Documentary film maker Mark Rogers detects anti-Catholic feeling in Fleet Street
ON November 5 every year an estate car leaves Soho full of foreign television journalists; their destination is East Sussex and their mission is to record a strange British custom: they are going Lewes to film an annual bonfire celebration the highlight of which is the ceremonial burning of an effigy of the Pope.
The ex-Catholic Herald journalist Patrick O'Donovan used to joke "anti-Catholicism is the only true folk religion of England". From Europe the antiCatholic tone of much of the British media seems marked.
Last year the former Tory Party chairman and prominent Catholic, Chris Patten, suggested in an interview that the Conservatives should move towards Christian Democracy on a European model. The response from the press was immediate and vitriolic. A Sunday Telegraph editorial suggested Patten should not forget that Britain was a Protestant country, which would have no truck with Europe's Catholics, even ones who believed in free market economics. The newspaper hinted that a conspiracy might be afoot amongst Catholic ministers.
Much of the suspicion of Maastricht on both sides of the house contains an undercurrent of an anti-Catholic prejudice with a whiff of the 17th century about it, "The Protestant rump," the novelist Piers Paul Read says, "are alarmed at seeing Britain absorbed into a Catholic bloc and with some justice."
But the voice of Britain abroad remains steeped in older traditions: when Mr Gorbachev tuned into the voice of British broadcasting, the BBC World Service, for news of the coup plotters last year, the jingle he heard introducing the news was "Lillibullero" the anti-Catholic marching song of William of Orange from the revolution of 1688. And the tune played by the World Service reflects the government which funds it. Several of the most senior offices of state, including that of the Lord Chancellor, are still barred to Catholics.
On a daily basis the same forces are at work in the newsrooms of Fleet Street. If there is an anti-Catholic angle to any current story, it will be well represented in the press.
The recent story of Bishop Casey and his mistress has been an intriguing case study. At first the tabloid interest was in the titillating details of the Bishop's sex life their traditional fare but the broadsheet newspapers and TV have joined in with weightier assaults on the Catholic Church for demanding celibacy of its priesthood in the first place. An allegation that all dioceses have funds to support the illegitimate offspring of the priesthood was widely reported. For Frances Gumley of the BBC, this was a healthy sign: "I would have been alarmed if there had been less of an outcry. If people had said: 'What do you expect?' It would have been more worrying. It showed that there is still a clear perception of the ideal of celibacy."
On June 7 a Channel 4 documentary, Daughters of Eve, dwelt at length on the relationships of several women with priests, and suggested that the Church had done all it could. to stop the fathers taking responsibility for their children, by moving the priests to far-off dioceses, or even sending them abroad. Piers Paul Read finds
these criticisms ironic: "Journalists are the least principled people in society. They would like to see the Catholic Church abandon its position in the same way as the Church of England has."
Christopher Monckton, a Catholic leader-writer for the Evening Standard, argues that conspiracy theories can be overdone. He sees a general return to Catholic positions on such issues as abortion, birth control, and divorce. He cites the recent survey showing that cohabiting couples who marry tend to divorce more readily, as proof that the standards to which the Church adhered during the lean years of the 1960s are
regaining currency. He argues that the"whey-faced, pompous and pharisaical" liberal consensus of the 1960s is dead, Anglicanism as the Tory party at prayer is dead, and that the values which have replaced them are more likely to be compatible with Catholicism than not. The Conservative Party, fulfilling Chris Patten's much derided prediction, have in the last month joined the Christian Democratic bloc in Strasbourg.
At the recent Earth Summit at Rio in Brazil the British line was set by Conservative overseas development minister Lynda Chalker when she queried the omission from the agenda of population control. The stories that followed on press and television implied clearly that there was a Popish conspiracy afoot not to refer to the subject, in line with the Church's teaching on contraception. The British government has repeatedly urged that the means to plan families should be available in the highpopulation growth countries of the world, many of which are in Latin America.
Frances Gumley comments that this kind of reporting is routine: "The Pope says 'I think there should be land distribution' and I can see it going through a media machine; at the other end it somehow emerges as 'I think there should be no birth control'." But Clifford Longley, Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times, thought it noteworthy that when Archbishop Carey used the occasion of a visit to Rome to raise the same issue, the press did not uniformly take his side.
For Piers Paul Read the media's treatment of Catholics and Catholicism is simply explained: "The world is
profoundly anti-Christian, anything which is unworldly is hound to infuriate it." But in Britain there may be something else at work, what Clifford Longley, in a recent article, described as "an insularity which has more than a hint of no Popery about it, even today", an hostility to the Vatican which long predates Marie Stopes or Germaine Greer, an hostility which is commemorated every year on that bonfire in Lewes.