Page 7, 6th December 2002

6th December 2002
Page 7
Page 7, 6th December 2002 — The Church and the media a continuing problem

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Organisations: Catholic Church
People: Daniel Johnson
Locations: Portsmouth


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The Church and the media a continuing problem

INTO THE MIDDLE of a widespread backlash in support of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor against what has seemed to most dispassionate observers to be a clear case of media distortion so clear and consistent, indeed, that the word "witchhunt" has been used by experienced print journalists not known for their uncritical attitude to the hierarchy — comes a dissentient voice. Two Sundays ago, having already complained to The Times about its distorted coverage and about the "apparently relentless attack by parts of the media on their faith and the Church in which they continue to believe", Cardinal Cormac issued a defiant letter to the people of his diocese, beginning with the words "As you know, not only I personally, but the whole Catholic Church in England and Wales have been under attack from some quarters"; this clearly referred principally to the Today programme and The Times, whose gutter coverage we criticised in these columns last week.

Most English and Welsh Catholics accepted this reading of recent events: but one, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, clearly did not. The issues he raises are important. "When the Church is under attack", he wrote, "it is instinctive and good to seek to defend the Church which we love, to which we belong and in which we minister.

"However, we must not forget that we are in that relentless media spotlight because children have been sexually abused and we have not always handled this matter in a proper way.

"It does not help to castigate the media for the bad coverage we have been given; they, by and large, are doing their Job and we are at fault for our mistakes.... The Church is not the victim in all this — the children are".

Indeed they are, and we must never forget it. But that does not remove the need for an honest press and for fair reporting. One problem is that mistrust of the media as a whole has in the past been such a Catholic habit that it has also affected the way in which we have dealt with perfectly honest journalists who want nothing better than to report with integrity.

IT HAS EVEN AFFECTED the way in which the authorities of the Church treat Catholic journalists. In the words of one of them, Daniel Johnson, "sometimes I and many other Catholic journalists feel that, in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy, we — the media — are the the Church's most dangerous adversary. As far as the Church is concerned, we can go to the Devil — if we have not already done so".

He was speaking to a gathering of fellow Catholic writers, shortly after it had been announced that there was to be a shake-up in the Church's arrangements for dealing with the media. It is worthwhile to revisit his analysis of the problem now: for it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have not yet gone far towards a solution of the underlying problem. "Now that the mass media are acknowledged to be an integral part of Catholic life", he said, "we must ask ourselves why in practice the Church so often regards the media with suspicion, or even outright hostility. One might even pose the question more provocatively: if the Church fails to exploit the opportunities offered by the media to evangelise, to defend the moral law and the dignity of life, is it not failing in its apostolic mission?"

All this still needs to be said. There is a difficulty, nevertheless. It is that the Church's paranoid attitude to the media is not wholly without foundation. This is still, at heart, an anti-Catholic culture. Things are better than they were; but as the old saying has it, "sometimes, even when you are being paranoid, they really are out to get you.'

This time, they — in the form, particularly, of the Today programme and The Times — really were out to get the Cardinal; and their onslaught on him was based on tittle-tattle, gross distortion, and actual lies. So, in the present context at least, Bishop Hollis was foolish to say (in an obvious reference to the Cardinal's attempt to defend himself) that "It does not help to castigate the media for the bad coverage we have been given; they, by and large, are doing their job".

For, this time the media —or at least, an identifiable part of them — were not "doing their job". What they were doing was conducting a disreputable smear campaign against the Cardinal and the Catholic Church. Cardinal Cormac was not only entitled to defend himself. He had a positive duty to do so.

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