Press: How journalism works — a new primer

02 March 2018

ISTOCK

THE Archbishop of Canterbury writes a book (News, 16 February) and arranges to talk about it to the press for an hour, a fortnight before the publication date.

The invitations to this event are sent out five days before, but there are no copies of the book itself. Owing to various unexplained mix-ups, none of us had seen the book until we arrived at Lambeth Palace, which guaranteed that questions would be restricted to subjects raised in his opening remarks, or else to what people could find by looking up things like “sharia” in the index while the Archbishop spoke.

So, there was a question about disestablishment (dodged), and a large number of questions about sharia (he’s against it); and there were questions about charities (he’s in favour of aid) and sexual abuse (he’s against that, though). And, from the Daily Mail, smiling like a hungry monkfish, a question about whether he is a Ken Loach fan (elegantly dodged).

All these are positions that you would expect him to hold, and the best hope of a story is that he will express himself memorably: something he was trying quite hard not to do.

Somewhere underneath those discussions, there were periods in which he talked about what he wanted to discuss, which was how to think about and work towards the common good, and limit our “addiction to autonomy”.

The book contains quite detailed discussions about the NHS, housing, and education, but no one had read those. The stuff about virtues and practices, which I liked, probably makes no sense to people who have not read Alasdair MacIntyre, and is exceptionally difficult to turn into a news story: “Archbishop believes we should cultivate virtuous practices” is a story right up there with “Bishop reprehends sin”.

So we went away, confident that there was a long time until the embargo would be lifted. Some of us at least read the book, or most of it. There were some remarkably juicy quotes in there about austerity and immigration, which, for some reason, the Archbishop had not himself flagged up. I made a careful note of a couple: “Austerity is not merely an economic term. It is a word that almost invariably conceals the crushing of the weak, the unlucky, the ill, and a million others. Austerity is a theory for the rich and a reality of suffering for the poor.”

Advertisement

It seemed worth a line, as did his view that the control of immigration was “impossible” (though, since my copy has been stolen by a left-wing Roman Catholic friend, I can’t find the exact quote for that one).

It appears, however, that some wicked fairies had not been invited to the party, or had just failed to turn up. They were going to spoil the planned publicity offensive by breaking an embargo that they could credibly claim not to have promised to observe. So, on Friday evening, there was a sudden email announcing that the embargo had been lifted with immediate effect. This is the classic press officer’s revenge on a Sunday paper: to give the story to the Saturdays.

This left people scrambling for their notes. The result was that Saturday’s papers, where they noticed the Archbishop, all noticed that he agreed with them. Readers of the Mail learned on Friday that he was opposed to sharia, a line later taken up at length by Melanie Phillips in The Times. Readers of the Telegraph and the Express learned that he thought Remain voters resembled Marvin the Paranoid Android.

The Times had him attacking “people who buy second and third homes as investments, saying that a ‘dysfunctional’ housing market has destroyed a sense of local community in Britain”. It was not gripping, but it would come in useful later, when the Mail, which had welcomed his stance on sharia, saw that the Archbishop had given an article to the Mail on Sunday (which makes it almost certain that the newspaper that Lambeth Palace was trying to punish was The Sunday Times).

The paper that really hates the Mail on Sunday is the Daily Mail. Thus, on Monday, it published a hit piece denouncing the Archbishop because he owns a house in Normandy.

Well, it was meant to be a hit piece, but, in the end, there was no sign of a real backlash, beyond a quote from Nigel Farage, and one from an anonymous Twitter-user: “I just can’t stand this man’s high and mighty narcissistic superior knowledge of everything.”

One quite sees this must be irritating, compared with the narcissistic superior ignorance of Twitter-users.

The Guardian was interested in his ideas to the extent of publishing a long leader on them, memorable chiefly for the observation that the Archbishop’s view of human nature owes more to Hobbes than to Calvin.

 

JUST room to note a perfect Mail piece, which started with the headline “Is this what Jesus REALLY looked like?” It ended, 763 words later, with the news: “It turns out that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like after all.”

Church Times: about us

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)