Friday, May 22, 2009

Archbishop, media, abuse ...

Can you make up a sentence using these three words? I can think of several.

Yesterday, as we all know, Vincent Nichols was instituted as Archbishop of Westminster. A splendid ceremony, a thoughtful homily (and carefully pointed) and an all-round great occasion.

But later, as I watched the late night news on the BBC News channel I was a little surprised that the installation rated not even a mention. Ah, well, I thought, it's done now. Not much more for the media to say. And then I began to reflect on who was there - Guthrie and Murphy representing Crown and Government - people I'm not sure I'd even heard of before. The Archbishop thanked the BBC for transmitting the ceremony live, I remembered, perhaps that in itself was remarkable ... and after all his homily itself in part at least a plea to civil society to take religion and religious belief seriously. Perhaps this very media-savvy archbishop is stating this as a kind of manifesto ... and I am quite sure we will have a much more visible and eloquent voice for the Catholic Church in this country in future.

But there is a small cloud on the horizon. Though I have heard nothing on the radio news about the Archbishop today, in the blogosphere there is an almighty row stirring. Its about a very serious matter. but it seems to have enveloped not the archbishop, but the two leading commentators on religious matters in England. When the journalists become the story it gets really interesting.

The story runs like this.
1. On ITN news last night, one of very many interviews which Archbishop Vincent gave yesterday was broadcast. The archbishop was asked to comment on the child abuse scandals in Ireland which have been in the news in the past week. He said the following words:

"It's very distressing and very disturbing and my heart goes out today first of all to those people who will find that their stories are now told in public... Secondly, I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they'd rather not look at.

"That takes courage, and also we shouldn't forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did."

Should the abusers be brought to justice? 

"Yes they should, no matter how long ago it happened.

"In this country now we have a very steady and reliable system of co-operation with police and social services who actually now hold us in good regard. They know that we are reliable and trustworthy partners. Those that abused the trust that was placed in them should be brought to public account."

Now I understand the archbishop's statement to say that the perpetrators should be brought to justice and that religious orders and dioceses should be given some credit for confronting the dark deeds of the past which tend to overshadow the good work which most of their members did. However, not everyone - willfully or not - took his comments in this way.

2. The Guardian then ran a piece on their mobile website (but oddly not the main one) outlining negative reactions to the archbishop's comments. These comments clearly take the courage and the good work comment to be referring not to the orders in general, but specifically to the individual abusers. Now, although that may be a possible interpretation of the words on paper, as one who knows Archbishop Vincent well, I am very confident that is not what he meant. I think the context makes that very clear, but if you want to spin his words, well you can always find a way to, I suppose.

3. Now that might have been the end of it, but the baton is then taken up by the Times, and a more interesting twist develops. Firstly an article appears saying that the archbishop is 'engulfed in Catholic abuse row', and then later the story is updated to add an 'attack' on the newly installed Archbishop of Westminster by the Archbishop of Dublin.

4. And now my metaphorical baton becomes a baseball bat (sorry if the image is annoying) as Damian Thompson of the Telegraph slams the Times by saying it 'disgraces itself' by twisting the Archbishop's words.

5. The story then takes a further twist, as Thompson claims (rightly, it transpires) that an earlier, more sympathetic (i.e. accurate) story by the Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill has been altered and twisted by her editors: "this shabby juxtaposition of Irish scandal and Westminster installation was forced on her by what a source inside the Times (not Ruth) tells me is a very anti-Catholic newsdesk". Gledhill then posts a comment on Thompson's blog, admitting that the story was rewritten (though she agreed to the changes) and alleging bullying. Thompson then adds a further comment to his blog, saying "Gimme a break".
And so, while the Archbishop's spokesman issues a brief clarification and the rest of the newsmedia happily return to a cosy world in which religion is a minor and infrequent distraction, two top religious commentators (who usually praise one another's work) have a rather public spat.

6. But that is not the end. It gets worse, for the comments to Damian Thompson's blogpost - in which, remember, he suggested the Times has a very anti-catholic agenda - become infected by anti-semitic posts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion kind, basically alleging that the entire newsmedia is infected by Jews, which is why it is anti-Christian. I find this very unpleasant, and Thompson refutes the claims, but the offensive comments remain on his blog.

