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Review of the Year 2023: Press

22 December 2023


THIS column would be nothing without the quotes that it steals, and here are the best of the year. First, a letter to The Times, after the right-wing press confected a story about the Archbishop of York’s saying that it was “problematic” to pray to “our Father” (Press, 14 July): “Sir, I’m surprised that Anglicans should find ‘Our Father’ problematic owing to the existence of abusive fathers. We Catholics have no difficulty with ‘Hail Mary’ even if our mothers were a nightmare, Carol Kellas, Croydon.”

In the aftermath of the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the Financial Times investigated the part played by the Moonies and other cults in Japan, and came up with this: “The point where membership of a rapacious cult becomes embarrassing, an elderly former adherent told me some years ago, is at the local supermarket. That moment when, as a pensioner, you buy 10kg of the most expensive fried tofu and everyone knows you plan to throw it all into the river to propitiate a fox-god.”

Then, the London Review of Books considered the doctrine of effective altruism and its prophet, Peter Singer (Press, 29 September): “Singer rarely talks about killing or experimenting on ‘normal’ philosophy professors like himself: it seems there is always someone else ahead in the queue — primates, babies, disabled people. [But] . . . it’s hard to see any properly utilitarian basis for saying that it is worse to experiment on a philosophy professor than on a profoundly disabled person. Suffering is suffering. Does the philosopher bring more joy to the world? That is far from a given. Most philosophers seem to be fairly unhappy, and many produce work that contributes net negative utility to those who (usually under duress) read it.”

Four months after divorcing his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, Rupert Murdoch got engaged, for the fifth time, to Ann Lesley Smith, and then he still more rapidly disengaged (Press, 5 May). Vanity Fair had the scoop: “One source close to Murdoch said he had become increasingly uncomfortable with Smith’s outspoken evangelical views. ‘She said Tucker Carlson is a messenger from God, and he said nope,’ the source said. A spokesperson for Murdoch declined to comment.”

Tucker Carlson, America’s best-paid cable news host, was sacked without warning or explanation a month or so afterwards. Murdoch is most recently reported to be romancing Roman Abramovitch’s ex-mother-in-law.

Talking of scoops, the woman who doled them out this year, as if she were working at an ice-cream parlour, was Gabriella Swerling, of The Daily Telegraph. She beat everyone in unearthing the details of the Soul Survivor story, and continued to stay well ahead of the pack on it.

The most interesting writers of long reads on religious subjects were Elle Hardy, who published a long piece on a group of American Pentecostals — 4000 words on Christianity in The Guardian, and not one of them was “sex”, or “gay”; and Tomiwa Owolade, in The New Statesman. He manages to be provocative without falling into shallow contrarianism.

Also in The New Statesman, the most thought-provoking critic of the year was Rowan Williams, who has found a sympathetic editor and perhaps an unsympathetic sub-editor as well. In any case, his pieces there and elsewhere, not least an interview with Nick Cave in The Sunday Times Magazine, have been really excellent (Press, 10 March).

AS FOR the underlying stories, I think that this has been the year when the Conservative press — and, perhaps, the Conservative Party — turned decisively against the Church of England. In part, this is due to the tireless work of Save the Parish, and part because of the Archbishops’ standing up against the Rwanda scheme, which is totemically important to the party members who will elect the next leader of the party after it has lost the General Election. Paradoxically, it is also an effect of the endless wrangling about gay relationships, which offends and bewilders the sensible fringe.

But that fringe gets pushed further and further to the margins. In a world in which almost everything is funded by advertising, it becomes more and more true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The Russell Brand scandal (Press, 22 September) may not have mattered very much in the grand scheme of things, but it was astonishing who rushed to his defence when he was accused of decades of sexual misconduct: the Revd Calvin Robinson, George Galloway, Laurence Fox, and Allison Pearson.

None of these people, except Mr Galloway, would have any sympathy with Mr Brand’s supposed politics. What they have in common with each other, as well as with him, is that they all make their livings by arguing, or simply shouting, that respectability today is no more than a sham imposed on us by faceless powers. When this view of morality is taught in American universities, it’s denounced by the Right as cultural Marxism.

So, it’s interesting that this nihilism is also the foundation of the whole of the modern “conservative” movement, from Donald Trump downwards.

In the end, this provides an opportunity for Christianity to seep back into society. You cannot be a Christian and suppose that morality is nothing more than a con trick played by the powerful on the rest of us.

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