THE Sunday Express has been running a "Crusade for
Better Mental Health" since February. When I learned this - from a
story headlined "Jesus Christ 'may have suffered from mental health
problems', claims Church of England" - I wondered how to fill the
rest of the column.
In fact, I wondered how to fill the rest of my life. I felt like
Tom Lehrer, who, when he heard that Henry Kissinger had won a Nobel
Peace Prize, resolved on the spot to give up satire, since it was
no longer distinguishable from reality.
But we stumble on. I take comfort from the fact that the story
(based round a distortion of a year-old press release) was
described with unwonted tact as "exclusive".
A slightly more conventional sense of "exclusive" was supplied
by the Sun, which printed the grainy cameraphone pictures
of a naked Prince Harry on what seems to have been the personal
instructions of Rupert Murdoch. Certainly, Murdoch tweeted
afterwards: "Simple equation: free, open uncontrollable Internet
versus shackled newspapers equals no newspapers. Let's get
That he also tweeted: "Prince Harry. Give him a break. He may be
on the public payroll one way or another, but the public loves him,
even to enjoy Las Vegas" shows once more that he is a true
newspaper man, confident of his superiority over all the poor fools
he writes about.
Of course, the idea that The Sun had to
publish the pictures because they were freely available on an
American gossip site is nonsense. If the position had been
reversed, and the pictures had been bought exclusively by
The Sun, the paper would have had an even greater
commercial incentive to publish.
But people like me, who try to distinguish between the public
interest and what the public is interested in, have to look
Murdoch's argument squarely in the face. What makes newspapers pay
is their ability to publish what the public is interested in, not
their service to the public interest.
The Guardian thinks of itself as serving the public
interest. It is also losing more than £40 million a year at the
moment. This is not a trend that can continue for more than a very
It is a global problem, too: the Australian Fairfax group, which
publishes the Sydney Morning Herald, recently wrote down
the value of its newspaper holdings by $2.6 billion; Murdoch's own
News International outdid that earlier, with a write-down of $2.8
billion, mostly, it said, from the Australian operations.
It may not be high-mindedness that has ruined the Australian
newspaper business; but low-mindedness can seem a commercial
imperative in times like them.
STILL on the Murdoch papers, Monday's Times came out
unequivocally in favour of gay marriage. This is an astonishing
shift in opinion.
In 2005, Matthew Parris wrote: "I am one of the transitionals,
in that for gay couples I still prefer the word 'partnership' to
'marriage' because to so many people the word 'marriage' has a
clear and limited meaning." The year before, the paper's leader had
concluded: "The final objection to the [civil partnership] Bill
comes from gay people who want total equality, including the word
'marriage'. The trouble is that 'marriage' still carries such
strong religious connotations, and to use the word in the context
of gay relationships would unnecessarily inflame the feelings of
many social conservatives and faith communities."
And yet, on Monday, the paper took direct aim at Cardinal Keith
O'Brien: "Roman Catholic parishioners throughout Scotland listened
yesterday to a letter declaring the Church's support for marriage.
That goal is unsurprising and admirable. The Times shares
it. Indeed, knowing the benefits to those who enter a state of
matrimony and to society more widely, we want the institution to be
extended to couples who are at the moment prevented from marrying
for no better reason than that the partners are of the same
"That is where the Church and this newspaper part company. . .
Marriage . . . will not only survive its extension to same-sex
couples: it will be enriched by it."
It's not always entirely wise to trust The Times's
account of religious matters, but I think that these two leaders
express very clearly a great shift in the opinion of the British
middle classes. The new orthodoxy is pretty much exactly that
society benefits from faithful, stable monogamous relationships,
but that Churches can no longer define who should enter into them.
The next Archbishop of Canterbury will have to take note.