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In praise of a little literary ability


THE CLASSIC list of the qualities needed for success in journalism includes "rat-like cunning". I've forgotten the other two, but that doesn't matter, because there is a fourth: a very short-term memory. Nothing destroys the excitement of a news story so much as a sense of perspective; nothing makes for worse journalism than a reporter self-consciously writing history; and nothing dates more quickly either.

It came, then, as a salutary shock the other day, when I was reading Dorothy L. Sayers's book on the Trinity, to find her denunciation of the media from 1941, and to realise just how old are the habits of mind we attribute to the Daily Mail.

She wrote: "Some time ago, the present writer, pardonably irritated by a very prevalent ignorance concerning the essentials of Christian doctrine, published a brief article in which those essentials were plainly set down in words that a child could understand. Every clause was preceded by some such phrase as: 'the Church maintains', 'the Church teaches', 'if the Church is right', and so forth. The only personal opinion expressed was that, though the doctrine might be false, it could not very well be called dull.

"Every newspaper that reviewed this article accepted it without question as a profession of faith - some (Heaven knows why) called it 'a courageous profession of faith', as though professing Christians in this country were liable to instant persecution. One review, syndicated throughout the Empire, called it 'a personal confession of faith by a woman who feels sure she is right'."

What looks dated here are some of the phrases - "the present writer", "throughout the Empire" - but what is actually dated is that she does not blame the papers for this. The fault, she thinks, lies as as much with their readers:

"Ninety-nine 'interviews' out of a hundred contain more or less subtle distortions of the answers given to questions, the questions being, moreover, in many cases, wrongly conceived for the purpose of eliciting the truth.

"The distortions are not confined to distortions of opinion but are frequently also distortions of fact, and not merely stupid misunderstandings at that, but deliberate falsifications. The journalist is, indeed, not interested in the facts. For this he is to some extent excusable, seeing that, even if he published the facts, his public would inevitably distort them in the reading."

There speaks a woman who earned her living in an advertising agency. But she is right, of course.

THIS MAKES it easier to appreciate those occasions on which a journalist gets things more or less right, like Robert Chesshyre's piece in the Telegraph magazine's Christmas Eve issue on "inner-city vicars".

He picked three very different people in differently horrible places, and followed them around for a while. Not for long enough, I would have said, perhaps unfairly, since the piece showed signs of fairly drastic cutting. I could have done with much more. What was left concentrated, however, on the work of a priest, and even had one who was a man. (I know, but whenever these stories are proposed, editors want women in them, simply because they believe that women are what women like to read about.)

Mr Chesshyre is not, he says, himself a churchgoer, but he is deeply impressed by the mere presence of priests in places where no one else is found, and by the specifically parochial aspects of the system. "I reported from a gang-infested south London estate, where at night the elderly cowered behind their doors; where the postman had long ceased delivering; where the dairy employed an armour-plated milk float.

"They are places that almost no one who could choose where to live would select as home. The one exception is often the Church of England vicar. . . In these areas the vicar's influence reaches far beyond the usually tiny Sunday congregations. While many faith leaders take responsibility just for their own, a vicar's writ extends uniquely to all who live within the parish."

Certainly, much of the witness of the people he talks with consists in being burgled and threatened alongside their flocks. The eager young public schoolboy, converted, so to say, when he took part in a Youth for Christ mission to Wolverhampton, now has a congregation of 20 in an estate on the edge of Nottingham. His biggest crowd came at the funeral of a local gangster, when he preached on the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus.

It's difficult to imagine a less glamorous parish. His parishioners are not even exotically poor, nor black. But the presence of the Church of England in such places, though it makes no financial or managerial sense at all, is the one thing that earns it real credit in the outside world.

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