IT LOOKS as if many people were shocked that the Telegraph splashed the story about Justin Welby’s father, but I thought it was good journalism, and brilliantly handled by the Welby family.
For a start, the story was interesting on a completely visceral level. It was something which, when you heard it, you wanted to tell other people about, and to ask whether they had heard it. I’ll bet, too, that it will be remembered in a year’s time, when almost everything else that happened this year will have been entirely forgotten. Not merely the headline, but the details of the story, and how it came to light, were fascinating.
There was even a second, subsidiary piece of news buried within it: that both of the Archbishop’s parents had been alcoholics, not just his father. This makes his current sanity all the more impressive. It may also do something to explain the sense of extreme inner tension and dissatisfaction which I have seen sometimes leak past his radiation shield — for surely that can have nothing to do with the proximity of journalists.
It could still have been a disaster, and a horrible invasion of privacy, had it not been for the honesty with which the Welby family dealt with the whole mess. In the first place, when the possibility was first raised, the Archbishop faced it squarely. He agreed to the DNA test, and does not seem to have been too disconcerted by its outcome. It is worth remembering that he had already been through something similar when The Sunday Telegraph revealed that the man thought then to be his father, Gavin Welby, had all along been someone else: a Jewish refugee and bootlegger.
I should think that the discovery that your father had a character, a past, and even a name entirely different from the one you had supposed must be at least as great a shock as discovering that your father was a man of the character you would have preferred, but actually a different man.
In any case, his answers, and those of his mother, were strikingly dignified. The Telegraph’s leader described them as more eloquent than a thousand sermons.
The story of Brideshead Revisited was meant to be the operation of divine grace in human lives. The Welby story, played out in something of the same milieu, might be regarded as Brideshead with a happy ending.
Libby Purves, writing in the Daily Mail, seemed to sum up the general reaction: “There are moments when the children of wartime can teach us a lot about grace and an openness that overcomes embarrassment. From Lady Williams and her son, 60, we can learn about acceptance, humility and gratitude for the good things that we pull out of the bad ones.
“Their story demonstrates that, yes, life throws us curveballs, and that, yes, sometimes we all make stupid mistakes. But there is no point denying them — especially if the result is a loved and happy child.
“Reading the responses of mother and son over the weekend very nearly sent me, a rather unreliable churchgoer, straight back to the pews to reconnect with the old faith.”
COMPARE this with the superinjunction that the Mail has been banging on about all week, a scandal about showbiz adultery of the most absurd and unattractive sort. Anyone who cares can discover the story within five minutes on the internet. It has no redeeming features whatsoever — and, for once, the phrase has its proper weight. The Welby story has by now lost almost everything except its redeeming features, and for that reason it was entirely right to publish.
IN ANY other week, we would have been all over the two other big stories. The Pope’s elegantly balanced letter on what to do about communion for remarried couples might have been difficult to summarise, but it was actually a significant lurch towards reality. This was much clearer from the American coverage than the British, perhaps because American broadsheets reckon that they have a much higher proportion of readers who will be affected by this.
Still, from now on, the official policy seems to be “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” This may not be a permanent solution, but it is clearly the only way to keep things going without a truly monumental bust-up. The official line is impossible to enforce, but just as impossible to change.
Then there was the Trevor Phillips/Channel 4 poll of British Muslim attitudes. This seems to be a much less impressive piece of journalism than Innes Bowen’s Radio 4 documentary on the Deobandis, but, because it was television, it received far more coverage.
What is worrying is not so much whether the poll is scrupulously accurate, but that the inquiry has been done for the sake of a story. Why on earth isn’t the Government conducting polling like this, and using it to inform both policy and debate?