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Press: In the middle of it, so many gems

01 October 2008

by Andrew Brown

THE ARCHBISHOPS’ venture into the world of high finance got a lot of coverage before the news overwhelmed it. It was, in some ways, an object lesson in how not to do things: if you’re going to attack any particular financial practice, it helps if you don’t simultaneously benefit from it.

The Daily Mail, which is almost always in favour of Dr Sentamu, gave him a headline and a juicy quote on Friday: “Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, meanwhile, branded the traders who cashed in on falling share prices in troubled bank HBOS as ‘bank robbers’ and ‘asset strippers’.”

Then, on Saturday, the paper returned to the story with: “The Church of England has been accused of hypocrisy over its attacks on ‘bank-robbing’ stock market traders.

“A liberal Christian group said that Church treasurers themselves have used the controversial short-selling methods con­demned by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.”

This was wrong, but it is an interesting example of the skilfully misleading press release from Ekklesia, because — as the Church Commissioners pointed out — short­ing a currency is very different from shorting shares, which they had not in fact done.

On the other hand, as The Financial Times discovered, the Church Commissioners had been lending out stock for others to short-sell: “As well as aiding shorting by lending stock, the Church Commissioners had £13m invested in Man Group, the largest listed hedge-fund manager, at the end of last year. The commissioners also sold a £135m mortgage portfolio last year, according to their annual report, in spite of Dr Williams’s criticism of trading debts exclusively for profit.”

The leader was thoroughly miffed: “Neither Dr Williams nor Dr Sentamu have a proper grasp of how modern finance works — nor the degree to which it is already examined by economists, philosophers and the Fourth Estate.

“To claim, as both clerics have done, that much modern finance is fiction or fraud is wrong and, more importantly, misleading. . . An archbishop, of all people, should know that just because you cannot see something, it does not mean that it is not there or that it does not matter.”

DR WILLIAMS’s book did much better, being reviewed at length in The Guardian and The Times, and drawing a long plug-interview from A. N. Wilson in the Telegraph, with a characteristically clever lead-in: “‘He’s some­one who’s chaotic, sometimes pre­tentious, sometimes waffly, sometimes unbearably clotted, and yet in the middle of it, there are so many gems.’

“Who is speaking? Why, it is Rowan Williams himself, speaking of his near-namesake, but no relation, Charles Williams — an obscure taste nowadays, but a strong one.”

He had managed to draw some clot-free explanations from the Archbishop: “It is some part of this job to try and keep stirring the cultural pot, even in a very limited way, and to say: when we are having all these debates about faith and atheism and science and so on, don’t let’s forget what lives of faith actually look like imaginatively, in ways that really serious writers and artists portray them, because if your view of religion is confined to a few fundamentalist platitudes, there’s no debate there. Yes, just to remind people that some imaginatively serious non-trivial, non-Pollyannaish writers have lived with this.”

THE OTHER literary event of the week was less high-minded: the Islington house of the Dutch publisher of a novel about Muhammad’s child-bride Aisha was fire­bombed. The Times’s coverage had the most egregious use of “allegedly”: “Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorist command yesterday foiled an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to kill the publisher of a forthcoming novel featuring sexual encounters between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride.

“Early yesterday, armed undercover officers arrested three men after a petrol bomb was pushed through the door of the north London home of the book’s publisher.”

Coming almost 20 years to the day after the first book burnings in Bradford, this had obvious and frightening implications, but also one unexpected turn: after the first shock, the person who seemed to have attracted most of the blame was the Texan academic who described it to its original publisher as “soft porn”.

The world is in a bad way if one no longer dare review a book for fear the publisher will be murdered as a result.

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