The Voice of the Laity February 2001

A free press for a free people

Clifford Longley

How far can the Church best meet the 'democratic deficit' in its organisation? Veteran Catholic journalist Clifford Longley offers insights from the point of view of the laity, the media and the Church's authorities, bringing them together for the benefit of all.

Examination of our own conscience is not always enough. ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!’ prayed Burns, and we should never be too proud to join him. I was once accused, as a commentator on religious affairs over more than 30 years, of having just two basic messages. Half the time I urged Catholics to become more like Anglicans, my critic said, and the other half, Anglicans to become more like Catholics. Somewhat humbled, for I wished to be remembered for something a little more sophisticated, nevertheless on reflection I pleaded guilty. That is how others, or at least one other, saw me. Probably he was right.

Yet, as a useful approximation, is not this the overall message of three decades of work by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission? That each communion has something to offer that the other one needs. Anglicanism has its synodical, participatory, lay-involving decision-making. Catholicism has its hierarchical authority and single central voice. They are not, ARCIC believes, mutually contradictory, but complementary. Put these two ideas together, and you get a better church — perhaps also a united one. It is a vital part of the ARCIC process that each side should tell the other what it looks like from the outside. (Perhaps ARCIC should adopt Burns’s aphorism as its motto.)

I was greatly encouraged when it was announced that the Catholic co-chairman of ARCIC, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was to be the next Archbishop of Westminster. For in his role on ARCIC he had put his signature to agreed statements which recognised that there were weaknesses in the way both Churches organised themselves. In the 1998 statement The Gift of Authority for instance, he had signed up to the proposition that the convergence in understanding of authority achieved by previous ARCIC statements consisted in ‘(1) acknowledgement that the Spirit of the Risen Lord maintains the people of God in obedience to the Father’s will. By this action of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the Lord is active in the Church; and (2) a recognition that because of their baptism and their participation in the sensus fidelium the laity play an integral part in decision-making in the Church.’ Note that the last phrase is characteristic of ARCIC’s use of idealistic language in that it speaks of what ought to be the case as if it were already the case.

What strikes non-Catholic Christians most about the Catholic Church is the almost complete absence of formalised systems for consulting the laity. That is what they see from without, and it does not attract them one bit. The ecumenical bodies formed in the wake of the British Council of Churches at the start of the last decade, such as Churches Together in England, naturally reflected in their decision-making structures the Protestant and Anglican traditions of lay involvement. The United Reformed Church has its annual assembly, the Methodists their Methodist Conference, and the Church of England a rich and complex web of parish councils, deanery and diocesan synods and the national General Synod (with its own House of Laity).

No democratic legitimacy

Having no equivalent but with their share of lay places to fill on the various ecumenical committees and councils, the Catholic Church had to resort to a combination of volunteers and appointees. There was no democratic legitimacy to such appointments, and members of other Churches have at times felt that this has weakened the entire exercise. But though Protestant and Anglican Churches do operate in a less ad hoc way, it has also to be said that Protestant and Anglican democracy in Britain is often a bit of a sham. A lay Anglican on an ecumenical committee is not really that much more representative, in this sense, than his Catholic neighbour. He may have been voted on to the committee instead of just invited on, but he would almost certainly have been unopposed in such a vote, and nominated in the first place on the well-known English church principle of rounding up the usual suspects.

Nevertheless non-Catholics are right to reproach the Catholic Church for having a ‘democratic deficit’ in its internal processes. An unopposed but elected representative has a standing to raise questions and speak for his constituency that a merely appointed person does not have, for he is wholly the product of patronage.

But this is not quite the same as having a ‘laity deficit’. The last ten or fifteen years have seen the rise of a new class of lay Catholic bureaucrats, who run many of the Church’s most important agencies and other bodies. This means decision-making affecting the Church often happens at the interface between bishops serving on committees of the Bishops’ Conferences, and members of this new breed of lay administrator, usually competent and well qualified. This administrative class is usually drawn from within the Catholic intelligentsia, part of the university-educated and generally progressive Catholic lay elite in the Church in England and Wales. But they owe their position to a professional appointments system — advertisement, job interview, short-list, offer of position —that makes them essentially subservient to, because they are employees of, the hierarchy. Their relationship to the institutional Church is by way of a contract, and the rights and duties that go with it. In the extract from ARCIC’s The Gift of Authority quoted above, it was by baptism rather than by contract of employment that lay people were to be involved in the life of the Church. Baptism is a sacramental character, not a contract.

