George Austin gathers that all was not well with the press team at Lambeth ’98
THE LAMBETH bishops had hardly unpacked their mitres when 1 began to have anguished telephone calls from resident journalists, not for rent-a-quotes but usually simply to unburden themselves to a friendly voice. For it was clear from the start that there were carefully thought out plans to make life as difficult as possible for them There were, I was told, no less than 50 press officers dealing with Lambeth communications, led by God’s Own Spin Doctor Bill Beaver, and my first thought was to wonder who was paying.
After all, the cost for accommodation was said to be £1250 per bishop – so then £75,000 to start with, before travel, equipment, salaries and the rest are added. That in itself ought to require a suitably innocent question at the next meeting of the General Synod.
From those early journalistic anxieties the full picture has gradually emerged. The media pack were to wear pink identification badges and the bishops were briefed to be aware that ‘pink means danger’. They were forbidden, so they told me, to approach bishops and could only speak to them by filling in a request form, the response to which was sufficiently slow to prevent those with daily dead-lines from getting any stones save those presented to them by the Beaver troop.
An indignant Ruth Gledhill deliberately wore pink clothes, lipstick and nail-varnish lest an unsuspecting bishop might be unaware of her identity and actually engage her in conversation. I have known Ruth for many years. She is not only a highly competent journalist but also a deeply committed Anglican Christian, the daughter of the manse and a regular churchgoer. In this she is by no manner of means alone among religion correspondents. Yet she records in both the Times and the Tablet that the unpleasantness she received from bishops and their wives was so extreme that she almost left the Church of England. Another religious affairs correspondent certainly resigned as a result of the similar treatment.
Ruth was saved only because of a chance meeting with the Bishop of Sodor and Man when she was at her lowest. He look her to the Catholic Chaplaincy, that three-week haven for traditional Christian bishops, and the warmth of their care saved her for the Church but left her in floods of tears, emotional simply to have received any kindness at all at Lambeth. What are these people who claim to be the leaders of the Church and servants of the Servant Christ that they can behave in such a way that can turn off one Christian from everything for which they are supposed to stand?
My wife and I had a similar experience at the WCC Canberra Assembly a few years ago (and lest anyone should ask the question we paid for my wife’s travel and expenses). I had recently had an operation and asked that we might have rather better accommodation than a student’s room.
We were reluctantly given rooms in the up-market hostel that also housed the WCC Central Committee. My wife was first to notice it notice it. If we said so much as a good morning to a Central Committee member we were subjected to a penetrating stare which suggested that cockroaches crawling out the woodwork should not commit such lese-majeste. It was so bad that one very senior ecumenical delegate packed his bags and went home after enduring ten days of it.
I suspect that part – and perhaps even the least reprehensible part – of the reason for the treatment meted out to us at Canberra and Ruth at Lambeth is the ‘One-of-Us’ syndrome. In the case of the WCC, you have been elected to the Central Committee and become a coveted ‘One-of-Us’, so must be careful not to sink below the hard-won dignity that this has afforded. In the case of Lambeth you have worked hard to scramble up the greasy pole of preferment and now have Reached the Top and truly become ‘One-of-Us’, instead of a despised ‘One-of-Them’. The fact that, whether at Lambeth or Canberra, nothing could be further from the example of Jesus Christ is of course neither here nor there, particularly if you do not regard His word and example of any particular importance in the post-modern world which you have joined.
What makes it more serious at Lambeth is the encouragement given to such an attitude by the pariah status deliberately accorded the journalists by the ‘pink for danger’ attitude.
Unfortunately it is not confined to Lambeth. Indeed, I have come to believe that some church press officers see their role as being ecclesiastical bouncer-cum-bodyguard, protecting, the bishop from the press and the press from the bishop. Why should the danger of misquotation be such a threat that the opportunity to speak of the things of God to, say, the millions of Sun readers is rejected? And what right have the spinners to put obstacles – a kind of Beaver Dam – in the way of the bishops?
I well remember a long telephone conversation with one senior press officer which ended with my angrily interrupting his flow with the words, ‘Do not dare to try to tell me what I may or may not say to the press.’
Moreover it is an attitude which infects the Church and creates contempt and disillusionment. A couple of years ago I was asked to front a Heart of the Matter programme for the BBC, and it was a salutary experience to see the Church from the other side. At St. Paul’s Cathedral we were told firmly that we must not stray beyond an imaginary boundary well before the foot of the steps at the West Front. In truth, it did not matter much as it gave a far better background for the filming than we could have gained by closer access. But the manner of telling left a nasty taste in the mouth.
At Westminster it was infinitely worse. We had had permission to film in Dean’s Yard at 3.00 pm, but the producer, who had stepped in because of the sickness of the one who had originally negotiated the arrangement, wanted to film in the morning instead. ‘No, that’s the arrangement and You must stick to it’ was the response, full of undisguised contempt for this irritating media person (who as it happened I knew to be a devout Christian.) She pressed the point and with a studied reluctance that might have gained a place at RADA, a telephone call was duly made to someone in authority.
The conversation went as follows: ‘These people (in a tone which actually said ‘This obnoxious filth that the wind has blown in) want to change the time for the interview … Yes, I know, I’ve told them that (with incredulity that it could dare to have been challenged)… Right, right, I’ll tell them.’ (now with triumph) Then, with hardly a raised eye from the papers of the desk, ‘No, 3 o’ clock was agreed and 3 o’clock it will be.’ I dread to think what impression this gave to the BBC technical staff who heard it.
In the end we did the piece as arranged and afterwards went on to film on the steps of Church House, where the reception could not have been warmer. ‘Are you from BBC Heart of the Matter?’ enquired the security man. When a cameraman asked if we might film further along than the central steps, ‘Oh, just film wherever you like’ was the reply. By this time 1 at once assumed the guard was not a practising member of the Church of England
But whether a journalist is a practising church person or not is hardly the point. There is clearly something deeply flawed in the Christian understanding and common courtesy of those who can treat another with the undisguised contempt that is meted out to journalists.
That it should at Lambeth apparently be the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the official spin-doctors shows a desperate need for an immediate review of relations between the Church and the media, and not least of the Communications Department of the General Synod. The intention may have been to prevent an unfavourable picture of the Church by the media but the effect is the opposite and totally to our discredit.
I am only thankful that I had to stay at home to mind the shop.
George Austin is Archdeacon of York.