Press: The icing on the layer cake

27 January 2010

by Andrew Brown

A LARGE and unexpected dollop of praise for Ruth Gledhill from Alan Rusbridger’s Hugh Cudlipp memorial lecture: “Ruth Gledhill at The Times is, for me, an inspired example of how you can layer reporting — with the most specialist material in the blog (linked to yet more specialist source material on the web — and the most general material in newsprint).

“The paper will carry a paragraph on a controversial sermon by the Bishop of Chichester. Gledhill will explain its significance on her blog, and link to the full sermon for those who want the source. Readers can then debate the text on the blog and follow other links. It’s called through-editing.”

Here is what she made of the Church attendance statistics released on Friday: “The Church of England has been hit by a new slump in its congregations, with the latest figures showing its fifth year-on-year decline.”

Later in the story it emerged that the year-on-year change was of the nature of one per cent; but these were hard figures to make exciting. Her second sentence: “Also, the Church’s first analysis of its worshippers showed that nearly half are pensioners” was the part that the Telegraph chose to headline: “The average age of church­goers is 61, according to the latest statistics from the Church of England.”

ALL IN ALL, though, a story to drive anyone to drink. No one, however, was driven as far as Robert Hardman, the Mail’s feature-writer, who went down to Buckfast Abbey to investigate the properties of its tonic wine: “Thus far, the Hugh Johnsons and Oz Clarkes have remained silent on the joys of Buckfast Tonic Wine.

“For what it’s worth, my own tasting notes read as follows: a feisty, gravy-coloured tincture with strident tones of prune and swimming pool on the nose; a palate blending Dubonnet, cherry cola, Ribena, Benylin, aniseed, communion wine, and Hubba Bubba strawberry bubble gum; plus a kick like a chorus line; improved with ice.”

This was because a BBC Scotland docu­mentary reported that the stuff (known in Belfast in the ’90s as “fighting juice”) was mentioned on 40 per cent of the Scottish crime reports involving alcohol, although it amounts to only 0.5 per cent of the drink market there. The Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney had said that St Benedict would be very unhappy with what the monks were up to; but when Hardman went to the Abbey, he found only politeness and tranquillity.

“In the early days, pharmacists sold it as a general-purpose booster (it would prove particularly popular among housewives in the Scottish industrial heartland of Lanarkshire).

“The recipe has always consisted of fortified wine from southern France mixed with vanilla and a caffeine element to provide the tonic effect.

“Until the 1970s, this was produced by the monks themselves, who would boil cauldrons of mate tea and cocoa leaves. ‘We used to stink out the whole village,’ recalls Father James.”

I wonder what the Scots would have made of the only wine that has ever been endorsed by two Popes, one of them sainted: Vin Mariani, which owed its enormous popularity in the 19th century partly to celebrity endorsements, and partly to its tonic ingredient, cocaine.

THE Government’s defeat in the Lords over the Equality Bill was covered on remarkably simple left/right lines: for the right-wing papers, the issue was simply one of the freedom of the Churches from the oppressions of Harriet Harman and the European Union; for the Left, it was just as simply the freedom of gays to be employed.

Thus, for the Telegraph, “Equalities Bill: Church leaders defeat Government over gay staff.

“Church leaders have inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Government by overturning plans to force members of the clergy to hire gays and transsexuals.”

And for the Mail: “Church leaders claimed a victory for religious freedom last night after defeating the Government’s attempts to force them to hire homosexuals or transsexuals. The House of Lords voted down the plans after arguing that the move would go against the tenets of their faith.

“The result is a humiliating blow for Harriet Harman’s controversial Equality Bill, which is going through Parliament.”

The interesting thing to me is the way in which these proposals were spun entirely on the agenda of the pressure groups most closely concerned. On balance, the British public can no longer see that there is anything wrong with being gay, but dislikes foreigners. It doesn’t seem to value or even to understand religious liberty at all.

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