Press: An evil consumer of other people’s trust

16 August 2019

PA

The entrance to Maids Moreton, Buckinghamshire, where Field preyed on his victims

The entrance to Maids Moreton, Buckinghamshire, where Field preyed on his victims

A SMALL example of the way in which religion conditions our view of the world: more than half the world’s adult population do not drink alcohol at all. According to the Financial Times, quoting figures from the World Health Organization, 57 per cent of those aged over 15 in the world had not had a drink in the previous 12 months. The only regions where more than half did were Europe, the United States, and “the Western Pacific”, which, in this context, must certainly include Australia, if not Indonesia.

This is an unusual measure of Christianity’s influence on the world, but I think a valid one. Although there are, obviously, strains of Christianity which make temperance a cardinal virtue, the normalisation of drink in the contemporary Western world-view is surely another aspect of the post-Christian nature of its secularism.

 

COMING out of two weeks’ walking in the Swedish Arctic without either running water or any connectivity with the outside world, I was perhaps oversensitised to the Ben Field story. None the less, it still seems to me something quite close to an illustration of genuine evil. There is an almost motiveless voracity to his consumption of other people’s trust: a sense that he could never be satisfied with any earthly or otherwise real reward.

Sentencing has been delayed for a psychiatric report. But he seems to have had no limit to his ambitions. There is the sheer cruelty of his destruction of an elderly lover, whom he tempted out of a lifetime of miserable celibacy, then poisoned, and finally murdered, and his attempted destruction of another.

In all this, he was, of course, helped by his appearance as a devout Christian, or “church warden” as both The Times and The Guardian titled him. This misspelling was not the only mark of fading religious literacy, or knowledge of Christianity. I couldn’t find anywhere much suggestion that he was an especially evil character because he posed as a Christian. That used to be a stock ingredient in dirty-vicar stories: the pretence — perhaps sometimes a genuine intuition — that Christians in a position of responsibility could be expected to rise above ordinary temptations.

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In contrast with Field, the average dirty vicar had done nothing that many of his parishioners had not got away with. What made the scandal was the criminal, not the crime. But, in this coverage, Christianity just seemed like a code for weirdness. It no longer carried an expectation of exceptionally good behaviour.

In one way, of course, the story was a testament to ordinary human decency. His betrayals of trust were so monumental as to be literally unimaginable for most of his victims, among whom are, of course, all the young or younger women he slept with without trying to murder them or drive them insane. Yet here the press, perhaps unintentionally, made things much worse for them.

By printing their names, and publishing them all over the internet, it ensured that the women will never be free of the story. Whoever Googles them will discover this as the defining fact of their biography, and perhaps assume that it is also the most salient feature of their character; and, of course, everyone Googles everyone else these days, when judging how much to trust them with a job or a relationship.

This is a very powerful argument for the European “right to be forgotten”. It turns out that there is a moral aspect to publishing information that is affected by the time for which it will stick around, and the ease with which it can be accessed.

In some ways, the internet is far more ephemeral than paper. There is no equivalent to the newspaper archive at Colindale, and shifts in computing fashion mean that little that was stored on a disk even 20 years ago is still readable today. But so long as the information is online, it is incomparably easier to access than in print, and this affects its power in the world.

 

THE silly news of the week was the helter-skelter in Norwich Cathedral. This was not, of course, nearly as silly as the mini-golf in Rochester Cathedral, although even that might have worked as the illustration to a stern sermon on the narrow path of salvation, and the threats to a soul’s progress from the windmills of desire and the great see-saw of vanity.

The helter-skelter, however, triggered little outrage, except from Gavin Ashenden, from whom it provoked a suitably gloom-laden sermon for the Telegraph’s news story.

The Guardian had the equally predictable and opposite reaction in a letter from Ben Summerskill of Stonewall: “Norwich Cathedral’s canon notes in your report that ‘some people can feel that cathedrals are slightly exclusive’. He’s right. C of E premises are still more than slightly exclusive, of course, to thousands of devout Christians in long-term same-sex relationships who would very much like their church to celebrate, or at the very least bless, their weddings.

“Is it any surprise that so many young people (whose common sense and moral compass are often underestimated) are deserting the Church of England?”

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

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