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Lessons in media control

10 May 2013

Sympathetic ear: Cole Moreton's interview with Katharine Welby in The Sunday Telegraph

Sympathetic ear: Cole Moreton's interview with Katharine Welby in The Sunday Telegraph

I GOT the British Humanist Association press release denouncing the Church of England on the basis of its attendance figures about 18 hours before the figures themselves turned up.

I like this for two reasons. The first is that it shows the silliness of trying to spin these figures. They were released to the religious-affairs correspondents before they went out to the wider world. Since they are exactly what you would expect - a further gentle downhill pootling - no one but Ruth Gledhill on The Times was able to get a story out of them.

But the BBC had asked the Humanist Association for comment, and so it got the figures and put out its own press release. It made all the obvious points:

"The figures show that a very substantial majority of people in England have nothing to do with the Church of England. . . 98% of people don't go to a Church of England service on an average week and only 5% of people go at the 'popular' time of Christmas. 98% of young people are not confirmed, 88% of babies are not baptised, 66% of funerals (and a slightly higher proportion of marriages) are not Anglican. In all these areas, the long-term decline of church involvement continues."

It duly got its CEO, Andrew Copson, on to a couple of radio programmes, where he could call for disestablishment and set the tone for any comment that followed.

Releasing the attendance figures is a bit like changing the dressing on an oozing wound in public, but it would be better to release them generally under a rather longer embargo, so that stories could be discovered that might make bits look better. The figures this year weren't actually that bad; the real, long-term story is, of course, the disastrous age-profile of congregations. And it's not as if the Church provides a service like Radio 4, which middle-aged, middle-class people naturally grow into because it has saturated the cultural atmosphere all their lives.

Cole Moreton, a former Church Times news editor, now on The Sunday Telegraph, finally got the interview with Katharine Welby, suggesting, I suppose, that he is someone who can be relied on to play things straight. It was a very good piece of work.

For one thing, it brought out the fact that the Archbishop's eldest daughter had been a police officer in east London for three years, which is not a job for wimps or very meditative types.

"For three years she patrolled in Hackney, one of the toughest beats in the country. 'I'm a tiny person, so I've always been a bit more feisty than people expect, just to show them. I might be tiny but I can fight you. In a totally non-violent sort of way. . .'

"She laughs again, but the things she saw in the police were brutal. . . "'I dealt with a lot of sudden deaths,' she says. 'The first I ever saw was in a hostel. He was in his seventies. Nobody knew anything about him. You couldn't tell what smelt worse: the milk and steak he had left out of the fridge before dying, or him.'"

She talked almost as forensically about her own condition: "I did not like being me. I hated it. I was exhausted by it. I wanted to be someone else. Or nowhere else. . . What was happening reminded me how worthless I was, how no one wanted me, how much of a burden I was. All of these underlying things I had believed for a long time but ignored. I got to the point where I just couldn't bear the thought of living any more. That got very aggressive and all-consuming."

I don't think this will do her, or her family, any harm. It has probably been a brisk lesson in the uncontrollability of a public story. She clearly didn't expect all this when she put up her original blog (Press, 3 May). Yet it is possible that there were things she had to deal with on the streets of Hackney which were even more frightening than a reporter running at her, brandishing a loaded chequebook.

JUST space to note that a survey of the US magazine business showed that putting Jesus on your cover could increase newsstand sales by up to 50 per cent. This was illustrated on the news website Mother Jones by a number of increasingly far-fetched Time and Newsweek covers, dragging Jesus into stories that had nothing much to do with him.

In Britain, of course, what works better is a television tie-in. This accounts for the Independent's headline (I have been hoarding this): "A game of thrones to the drumbeats of thrilling change". How else to describe an archbishop's enthronement?

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