Last week’s issue of The Tablet had several articles on this subject, including:
An editorial: Deepest Human desire
and an article by Clifford Longley reproduced here below the fold, with the express permission of the editor.
Clifford Longley’s column from The Tablet dated 6 February 2010.
‘If something said by the Pope can be fitted by the media into one of its templates, it will be’
The Catholic Church, with Pope Benedict at the centre, was engulfed in a firestorm of mostly hostile media attention starting on Monday night. And the embers will not die quickly. There is every prospect that the papal visit in September will turn into one long shouting match of the same kind, with truth the first casualty.
I became aware of the spin that was developing when a correspondent rang me for my reaction to the Pope’s address to the bishops of England and Wales during their ad limina visit to the Holy See. Was it, the correspondent asked, an attack on the Equality Bill now going before Parliament, as people were saying? I said it was almost certainly about the gay adoption issue, because it criticised legislation already in effect, not legislation still under debate.
But this news desk wanted it to be about the Equality Bill whether it was or not. By evening, most of the rest of the media had joined in, with the BBC excitedly calling it an “unprecedented intervention” in British politics by the Pope. (Never mind that the Vatican called the invasion of Iraq a “crime against peace”.) Given the way the media herd-instinct operates and newspapers and the broadcasters follow each other’s lead, this quickly became the received view.
By the time the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, was being interviewed from Rome by John Humphrys of the BBC’s Today programme next morning, the trap was set. “This is the Pope getting involved in our politics, isn’t it?” he asked Archbishop Nichols. The “this” of the question obviously referred to the current Equality Bill furore in the morning’s papers; the “this” of the archbishop’s answer, however, was the well-known Catholic complaint about Catholic adoption agencies being squeezed out of business by the Sexual Orientation Equality Regulations, three years ago. As the archbishop knew, the Pope’s words were clearly about past legislation, not future. After praising British commitment to equality in general, the Pope had added: “The effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this
goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.” Which the bishops have said many times, and apart from the word “unjust”, was a purely factual statement.
I later asked the correspondent who had rung me why the false interpretation had persisted beyond the point at which it had been realised, and the reply was: “As you know, sometimes newspapers are afraid to be a lone voice.” I have to say that by next day, leaving aside the obsession with the Equality Bill, that paper had got it more or less right – although one has to ask, without the Equality Bill angle, whether there was much of a story there anyway. “Pope endorses bishops’ stand over gay adoption” wasn’t going to set the world alight. But for ever and a day, people will believe that the Pope had joined the debate over legislation before Parliament, and they also believe this was in some way unprecedented and, with reference to John Humphrys, utterly improper.
“Houston, we have a problem.” The wheels haven’t yet fallen off the papal visit, but there is a warning here. This incident tells us quite a lot about the secular media’s willingness to twist the facts to create a story. It also tells us about the sensitivity of public opinion, or a certain section of it. On the right, of course, this papal “intervention in British politics” was wholly welcome.
But we should probe more deeply. News reporting works by templates. If something said by the Pope can be fitted into one of the media’s favourite current templates, it will be shaped for that purpose. The template here is about religion, and Catholicism in particular, as an anti-progressive force in society. So even if the Pope didn’t mean to attack the Equality Bill, the “greater truth” served by this type of news reporting was that he would have done if he’d thought of it. And never mind that he was speaking carefully, defending the Church’s religious freedom while praising the British tradition of freedom of speech, and indeed, of promoting equality. He was deemed to be trampling all over gay rights in general, not to mention parliamentary sovereignty.
It would be dangerous to assume that the papal visit will be conducted against a media background that is benign. What the Catholic Church needs is a sophisticated rapid-rebuttal unit that knows the way the media thinks, and that can intervene to put out media fires before they take hold. Sometimes spin-doctoring is a necessary evil.