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Press: Bagehot’s verdict on papers’ Welby kicking

19 May 2023


READING Ferdinand Mount’s wonderful essay collection English Voices (Simon & Schuster, 2016), I came across a quotation from Walter Bagehot which should stand at the head of every thought about the news media: “Our typical reader . . . has a set of ordinary opinions arising from and suited to ordinary life. He does not desire an article that is too profound, but one which he can lay down and say ‘an excellent article, very excellent, exactly my own sentiments.’”

Mount, wonderfully, adds that: “On such first-rate principles the Economist has been conducted ever since, although few of Bagehot’s successors as editor have stated them so frankly.”

But it’s not only The Economist. One of the criteria for editorial skill is the degree to which a paper rouses in its chosen audience the desired response: “Excellent, very excellent, exactly my own sentiments.”

WITH this in mind, let’s look at the brutal kicking that the right-wing papers gave the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of his Lords speech about the Illegal Migration Bill (News, 12 May).

First off, Allison Pearson, the Glenda Slagg of The Daily Telegraph, and the perfect headline: “Justin Welby should be ashamed of himself”. She writes: “With a blithe naivety, he [Archbishop Welby] thinks that the Government is wicked for trying to control our borders. In the gospel according to St Justin, everyone who boards a small boat to cross the Channel is a helpless victim, made in the image of a loving God, even when they are paying large sums to jump the queue and join their uncle’s flourishing cocaine business in Tottenham.”

You’d need a heart of stone not to giggle at her payoff line: “God knows I’m not unChristian, Archbishop.” It stands to reason, as the taxi drivers say: an omniscient God must be conscious of her position, a passible one painfully so. Nine out of ten on the Bagehot scale.

Then there was Esther McVey, a politician with a remarkable record — last in one Conservative leadership contest; sacked by Boris Johnson from the Cabinet — in the Daily Express: “Justin Welby’s political interventions have been more about pushing his left-wing views than representing the Church and its parishioners.

“As a Lords Spiritual [sic] we expect guidance, and that should be a voice for and a reminder of those less fortunate. What we don’t want or need is for him to use his position to propagate his left-wing views for which he has form.”

Six out of ten on the Bagehot scale, even with two points added — since this is the Express — for inarticulacy and confusion.

The Daily Mail leader showed signs of brain fatigue. “What a pity Justin Welby didn’t reserve his condemnation for the people-smugglers — not ministers toiling to end their evil trade.” How often has the hapless drudge who writes these leaders had to explain that, when Archbishops agree with him or her, they are moral and good, and, when they disagree, political and bad? Yet still the leader-writer’s mitred flock are deaf to their instruction. Eight out of ten Bagehots.

The Times sketchwriter, Quentin Letts, formerly of the Mail, was simply abusive, referring to “the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dulcet voice. Like a neighbour’s garden strimmer — ‘nnnawwww’ — it was fired up during the House of Lords’ second reading of the government’s immigration bill, which seeks to stop the small boats. Ears and molars soon rejoiced to Justin Welby’s distinctive drone.

“His Grace spoke for just six minutes, more merciful than Saturday’s two blessed hours — and yet, perhaps, sufficient. Attacking Rishi Sunak’s main legislative punt as morally irresponsible and unBiblical, the old chalice-gargler hurled himself into the fray. . . From the fluency with which the archbishop quacked, he was more gripped by this immigration debate than he was by his sermon at the abbey.”

The piece scored maybe three out of ten Bagehots, if we take the same paper’s leader seriously. That managed entirely to agree with the Archbishop on the Bill’s prospects of actually working: “In promising to detain arrivals on former military camps, barges or old cruise ships before deporting them rapidly, ministers hope to stem the tide by dissuasion before these holding facilities are overwhelmed. Given their limited capacity, this is a big gamble. As for Rwanda, the designated safe third country for deportees who cannot be returned to their homelands, it is still out of reach for Suella Braverman, the home secretary.”

The leader lets the cat out of the bag: the policy won’t work, and can’t work. This explains the fervour of the attacks on the Archbishop. If it appears as though the Bill is attacked only for immorality and cruelty, then the attacks on its ineffectiveness can safely be ignored.

AFTER all that, the Daily Star came up with the most memorable theological commentary. Saturday’s front page reported some routine pronatalist remarks of Pope Francis: “Pope issues commandment we can all fully support: Thou shalt have more rumpy pumpy.”

The paper reported that “God’s right hand man wants people to have more how’s your father. But only if they live in Italy. Which seems a real shame.”

We have a winner for the ages: a perfect ten on the Bagehot scale.

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