ONE of the most salacious pieces of gossip that I ever heard at the BBC related to an incident that Edward Stourton happened upon in a makeshift studio in Rome, when we were both part of the vast army from the corporation dispatched to cover the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Perhaps wisely, the incident in question is not even hinted at in this new memoir (Feature, 3 March); but, while often fascinating, the book as a whole is an intriguingly guarded, often restrained set of reflections by one of Britain’s leading journalists.
We learn little of his personal life — his two marriages and his children are largely mentioned in passing — though prep school and Ampleforth are reviewed in considerable detail. The lifetime network of contacts afforded by his undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge, is reflected upon with a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment. When recalling a motion debated in the presence of Princess Anne during his time as Union secretary — “This house believes that a woman’s place is in the harem” (“I gulp a bit as I write this”) — he offers an honest assessment of a university then just beginning to admit women to most of its colleges, and consistently failing to represent the ethnic diversity of the nation in its undergraduate population.
Journalism became his calling. He notes that “learning to be a reporter has been my great redemptive experience”, and he offers vivid accounts of the life of a television news reporter in an era before internet and social media: the vast sums of cash carried to smooth one’s way on foreign assignments; the rivalry between different outlets, and the cut-throat personal competition for exclusive interviews; the chaos and innovation of the early days of Channel 4 News.
Gossip is, of course, the oil that lubricates journalism, but Stourton is careful to avoid dishing dirt. Even when recounting his frankly disgraceful treatment by BBC bosses when his time on the Today programme came to an end, his tone remains measured, and his attitude charitable.
It is when writing about his Roman Catholic faith, and his professional journalistic engagement with the Church, that Confessions proves of particular interest. His repeated consideration of the “cousinage” — the descendants of recusant families, recognisable by certain surnames, often proud guardians of an enduring pre-Reformation faith — shines a light on an easily overlooked aspect of English cultural and religious history.
The contemporary life of the RC Church receives some striking personal reflection, when Stourton notes the impact of reforms under Pope Francis with regard to the faithful who have married after divorce. He quotes a papal footnote, which refers to holy communion as “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
While Stourton’s Confessions are rather guarded about any of the author’s actual weaknesses, this memoir is an insightful read from a consummate broadcaster, who has long been a gentle but firm champion of the place of religion in public life. Just a shame he’s a little light on the newsroom gossip. . .
The Revd Dr Christopher Landau is the Director of ReSource, and a former BBC religion correspondent.
Confessions: Life re-examined
Church Times Bookshop £18