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Press: Tabloids monster motorway-protest clergy

01 October 2021


I AM enchanted by the monstering handed out by the Mail and others to the climate protesters who blocked the M25 (News, 24 September). The full power of the tabloid press was directed against them. In The Sun, the headline was “Thickos of Dibley”: “Four vicars joined ecoidiots who ran on both M25 carriageways yesterday to halt traffic again. The dog-collared quartet were prominent among the Insulate Britain mob kneeling in front of rush-hour motorists. But police finally got tough, yanking the Reverends Sue Parfitt, 79, Mark Coleman, 62, Tim Hewes, 71, and Fr Martin Newell, 54, and others out of drivers’ way.”

On a purely linguistic note, “vicars kneel” is a less than shocking headline. What will these sinister dog-collared figures do next? But the word doing the work is, as usual, the noun: “mob”. This was the same in the Mail, which had put a lot more effort into its attack: “A convicted heroin dealer who sickened veterans with a demonstration at the Cenotaph, a vicar ‘told to protest by God’ and a teacher married to an ex-BBC bigwig are among the Insulate Britain protesters crippling the UK’s motorways, it was revealed tonight.

“Former soldier Donald Bell, one of the eco warrior zealots who joined the campaign group outside the Home Office today, has a criminal past and was exposed last year by MailOnline for allegedly abusing his disabled wife.

“MailOnline later revealed how he was jailed for four years in 2007 after being caught pushing his wheelchair-bound wife around the streets of Cambridge while peddling heroin at the same time.”

Surely some mistake: unless pushing a wheelchair is itself a crime — why didn’t he drive her in a car? — what he was actually caught doing was selling drugs.

Later in the story, an unnamed relative was quoted as saying that the accusation of domestic abuse was almost certainly untrue, and had been raised by his late wife at their trial to deflect the blame on to him. But how many people are going to read that far down? In a further sign of his depravity, Mr Bell lives not only in a council flat, but a council flat in Cambridge.

All this would be a great deal less funny if it hadn’t happened three days before large parts of southern England were brought to a standstill by Mail readers queueing outside petrol stations. Few, if any, were kneeling; some were punching each other, and one, featured prominently on the front page of the Mail Online, was holding a knife. But they couldn’t, of course, be described as a mob. They’d have had to get out of their cars for that.


THE other problematic gathering of the week took place in a village outside Stockton-on-Tees, where the originally Saxon Church of St Mary the Virgin needs its clock repaired. So, the Vicar, the Revd Martin Anderson, decided that a beer festival would be the best way to build links with the community and raise some money at the same time. No one seems to have objected to filling the nave with cheery boozers, but when the festivities spilled out on to the graveyard, the local Facebook group was outraged.

The story then made the Mail, The Independent, the Daily Star, and The Times, which was so impressed that it ran a leader as well. As a data point on a map of shifting ideas of the sacred, it is worth some thought. First exhibit is the Star, where the report (syndicated across Reach plc) treats Christianity as an entirely alien concept: the headline refers to “A vicar of a Christian church” — what else would a church be? — and later the hapless Mr Anderson is described as “the church reverend”.

But there is plenty — all, it seems, lifted from Facebook — describing the outrage of some locals that people were drinking in a graveyard.

The Mail had, characteristically done some actual journalism. Whether it is persecuting eco-campaigners, or following up silly stories, the paper will chase properly, and this is admirable. It had talked to the brewery manager, who pointed out that carousing on gravestones had not been part of the plan, and to Mr Anderson, who sounded perfectly reasonable. “We didn’t want people to use tombstones as tables, and our security firm was working to make sure everything was kept calm in the church yard and the building itself.”

The Times didn’t send any reporters, which would be expensive, but it got both a comment piece and a leader out of the story — and, better still, they put opposite sides of the story. The leader came out in favour: “In the Middle Ages churches were the focal point and community centre of every village: a place where people met, gossiped and plotted; where they exchanged marriage vows, jokes, ideas and goods. Could these fine old buildings and the surrounding cemeteries not do so again?”
No one had room for the Second Church Estates Commissioner’s telling Parliament that the Church would need £1 billion over the next five years to maintain its listed buildings.

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