R a journalist to inter
view the Editor of the Times is rather a daunting experience. Outside Fleet Street it is thought that a convention exists among, newspapermen whereby dogs don't bite dogs. Anybody who follows the newspapers will know that this aphorism is rapidly becoming as untrue of journalists as it always has been when applied to dogs.
Nevertheless, there is a different convention which applies throughout the whole animal kingdom to the world of journalism and beyond, whereby miniature spaniel puppies think twice before biting Alsatian wolfhounds. The normal. healthy deference which spaniel owes to wolf-hound was complicated on this occasion by the fact that until a few weeks before, I had been writing a weekly column for the Times.
But Mr William ReesMogg accepted the new situation with that mixture of urbanity, genuine kindliness and acute assessment which are his characteristics.
There are those who find him a slightly ridiculous figure on the contemporary scene. People who resent changes in the Times or in anything else sometimes use him as their hate-focus. but they could scarcely have chosen a less suitable model. It is•true that he occasionally describes himself as a "progressive Conservative." whatever that may mean, but there is nothing trendy about Mr Rees-Mogg.
Memorial to courtliness
In the slightly disgusting modernity of the Times offices in Printing House Square, its Editor stands as a memorial to some bygone age of courtliness. cultivated ease and erudite gravity.
He had been reading a hook about some obscure Jewish sect Of the eighteenth century before I arrived. and it was with some difficulty that I managed to redirect his enthusiasm to the matter at hand. Once redirected, however. he answered my questions with such clarity and decision that I soon found we had covered every point, and we could return to the matter of the Jewish sect. whose name unfortunately escapes me and whose peculiarities of doctrine no longer survive.
As Editor of the Tines. Mr Rees-Mogg is expected to produce balanced and informed judgments on every major issue. As Editor of the Timex. he might reasonably expect that his opinions will carry a certain amount of weight—or at any rate, that they will be read and taken into consideration by those who shape our destinies.
As a Catholic, however, he has reconciled himself to the proposition that those of a minority religion cannot and need not invariably try to impose their own moral standards on the nation as a whole.
Staging of 'Oh Calcutta?'
"It is a question of the degree of evil involved. and also the degree of support in the country for the point of view you hold." he says. Thus he sees nothing wrong in the efforts of the Italian Government to ban contraception in Italy. or in the practice of the Israeli Government to impose Jewish dietary laws on the hotels of Israel, but he personally sees no obligation on the English Catholic or English Jew in public life to agitate for either of these things in England. So far so good.
If the majority of articulate people in a country wish "Oh Calcutta!" to he staged. then the Catholics can best demonstrate their disagreement by staying away, he says. Similarly, the Catholic Church should proceed by appeals to the individual conscience rather than by demanding legislation to forbid the performance. or by proposing an absolute ban on Catholics attending it.
However. where greater evils may be involved, as with abortion—and for those Catholics who see contraception as a supremely great evil, the same applies—then there is a clear obligation on the Catholic to protest against it and to guide his country away from the course of action which he finds morally objectionable by whatever means he judges most effective.
Under these circumstances. there also is a clear obligation on the national leaders of the Churches in the country concerned to offer moral guidelines and to try to influence political decisions. even where majority opinion may differ from their own.
"We should make a distinction between the Church viewed as a collection of national bodies and the Church viewed as an international body.— says Mr Rees-Moggs.
"It may he the duty of the Church as a national body to draw attention to wrongs within the nation, but as an international body it should he extremely careful of seem ing to interfere as between countries."
Only exceptional circumstances would persuade him to relax this ruling. He cites Nazi Germany as one exceptional circumstance and the practical effects of apartheid in South Africa as another.
Genocide, and the deliberate suppression of a race within a nation. are thus the political equivalent of sins crying out to Heaven for vengeance: they jusify and (in the case of Catholics) require intervention by men of goodwill from outside.
Where Communism is trying to spread itself as a deliberately atheistic creed, Mr Rees-Mogg thinks that the Church is hound to oppose it: but where is has established itself as a social system. the Church's first concern must be to provide for the welfare of souls tinder it.
He accepts that there arc great evils in Communism as a social system—denial of the basic freedoms and liberties of conscience—but maintains that commensurate evils exist under the capitalist system. Under these circumstances, it is no part of the Church's duty uselessly to attack the system which produces the evils.
Where the Permissive Societe, is concerned. Mr ReesMogg would urge that the Church should accept the majority ruling of society and confine itself to urging its members (and anyone else prepared to listen) to regulate their own lives in the manner which charity demands and which the Church is in a unique position to define.
Degradation of drugs
Mr Rees-Mogg himself disapproves of the drug scene. even those drugs which many people believe harmless like cannabis, because his personal observation leads him to believe that they degrade the intellect.
Clearly a Christian has a duty not to allow his intellect to be degraded: has he a similar duty to prevent other people degrading their own intellects in the interests of Society? Mr. Rees-Mogg strikes the balance by arguing against the legalisation of cannabis in his editorials while permitting those who take the contrary view to buy advertising space elsewhere in the Times.
The compromise was not universally popular. There were those who described it as hypocritical — a word which has lost much of its precision through over-use. There were others who resented that a Catholic should be made Editor of a national newspaper like the Times.
What distinguishes William ReesNlogg from almost anybody else of any note in the communications • industry is a profound and abiding— one might almost say expert — interest in moral questions.
At one moment in the interview, our conversation took a somewhat recondite turn : would the lawful Jewish monarch of a predominantly Christian nation be justified in imposing Jewish dietary laws on his Christian subjects?
Mr Rees-Mogg found the question highly intriguing. After a brief pause while he appeared to enjoy the problem. he had an answer ready : no. the lawful Jewish monarch would not be justified.
The Pope and contraception
The Pope, says Mr ReesMogg, has the right to emphasize the immorality of contraception, if that is the way he feels, although Mr Rees-Mogg would personally not agree with him in making this emphasis.
Whatever happens in the world. it is refreshing to know that in Printing House Square, at least, world events will be subjected to a thorough moral scrutiny.
If only for this reason, at least one reader will never cancel his subscription to the Times while Mr Rees-Mogg remains its editor, despite its appalling cost. One can't have everything in life, and morality comes rather expensive these days.
As I left his office, there was a queue of people outside waiting for the editorial conference. They were the sort of people you would see in any newspaper—men in shirtsleeves with harassed expressions, the heads, no doubt. of all the various departments. I wondered whether they were going to he treated to a dissertation on these peculiar, extinct Jews, and in what way it would influence the next morning's newspaper.
There are those who find it difficult to believe that Mr. Rees-Mogg is entirely of this world. The joy of the situation is that he is not only part of the world, but by some extraordinary combination of circumstances he has emerged on top of it.
For Catholics at least, the daily miracle of Mr ReesMogg's existence will be linked with the daily miracle of the Times's continued appearance to demonstrate what can be achieved purely and simply by a sound moral upbringing.