Misguided attempts to standardize opinions in the Church of England in the nineties damaged the Church’s relationship with the media. George Austin recounts how valuable opportunities were wasted

Ten years ago, religion still played a considerable part in the timetable of both the BBC and commercial television. Programmes like Heart of the Matter and Everyman in the BBC schedules dealt with major matters of theological and social concern, and there was an audience for them.

Not so today, and that change can partly be blamed on a greater secularization of society with a consequent dominance of anti-religious sentiment in some parts of the media. But the Church, or at least the Church of England, must bear no small part of the responsibility.

The seeds were sown during the Runcie archiepiscopate, when – for what were in fact laudable reasons – the principle of collegiality was fostered in the house of Bishops, with the intention that the Church would speak on serious moral and social issues with one coherent voice. For a time it worked well, at least until the mood and apparent purpose of the communications department at Church House began to change.

Mention the phrase ‘spin-doctoring’ and immediately No.10 Downing Street springs to mind, though it is a disease that has affected all the political parties. The loss of trust in the words of politicians that this has produced must have damaged our society. But as the process developed almost out-of-hand in the political arena, so it spread within the Church, fertilized and encouraged by attitudes developed at Church House, Westminster.

Spin doctors

As one who has been involved in ecclesiastical conflict of one kind and another for nearly fifty years, first writing for the Church Times in 1958 (on the Notting Hill riots) and contributing to the national media – press, radio and television from that time onwards – I know the pitfalls as well as the opportunities.

Words can be taken out of context, attitudes attributed that are false, this sentence missed out or that added, and even such long experience cannot always sidestep these hazards. But it does provide nonetheless a God-given opportunity to offer Christian comments in the most unlikely places. One hundred people in many churches would make up a good congregation, but to write for one of the nationals or to take part in a radio or television broadcast is to reach sometimes millions of people. To flee from this is to neglect a ministry.

Yet God’s Own Spin Doctors caused that to happen – even engineered that it would happen. I was once phoned late at night by the chief of these to warn me of an issue on which I might be approached by the media – and then was told what I must say. I replied angrily that I would not in any circumstances be manipulated in this way, adding, ‘Don’t forget, I’m not a bishop.’

Its major effect in the late 1990s was that the religious comments that were taken seriously were those from the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi, while the ‘voice’ of the Church of England was increasingly despised. It was argued that our own bishops had been allocated issues on which to comment and forbidden to stray into each other’s territory.

Caution and antagonism

In reality, because a journalist might approach the ‘wrong’ bishop and be rebuffed, the effect was to give the impression that there was no point in approaching any Anglican bishop. On the church’s side, the caution it produced quickly became antagonism, damaging both the relationship between the press and the bishops as well as producing an atmosphere that infected all contacts between the church and the media.

It probably reached its lowest point at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The media pack were required to wear pink identification badges and the bishops were briefed to be aware that ‘pink means danger.’ The press were forbidden 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 deadlines from getting any stories save those spun for them.

Ruth Gledhill of The Times deliberately wore pink clothes, lipstick and nail varnish lest any unsuspecting bishop might be unaware who she was and engage her in conversation. She recorded in both The Times and The Tablet that the unpleasantness she received from bishops and their wives was such that she nearly left the Church of England.

Alongside these totally unacceptable and reprehensible attitudes on the part of the Church, it all served to encourage the culture of secrecy so beloved of spin-doctors, for whom secrecy means power – as it always does.

Danger of censorship

In March 1887, the Bishop of London, Mandell Chreighton, had been engaged in an academic argument with Lord Acton to which Acton replied, disagreeing with Chreighton’s concept that ‘Pope and King are unlike other men, with a favoured presumption that they did no wrong.’ The presumption, said Acton, was the other way, against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Then followed Acton’s famous dictum: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Fortunately even the spin-doctors did not hold or even try to exercise absolute power, and their purpose was fundamentally to present the Church’s message as favourably as possible. But the manner in which this was pursued did corrupt the Church’s image and message and gave the outward (and mistaken) impression that the Church of England was morally bankrupt.

To be fair, now that we have had to look to Wales for the Archbishop of Canterbury and to Uganda for the Archbishop of York, there has been a perceptible change and the voice of the Church begins once again to be taken seriously. In the late 1990s it would have been unimaginable that the Church of England Newspaper’s banner headline would have read: ‘Archbishop (Sentamu) urges bishops to give a lead.’

The same paper quoted the Bishop of Chester who, a few weeks before Sentamu’s comments to Synod, had revealed how ‘deeply divided’ the House of Bishops was on such issues as the Civil Partnerships Act.

Is it too much to hope that the Church will at last begin to understand that dispute can be healthy and that to seek a vague ‘collegiality’ among bishops in their expression of views on this or that issue can quickly become a powerful and damaging censorship, which in the end stifles debate and brings the Church into disrepute. Our recent history holds clear evidence for that.