Middle-class Catholicism

The class to which this new Catholic administrative class belongs represents a new kind of indigenous Catholicism from the working-class Irish immigrants, landed aristocrats of recusant stock and upper-class Anglican converts, which previously gave the Catholic community its characteristic shape. This same educated middle-class Catholicism is becoming dominant in Catholic parishes all over Britain, as the postwar decline in church membership (or at least in Mass attendance) has bitten more deeply into the Church’s working-class, as distinct from middle-class, popular base.

This situation has two features which ought to give the bishops serious concern. The first is that the Catholic middle class is educated to be critical and involved, yet feels marginalised and ignored. I do not need to labour the point: it is universally familiar.

As I said in a lecture at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, last year: ‘The management of a business which treated its workforce that way, which neglected to inform or consult them on important matters affecting them, which failed to pay attention to their morale or to take steps to bolster it when necessary, would soon find itself in trouble. Yet as citizens of the state we are rightly urged by our Church to play a full and active part in the affairs of our society, which necessarily involves access to information and to means whereby we can influence those political outcomes which affect us. As citizens we are required to be critical of authority where necessary, to have regard to our rights and to stand up for them. A healthy scepticism is required of us. How come in our lives as Catholics — surely the most important part of what we are — we somehow have to contrive to become completely different people: docile, passive, uncritical, with no power or influence, no right to information, no right to be consulted? Is it even possible to switch over like that, from active citizen to passive church-goer; or do we just pretend we have done so, hiding what we really feel? Does this not lead to a kind of Catholic infantilism, where we have to cease to be adults because the only room for us in the Church is as children?’

Citizens’ rights

Such people regularly participate in the life of the wider community through their exposure to the mass media. They may vote, join political parties, write letters to newspapers. If they do not like the way the police do their work, or dustmen or teachers, family doctors or bus drivers, they have channels by which they can complain. A massive network of citizens’ advice bureaux, residents’ associations, local government bodies, political parties and special interest groups exists by means of which their opinions can be heard and their needs taken into consideration. If they feel their rights have been violated, they can sue.

As citizens of the nation, they can be as active as they want to be. As citizens of the Church, however, they have no rights, no standing. This is bound to cause resentment — even more so when the policy-forming and decision-making discourse from which they are excluded is increasingly in the hands of paid officials, people like themselves who happen to work for the Church.

Using the media

The one right they have, and it is all the more important because it is the exception to the general rule, is to vent their opinions and seek a hearing through the media. The Catholic media are vitally important to Catholic life in Great Britain because they provide an independent space where comment is free. Or at least that is the ideal. I was a little uneasy when a right-wing newspaper proprietor in Britain, Conrad Black, took a controlling interest in The Catholic Herald a few years ago; but I am even more uneasy at the fact that two important Catholic journals, The Catholic Times and The Universe, are owned by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Acquiring them was an expensive mistake — though disposing of them without harming them would not now be easy. In principle, owning important sections of the Catholic press is not something bishops should ever do. It does not help to counter the democratic deficit in the Catholic Church: if anything, and no matter how benign the dictatorship, it makes it worse.

Cynical press

What characterises the secular mass media in Britain at the moment is a strong streak of irreverence and scepticism, if not downright cynicism. Journalists are not, on the whole, deferential to authority. Their habitual stance faced with an official pronouncement, especially a denial, is to ask, ‘What are they trying to hide?’ They bring that scepticism to bear when they deal with religious matters — long gone are the days when reporters interviewed bishops on their knees — and do so because they believe it is what their readers expect of them. It is not long ago that the BBC journalist Anna Ford looked Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster straight in the eye on live television and asked him why he was not going to resign, having admitted his mistakes in the handling of a priest who was later convicted of child abuse. Nor did anyone seem to think the question was impertinent — though I guess the Archbishop was taken by surprise by it.

It was a fair question, but apart from the press, there was no other forum in which it was going to be asked. It is hard to imagine the Archbishop of Westminster or Cardiff being summoned to explain himself at a meeting of the Catholic Union. Answerability of bishops, in the Catholic Church, is strictly upwards. The only person entitled to demand an explanation from a bishop, and if dissatisfied with the response to apply a sanction, is the Holy Father. But the papal office is not designed for listening to lay opinion, however valid. The only circumstance in which a level of concern is likely to register in Rome is when the sound of dissatisfaction reaches a tumult — as appears to have happened recently in the case of the Archbishop of Cardiff over his mishandling of another paedophilia case.

In his favour, as in the case of the Archbishop of Westminster, he was willing to submit himself to some tough questioning on television. Not in his favour, however, was the acute embarrassment he inflicted on his flock by his apparent inability to see where he had gone wrong. He had gone perhaps unwittingly into the television lion’s den, and come out again somewhat mauled. Rarely has ‘seeing oursels as others see us’ been so painful.

