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Press: Journalists are caught up in power struggles

07 August 2020


ONE of the slowest lessons for a journalist to learn, and one of the most depressing, is how little we know about the processes that we write about. If journalism is the first draft of history, which I would like it to be, it must also be written without the benefit of hindsight, and that means that we are constantly jumping to conclusions.

This is necessary and often helpful: as a rough heuristic, the idea that power will always corrupt is one to go with. But it is also always wrong in detail. We don’t know how much power the actors really have — nor, just as important, how much they think they have; but we can imagine only a limited amount of power or agency in the world, and the less that we have, the more that we suppose our enemies to enjoy.

So the narrative of the omniscient and almost omnipotent Enemy — which a psychotherapist might trace back to Mother, a Charismatic to The Enemy, and an anti-Semite to the Jews — sometimes gets attached to a mid-level bureaucrat in Church House.

One such is Rachel Harden, deputy director of communications. She sits, so far as I know, on all the national core groups. I’ve known her since she was a journalist, a good and honest one. However deep my suspicion of PR people, and however often it has been justified, simply going over to the dark side does not corrupt honest journalists — even if it gives dishonest ones new ways to exercise their power.

Working journalists get entangled with power, too. Some love it, some simply love language, and some are even benevolent towards human beings. But, even if you don’t particularly want power, you find yourself constantly negotiating about it. Information is the currency. Almost everything interesting that I am told, even the true stories, comes to me in the hope that I can use it in someone else’s power struggle, which is fine. The world is fallen. People are naturally more interested in broadcasting truths that are discreditable to others than to themselves.


THIS is a long way round to the latest Private Eye, whose anonymous but well-informed correspondents on church affairs had two stories in the most recent issue which were better than anything that made the mainstream press.

The first was a comprehensive debunking of the Telegraph’s story that Lindy Runcie had had some kind of affair with Victor de Waal when he was Dean of Canterbury (Press, 17 July). The story was denied entirely by the Runcie family. In fact, Charlotte Runcie (granddaughter), who writes for the Telegraph, was given space later to mock it: “Those who were around at the time certainly remember very different circumstances surrounding de Waal’s resignation, ones which show him in a much less flattering light.

“Lindy Runcie, not least when lying on top of her piano for a photoshoot, looked beautiful and confident.

“No wonder blokes she knew 30 years ago are retrospectively claiming to have had some kind of romantic involvement with her. In their dreams, frankly.”

The Eye added to this the detail that “under some pressure from his appalled family, the old man wrote to the paper admitting that although he left Canterbury in 1986 ‘because of an inappropriate relationship with an individual’, that person was not the Archbishop’s wife.”

The Telegraph still has not printed this letter. Curiously, the de Waal scandal was my own first contact with the Church House press machinery: the then PR chief, John Miles, took me out for a boozy lunch, and blamed the whole thing on Mrs de Waal’s supposedly unsympathetic character.

At the back of the Eye was a very sharp piece on the safeguarding fiasco, which contained the news that even William Nye, “widely regarded as the Sir Humphrey Appleby of the Church of England, may not be aware that he is currently under investigation over allegations of safeguarding failures”.

This was in the context of there being 27 or more national core groups presently operating. The obvious numerator is the number of bishops and deans, which would imply that one in five of the senior clergy is under suspicion for safeguarding failures.

But this has to be misleading: we know that Mr Nye is being looked at, and, among the retired bishops, George Carey at least; and I know of one retired dean and another retired bishop. There must be more. If the standards of 2020 are to be applied retrospectively, they will catch everyone. There were, obviously, real delinquencies, but the effort to clean them up, or even cover them up, left the Church covered with a sort of bureaucratic minefield. Everyone now knows that any boxes that they have ever left unticked might now detonate under a career or a reputation.

The system is at the moment completely broken: that much is clear. The Eye asks why some investigations are briefed to the press, while others, such as those into the current Archbishops, are not. There is no good or creditable answer to this beyond common sense and Mandy Rice-Davies.

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