And the moral of the story is ...?

Well, I don't think there is a moral, but there are some possible observations. Firstly, the whole incident shows that even careful comments can be manipulated and twisted, and that otherwise well-meaning, good people can provide meaty quotations on the basis of reported comments.
Secondly, it shows how careful those in public life must be when commenting upon such sensitive issues, especially when these are outside their own sphere: the horror of historic child abuse affects us all, but perhaps, just perhaps the otherwise very wise Archbishop Nichols would have been wise not to comment on another archbishop's problem - particularly in the middle of a media storm, and especially as the record of the orders is in trying to conceal information (rather than reveal it) much to the distress of the victims. And thirdly, while I agree with Thompson's interpretation of this particular incident, I am rather appalled that long and detailed unpleasant comments are not removed from his blog. It may well be this is not Thompson's fault but it is rather newspaper policy. It is still nasty.

And finally, for all the hoo-ha, will the profile of religion in a generally apathetic and sometimes hostile media actually rise?

Let's wait and see.


Anonymous said...

This is nothing new. Look at the links here:

Ruth Gledhill Monitor

Ruth Gledhill said...

thank you for this. just a quick note to clarify - my story wasn't twisted by the desk but re-nosed, as we say, in the light of the story that appeared on the front page of the Guardian on the day of the installation. Riazat Butt's interpetation was the correct one and my only mistake was not spotting what she was first to notice. I have no regrets about our interpretation whatsoever. As for Holy Smoke, what a disgraceful collection of anti-Jewish ranters he attracts. I have pre-posting comment moderation on my blog and those comments would not get posted in the first place by The Times, never mind be allowed to remain there. Vincent Nichols was of course educated by the Christian Brothers so has direct experience of the 'good' they do but perhaps this was just not the best moment to mention that. It sounded as though he was talking about the good the child abusers themselves had done. The focus at times like this should be purely on the victims. It is an absolute disgrace and a measure of their desperation that a story about a 2,000 page report that has taken 10 years to compile and catalogues a shocking dossier of Roman Catholic abuse by nuns and priests should be distorted into a story about the reporting of one journalist on The Times. I report what they say and do. If they don't like that, they should stop saying and doing these things, not try to stop me reporting them. How do they imagine these attempts to bully and intimidate me appear to the majority of the non-Catholic public and possibly to a large number of Catholics as well? Even if they succeed in shutting me up, do they not understand that there are dozens more out there, in the blogosphere and on newspapers, unafraid to write the truth? The 'RuthGledhillmonitor'. Really, these people should be ashamed of themselves, and Damian should know better. In Christ, Ruth Gledhill.

Patricius said...

"It sounded as though he was talking about the good the child abusers had done." Well it would do to someone with an agenda and wanting to catch him "out" at any cost.

Recusant said...

Ruth comments:
"It is an absolute disgrace and a measure of their desperation that a story about a 2,000 page report that has taken 10 years to compile and catalogues a shocking dossier of Roman Catholic abuse by nuns and priests should be distorted into a story about the reporting of one journalist on The Times."

I agree with her about what the real story is here, but why did she then try and make the main story a distortion of what Archbishop Nichols had to say on the report. Whichever way she tries to spin it now, it is clear that the Archbishops comments where a million miles from the meaning supplied by Ruth and Riazat Butt at The Guardian. This confection was then blown up even further by the reporting of the Archbishop of Dublin's shock at the REPORTED comments of Nichols.

As they say: 'A lie is half way round the world before the truth has even got its boots on.'

A more interesting and informative article might have asked what was peculiar about the Irish Catholic church to have made it and its offshoots in the US, UK and Australia behave in this way. I have a theory that it was a basically Jansenist church with an excess of Ultramontanism, elevated to too powerful a position in the State by that thoroughgoing s**t de Valera.

Red Maria said...

Dear Father Weatherby,

I just read about you in Ben Quinn's article in this week's Tablet.

All I can say is I want to give an enormous bouquet of flowers!

Thankyou so much for all your good work opposing the BNP.