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Press: Markle makes Synod interesting to Mail Online

30 July 2021


IT IS unusual for the Mail Online to take an interest in the General Synod, but last week it was promoted to the most important event in the life of the Church of England. Not this year’s Synod, you understand, but the one in 2019, when the Archbishop of Canterbury had to leave it for a day. Hardened readers will already have guessed the reason: behind this extraordinary, shocking, unprecedented event lay the sinister figure of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, whose child was being baptised that day.

Under the headline “Christening of Harry and Meghan’s son Archie caused chaos for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby”, the Mail Online reported: “The Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to leave the most important meeting in the Church of England calendar because the Duke and Duchess of Sussex chose to baptise their son during the General Synod.”

So, even the Synod can become interesting and important if it can be used to attack the Duchess. The story is hardly spoiled at all by the discovery, lower down, that the person who actually chose the date was the Queen.

FROM the United States, a rather more complex story of press ethics. A senior apparatchik in the Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Mgr Jeffrey Burrill, had to resign in a hurry after he was outed as a patron of gay bars and a gay bathhouse. When you have recovered from your shock, read on. The outing was performed by a little-known and newly founded RC news website, The Pillar. It seems to have got the story by matching up two supposedly anonymised databases that are on open sale to advertising agencies — one from the gay dating app Grindr, and another that maps location data on to the real world.

At this point in the story, if you’re a Google user, you might want to look at Google Maps, click the menu button at the top left, and then look at “Your Timeline”, where a splatter of red dots will show you everywhere you have been with your phone in the past six or seven years (in my case).

There is a notice at the bottom saying that your location is available only to you, but there are many data brokers who will replace your name with an identifying number and sell such information on. This is very shallow pseudonymity. All The Pillar had to do with a Grindr database was to see which mobile phone had been at Burrill’s offices, home, and known meetings, and houses belonging to his relatives, and they had him.

This clearly was not a random trawl. I’d imagine that everyone who worked with him knew or supposed that Mgr Burrill was gay, and preferred not to think too much about whether he was chaste. The Pillar, on the other hand, preferred to enquire into the matter. Presumably, this was part of the ongoing civil war within the RC Church there. Vigorous digging by the RC journalist Dawn Eden Goldstein suggests that The Pillar might be financed by hard-right Republican money. It will be interesting to see whether any traditionalists are given the Burrill treatment.

Having got its proof, The Pillar did two things. It approached the USCCB and procured the resignation of Mgr Burrill. Then, as the News of the World would have done, it published the story anyway. This did not shock me at all. I’m used to English tabloids, also to vicious RC traditionalists. But it shocked a lot of American Catholics. The most shocked will have been those priests hurriedly deleting their Grindr accounts (too late) and celebrating a traditional Latin mass to signal their allegiances.

Scarcely less shocked, though, were the Catholics used to American journalistic pieties. Two generally conservative writers, Mike Lewis and Kathryn Jean Lopez, told The Washington Post that they were unhappy with the public outing of Mgr Burrill, even though both agreed that he had to lose his position.

This journalistic technique has yet to cross the Atlantic: British newspapers prefer old-fashioned bribery and horse-trading to get their inside stories. But it’s easy to imagine the use of this against a sufficiently prominent target, such as a Cabinet minister. And, in some ways, it’s ethically preferable to the old system. Twice, I have sat through court cases in which the word of a powerless woman was tested against the lies of a powerful man. In both cases (one was Jeffrey Archer’s), the man’s lawyer was able to bully and browbeat the much younger woman until her credibility seemed destroyed. It would be very much harder to discredit a database record.

SOMEWHERE in the same galaxy as this story came the news that Facebook has found God, or at least segmented the religious market. It is testing a button, similar to the “Like” button, which instead says “I prayed” in response to prayer requests. Soon to come, the Facebook edition of the Bible, in which Matthew 6.6 reads: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Don’t forget to click afterwards, though. Then your phone, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you with advertising relevant to your interests.”

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