image." No justification or explanation is offered for this bizarre take on orthodoxy. It's not necessary, since the sole function of an Anglican bishop in the Sunday Times is to depart from traditional Christian teaching. The message is clearly getting through. Despite putting four people on the phones, the paper only managed to get quotes from five suffragans, the bishop of Durham, and a bishop of Hereford who has been dead since 1633. I hope they never discover that C.S. Lewis wrote science fiction, or they can write a story about how the C of E has canonised a heretic.
Finally, a perspective from Bernard Ingham's column in PR week. "Some would argue that any church faced with this steady drip of ridicule desperately needs a spin doctor. Instead I would prescribe a good old-fashioned press officer who would tell them not to be so bloody stupid." To be rebuked by Ingham for spin doctoring is like being rebuked by Bernard Manning for vulgarity. Fortunately, he can teach Christianity, too: "Of course the CofE would present itself better. Who couldn't? But it has to decide first what it wishes to present. What does it stand for? Christian values, or every tomfool, do-gooding politically correct maudlin Princess Di sentiment associated with 'Cool Britannia' — such as queer clergy? The CofE doesn't need spin doctors; it needs to re-discover Christianity."
No wonder poor old Beaver has cracked beneath the strain.