By Peter Nolan
THE noticeable increase in
the coverage of Catholic affairs in the national press in recent years is in no small way due to the efforts of the Catholic Information Office for England and Wales.
Mr. David Miles Board, since he left the B.B.C. radio current affairs team in 1968 to help establish the office, has built up a list of more than 300 experts to whom inquirers can be referred. He and Fr. George 1 canard, his assistant, also run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week answering service to give information about day-to-day events in the Church.
Mr. Miles Board said: "We receive an average of 20 inquiries a day from the secular press on every imaginable subject with Church connections. Just recently Woman's Own rang to find out how the date of Easter Sunday was fixed and Nineteen, a magazine for teenagers, wanted information on contraception.
"We also get the odd call asking, for instance, why Requiem Masses were held after the recent shootings in Londonderry."
While I was visiting the C.I.O. a Chinese man rang asking where he could find a Chinese priest to marry him to an English girl and a national paper wanted to know the number of African Catholic bishops.
The needs of journalists preparing features are also catered for. Mr. Miles Board and Fr. Leonard have assembled an impressive file of press cuttings and information on the more popular topics, with "Treasures of the Vatican" and "Authority in the Church" among the current favourites.
Especially useful is the impressive list of experts who can be contacted for further information. The existence of the list avoids one of the pitfalls pointed out in what the office calls the new postVatican Two field of "Media Theology."
The Pastoral Instruction on the Media, issued last year by the Pontifical Commission for the Means of Social Communication, said: "Because the media are impelled to demand quick comment, 'the initiative often passes to men who are less responsible and less wellinformed, but more willing to oblige."
Mr. Miles Board said : "There has been a tremendous growth of interest in the Church in recent years. In 1971
we issued 150 press releases on various aspects of the Church's life. Three-quarters received national press coverage." He denied that the C.I.O. existed to broadcast propaganda in favour of the Church.
"We •tell what the Church does and thinks: it is one of our main functions to provide spokesmen of clear authority. We make known what is creditable but it is also our
duty to make clear statements about problems or events which arc controversial.
"There has been a marked change in the nature of the Church's coverage in the news media since the C.I.O. opened," said Mr. Miles Board. "It helps take the mystery out of 'scandals' and so makes stories critical of the Church much less common.
"It also takes the initiative in illustrating the range of the Church's concerns, the renewal of the Church itself, its work in the Third World, its charities. Items on these subjects have been appearing with a prominence and frequency unknown before the founding of the C.1.0."
A leaflet used by the C.I.O. begins: "To communicate badly is a sort of blasphemy God calls for the best we can achieve." The leaflet illustrates a new and fast growing role played by the office teaching Catholics how to communicate.
Mr. Miles Board and Fr. Leonard have for two years been running study days for Sisters on such subjects as films and television as means of communication. They also regularly address groups of priests on such topics as
"Improving your Newsletter."
But this is an important part of their work, as by teaching members of the Church to communicate they are able to increase their own output. Interesting news about the development of orders, new types of charity or valuable personal experiences come to light as Catholics are made "communications conscious" serving to improve the image of the Church.
`TWINNING' A recent talk given to an annual meeting of the St. Vincent de Paul Society resulted the following year in a
stream of interesting information about the society being made to the press, including its international "twinning scheme."
The scheme takes the form of a European conference adopting a conference in a less developed country and regularly exchanging information and sending it aid.
Just as the press fights to have local council and committee meetings opened up to them, the C.I.O. staff try and persuade Church Commissions, the National Conference of Priests and other organisations to let newsmen sit in on their gatherings.
Mr. Miles Board and Fr. Leonard have been permitted to attend meetings of the Church's Commissions in England and Wales and many worthwhile developments which might never otherwise have been published were reported on.
`SHOE-STRING' The C.I.O. operates from a small office in Pinner, Middlesex, with a staff of three permanent secretaries, four voluntary helpers and banks of telephones.
Mr. Miles. Board explained that their annual budget of £12,000 from the Bishops Conference and Communications Day contributions meant they were "like every religious organisation" running on a shoe-string apd every penny
was carefully used.
Files, blue, pink and green, distinguish various target groups to whom items are sent. All general releases go to the national press, but others are sent to named correspondents or magazines who may have particular interest in the item covered. All published "hits" are filed, yielding an effective continuous check.
A ten-minute drive from Pinner brings one to the other major Catholic communications headquarters in Britain— Hatch End, the Catholic Radio and TV Centre.
In 1955 Fr. Agnellus Andrews O.F.M., was given a • house in Hatch End and £1,000 a year to try and establish a "Catholic presence" on radio and television.
Even in those days equipment was expensive, so Fr. Agnellus had to mix appearances on the B.B.C. with raising money through football pools and other means. The £400,000 centre with its much praised octagonal-plan studio which now stands beside the original house is largely a monument to his dynamic energy and enthusiasm.
In a very few years Hatch End has established an international reputation, and students from almost every country in the world have studied the art of broadcasting there.
The Rev. John Lang, an Anglican, who has been appointed chief religious adviser to the I3.B.C., had just completed a course there when I visited Hatch End, and all 28 religious advisers to the 20 planned local radio stations have studied there as well as many of the new station directors.
Hatch End'-3 most. important teaching project is its annual three-month broadcasting and television course, now in progress. This year's group of 16 students includes six priests, five nuns and five Laymen from 11 countries and four continents.
The octagonal studio, 40 ft. across and 20 ft. high, which was much praised in the technical journals when it was opened two years ago, can be transformed into a chapel by drawing back a sliding door hiding an altar.
Fr, Agnellus, President of
Linda, the International Catholic Association tot-Radio and Television, said the centre shared one important characteristic with the Catholic Information Office — every year the range of its work has increased.