Occasional bouts of hostile cross-examination by television journalists does seem a somewhat extreme solution to this democratic deficit in the Church. Is there not a better way, some alternative mechanism by which bishops can give explanations and answers to anxious members of their flock, when occasion arises? The need for some intermediate institutions in the Church, places where the laity and ordinary clergy can engage in the question-asking, decision-making dialogue with their bishops, is becoming an issue of self-defence. If bishops are going to be responsible —and they would hardly wish to be seen otherwise — the question has to be faced: responsible to whom, and how? If they are able to respond to the TV interviewer, then why not to their own people?

Counter-productive non-co-operation

It is not healthy to construct a public relations policy on the hoof, so to speak, when a crisis is already in full swing. I know of one occasion — and there may well have been others — when an implacable decision not to co-operate with the press had to be reversed completely two hours later, by which time a lot of damage had already been done. The Royal Family, the British army and the police are three institutions which have learnt the hard way that a policy of non-co-operation with the press can easily become dangerously counter-productive. All three have revolutionised their approach to the mass media, no doubt against the warnings of those who could only see the risks, not the opportunities.

All three have benefited from the change — not least in their self-understanding. They now see the community at large as something with which they ought to have a relatively open relationship. Before, their instinctive attitude was like the crusty old admiral who was asked, before the start of a big naval operation, what the policy was going to be towards reporters and their newspapers. ‘Tell them nothing,’ he replied. Then, after further thought: ‘When it’s over, you can tell them who won.’

It is of course necessary to recognise that the interests of the press are not the same as the interests of the institution with a reputation to maintain, and there is a sense therefore in which the press is always the enemy. But Machiavelli, as ever, had words of comfort in this situation. ‘Keep your friend close’, he advised the prince, ‘but your enemies closer!’ That does not necessarily mean employing the black arts of the spin doctor —though I would not want to rule them out altogether — but it certainly means attending to the white arts of hospitality, courtesy, approachability, and the cultivation of relationships of trust and friendship. It is usually invidious to mention names, but at a time when he is giving up his post it is not inappropriate to state that as head of the Catholic Media Office of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Monsignor Kieran Conry acquired a reputation second to none for his tact and helpfulness in handling the press. The Catholic Church has been very fortunate in having had a succession of men with an instinctive skill in this difficult area of ministry.

Any institution which has to deal with the press on a regular basis will eventually discover that the only policy that works in the long run is one of constructive engagement. That means being media-friendly. Journalists seeking information or comment should be assumed to have a right to what they want, unless good reasons exist (and a general policy of ‘not liking journalists’ is not a good reason). If they cannot be given it attributively, they should be given it ‘without attribution’. If even that is not possible, they should be given such guidance and advice, by way of background, as is possible. Requests for a press interview should always be granted, as soon as may be. If more than one request is received, a press conference is indicated.

Telling the whole truth

Requirements like submitting questions in advance, or demanding the right to vet the journalist’s copy afterwards, should be avoided. ‘No comment’ should always be the answer of last resort, and regarded as an admission of failure if not of guilt. Tell the whole truth, or as near as possible. Never, never lie, not even for ‘the good of the Church’. It is useless to try to control the press’s agenda: it knows what it wants. It is worse to turn a critic into a foe by recrimination or revenge. Don’t conduct vendettas. Keep your sense of humour. Understand the lubricating power of alcohol. Don’t appoint press officers who do not like journalists. But use press officers as facilitators, not as barriers. Wherever possible, put the reporter through to the bishop, direct. It will certainly be good for both of them. Both of them can handle it, or they wouldn’t be who they are.

These are the rules of the game if it is to be played successfully. The besetting sin of press officers, in the Church as well as out of it, is paranoia — the feeling of being persecuted and that certain parts of the press are ‘out to get us’. They rarely are. It is as well to know that journalists can be creatures of fashion, however. Fleet Street and television news desks can be incestuous in the lines they follow and the way they read events. Working assumptions — police are racists, ministers are on the make, priests are child abusers, Prince Charles is an ass, dogs are dangerous — blow up and blow over again. One week’s tabloid obsession disappears into a paragraph on page 20 a week later.

Occasionally, nevertheless, some of these working assumptions harden into what one might call a template, an inflexible press prejudice that ignores all evidence to the contrary and exaggerates everything that fits the theory. These require skilful remedial image-changing work by press and public relations officers and others, over a period. Not work for amateurs, and sometimes the behaviour that has to change is not just the press’s. Consider, for instance, the on-going public rehabilitation of the Prince of Wales (though not yet his unofficial consort). It has required not just good press relations, but a willingness on his part to modify both the style and substance of the way he operates.

More by Clifford Longley
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet