“I read it in the papers – so it must be true!”

The retirement of our much beloved Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has provided the media (with notable generous and sympathetic exceptions) with much opportunity for displays of misunderstanding and trivializing. The situation prompts me to the recycling of a piece I wrote for our Parish newsletter Salve! almost nine years ago.

“I read it in the papers – so it must be true!”

So sang Mr Politic, father of the glamorous Hilaret, and his friend Mr Dabble, in Lock Up Your Daughters, the musical by Laurie Johnson and Lionel Bart (based on Henry Fielding’s comedy Rape Upon Rape) which opened the Mermaid Theatre at Puddle Dock in London in 1959. As a commentator of the period wrote: “At last, after nearly 300 years, there was a playhouse in the great commercial heart of London known as ‘The City’. At last, the play­ers — banished as rogues, vagabonds and coney-catching rascals by the Lord Mayors of past centu­ries — had returned to their early Shakespearean stamping ground.”

Probably we should not read too much into this: but it is a fact that, not all that many years after the opening of the Mermaid Theatre, the denizens of Fleet Street — which, since the coming of the printing press, had been the home of London’s newspapers — were moved out of the City to the docklands of Wapping.

Not that I have any­thing against journalists: some of my best friends have been scribblers – and, indeed, your scribe himself first earned what then seemed like a princely sum for an article published almost exactly sixty years ago. (Well, OK, that arti­cle was published in the Railway Magazine. But the principle holds: it was a piece of paid, professional journalism — the first in an abbreviated career as a stringer and lineage reporter.)

From such a professional perspective, then, I have to admit that I detect some naivete in Mr Politic’s optimism about the exactitude of the press. As the poet Humbert Wolfe put it, in 1930, in The Uncelestial City:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God!,
the British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.
 

Of course this is hyperbole, and I could mention several journalists whom it would be unjust to char­acterize in this way. Two names come to mind im­mediately, both of whom (as it happens) combined music criticism with other journalism.

The first is Neville Cardus (1889-1975),who wrote for the Manchester Guardian (or the Grauniad, as it is affectionately known to its readers because of its propen­sity for typographical calami­ties). He is generally acknowl­edged by connoisseurs of the game of cricket as the best cricket writer ever. In fact his writing style has become a yardstick for judging the com­petency of cricket writers the world over. Cardus, someone has written, “was a meticulous writer and very particular about what appeared in print in all the newspapers or maga­zines for which he wrote. When on tours, he used to cable words like ‘comma’ and ‘semi-colon’ to punctuate his brilliant articles and reports from countries as far as Australia and South Africa. E-mail and other electronic media have facilitated news coverage these days, but, in the mid-1900s, re­porters had to send dispatches by cable. Telegraph companies charged for every word and punctuation in the cabled message, and thus Cardus’ reports would cost a lot of money to the newspapers for which he wrote. Worried at the expense, his editor once sent him a return cable saying: ‘Please send story. We’ll fix punctuation’. To this Cardus promptly replied: ‘ I’ll send punctuation. You fill in words’.” I did not know Neville Cardus personally, though my parents were acquainted with him. His talents were multifaceted; and he was also the mu­sic critic for the Manchester Guardian. My parents would often see him at concerts given by the fabled Halle Orchestra in the 1930s in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, and they noted that he would often leave concerts at the interval in order to get back to his desk so as not to miss the deadline for the first edition — which circumstance did not, in and of it­self, seem to prevent him from rendering an ac­count of both halves of the concert.

The second is Horace Atkin, may God rest his soul. You will not have heard of him, for some fifty years ago he wrote for a very local weekly pa­per, the Stevenage Gazette. But he was the arche­typal newspaper man with printing ink in his veins and a gentle and non-judgmental curiosity as to the human condition in his heart. As it happens, he had at least as much technical knowledge of music, and musical discrimination and taste, as the most fabled of national music critics such as Neville Cardus; and I know personally that he attended both halves of the or­chestral concerts that he covered.

Horace Atkin would never have been so un­professional or uncouth as to say (as one journalist did to me recently) that “if the reporter has made a good-faith effort to reach you and get your side of the story, and you refuse to talk to her, you there­fore forfeit the right to complain about unfair press coverage ….. Or do you have reason to fear a re­porter’s inquiries? One wonders.”

What one actually wonders is where the press finds this supposed and illusory power to sub­poena. In fact, there is indeed every reason to “fear a reporter’s inquiries”, as bitter experience over very many years attests. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things refers (August/September 2004 issue) to an article in the New York Times: “I’m not going to complain that I was quoted out of context, although of course I was.” Note the phrase “of course”!

Dr Geoffrey Fisher was Archbishop of Can­terbury from 1945 to 1961. It was he who crowned Queen Elizabeth II hi Westminster Abbey in 1953 — and sometime during the “fifteen minutes of fame” which that event bestowed upon him he visited New York. In those days, trans-Atlantic flying was even more wearisome than it is today. Thus on his arrival at Idlewild (as JFK Airport was then called) the elderly Archbishop faced a large group of re­porters. In the course of questions about the Coro­nation and other weighty matters a reporter called out frivolously: “Are you planning to visit any night clubs while you are in New York?” Attempting to match the levity with appropriate irony, the jet lagged Dr Fisher responded: “Are there any night clubs in New York?” Next day the headline blazed: “Archbishop arrives and asks if there are any night clubs in New York.”

When, on leaving the Episcopal Church in 1991, we had our own quarter-hour hour in the limelight, we attracted a certain amount of press attention. Mike Capps, then of WFAA-TV, interviewed me — and did so, I thought at the time, very fairly. He al­lowed me to say what I wanted to say about it; and, unlike some others, he did not attempt to put words into my mouth. Channel 8 aired the interview that night, uncut. But it was followed immediately by an interview with a well-known Catholic priest whose views can hardly be considered as coinciding with those of the Magisterium and who expressed queru­lous opinions about our desire to enter the Roman Catholic Church. So our case was mocked by the last word on the matter — and that purely by edito­rial flat.

On one occasion, after a fairly full interview with a parishioners about a certain priest, the reporter distilled out of her answers just one soli­tary observation to print: “He is excellent with young people. They feel like they can talk with him.” Do you remember that character in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the impresario of innu­endo, played by Eric Idle? “Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Know what I mean? Know what I mean?” Yes, we know exactly what the reporter means; and as Bill Moyers, no less, once said of the media: “They come out with the cheap shot. The press should be ashamed of itself.”

Someone commented on what she perceived as the “hubris” with which certain matters have re­cently been treated among us. As one with wide ex­perience of work in the media she could no doubt claim to recognize hubris when she sees it. You have only to observe the journalist’s self-bestowed charism of omniscience at work — as, for instance (but such instances are numberless), in Diane Saw­yer’s television interview of Mel Gibson at the time when his movie The Passion of the Christ was very much in the news. Of course one cannot entirely blame Diane Sawyer for not be­ing a New Testament expert. But the fact is that no journalist can, simultaneously, be qualified to cover stories about economics, space travel, politics, in­ternational affairs, recent advances in neurosurgery, show business, the crime rate, illiteracy in Outer Mongolia, the plight of the Œcumenical Patriar­chate in Istanbul, in anything but a superficial way — and maybe some slight acknowledgment of that fact might be reassuring. Alexander Solzhenitsyn hit the nail on the head when he wrote that: “Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic dis­eases of the twentieth century, and more than any­where else this disease is reflected in the press.”

No doubt it was an awareness of this reality that led H. L. Mencken to comment: “All success­ful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and belli­cose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced upon them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else.”

And, indeed, the press has a propensity — although it is surely not always intentional — to cre­ate news as much as to report it. It appears that some 15,OOO media representatives were accredited to the recent Democratic National Convention, vastly outnumbering the actual delegates. Can one possibly doubt that that fact, in itself, had an effect on the very texture of the event? Frances Steven­son, who was later to become the wife of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was present in 1919 in the great Hall of Mirrors for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which brought World War One to its formal end. In her diary entry for the day she complained about the noisy, offensive and intrusive nature of the press coverage of the event:

“The Press is reducing everything that is noblest and impressive in modern life … The Press is de­stroying all romance, all solemnity, all majesty. They are as unscrupulous as they are vulgar.”

Let’s leave the penultimate word – a word which the press itself hates, because it came from one of their own — to Janet Malcolm who, in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) wrote this: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of con­fidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Needless to say, these words triggered outrage from her peers. As someone has said, they line up to flog her for her statement; for it has the unmistakable ring of truth to it

Yes, of course we must uphold the freedom of the press — although, as A. J. Liebling observed with all the precision of a laser-guided bomb, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”.

Or perhaps he meant: the Times is out of joint.

Anyway, as Politic and Dabble sang, “… this new supposition, ’til the next edition, must be true.”

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