Friday, 22 October 2010

Beelzebub's Kazoo and other Catholic newspapers

Fr Ray's excellent blog, St Mary Magdalen, has been dealing quite a lot recently with the matter of Fr Clifton's little run-in with Mgr Loftus. He and others have dealt with the matter and, as is my custom, I don't want to rehash what you can read much more profitably elsewhere.

The particular thing that I would like to pick up on is his comment regarding the Catholic newspapers. In the Adur Valley, we don't take the Catholic Times at all. Personally, I have never liked it: when it was re-started, it seems to me that it was intended as a bit of a Trojan Horse. The Universe had, I suspect, been losing readers to the Catholic Herald at the time, and so the publishers decided to revive the Catholic Times as a challenge, to regain the more conservative readers. However, some of the articles I found decidedly fishy, and this was no surprise, given the then editorial board (it's a long time ago now, and I can't remember who they were). It seemed to me that if one were to put 'Follow Peter' on the masthead, one could, and did, put almost anything inside the paper. And of course there were some good names inside, too. But I feared that it would be an exercise in boiling fish; they tell me that (being cold-blooded) fish will not notice if you gently increase the temperature in their aquarium until they are boiled to death. I feared that the conservative readership of the Catholic Times were gently being boiled into Liberalism by means of this particular paper.

The Catholic Herald had a bit of a career, too. I remember Fr James Kenny, my parish priest when I was a boy, banning it from the church newspaper table on account of its left-wing views 'I don't know why I give it house-room', he fulminated one Sunday in a homily. This tendency had begun under the editorship of Michael de la Bédoyère (1934-62), an enthusiast for the Council, for ecumenism and the vernacular liturgy. The liberal progression found its final expression in the time of the enfant-terrible editor Peter Stanford (1986-92). For a while it was christened 'The Lapsed-Catholic Herald'. Peter Stanford resigned after his book Catholics and Sex went too far even for the Bishops' Conference.
But then the paper was taken over by Cristina Odone, who turned it right round. She astutely saw that the main problem of the Universe and its satellites was that the company was owned by the Bishops' Conference (Odone was known by Cardinal Hume as 'The Odd One') and therefore peddled the official liberal line on everything; this, however, was not where people really were. So, lightly dismissing the Universe in my hearing as 'the Catholic News of the World' (or something of the sort), and seeing the independence of the Herald as its principal strength, she aimed her paper at a very different market. And she succeeded very well, because there was nothing else for that constituency just then, except the slightly nutty Christian Order.
But, my goodness, she really got up the noses of the Bishops' Conference! One columnist she had introduced was the inimitable Alice Thomas Ellis whose column was egregiously anti-Newchurch. In 1996 Alice Thomas Ellis penned a piece on the recently-deceased Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock which caused the bishops finally to revolt. They could do nothing directly, as the Herald was independent, so they threatened that it would be forbidden to sell copies in churches unless Alice were sacked. Poor Alice went, and was soon followed by Cristina, who went to write a book, and then went to the New Statesman. I wish I knew when it was that the Catholic Times restarted, but it must have been during this period, I think; perhaps the Bishops' attempt to capture the conservative end of the market.

 Cristina Odone was succeeded briefly by Debbie Jones (who then went to work for the Bishops' Conference, and now writes letters on animal rights to the papers) and then by the splendid William Oddie, the convert Anglican cleric, who really put a rocket under the paper and sent it into the stratosphere. The Universe still claimed to be the number one read, but it never looked that way to me. If anyone took a paper, they took the Herald. Wiliam Oddie left the paper in 2004 during a strange manoeuvre shrouded in mystery which coincided with Peter Shepherd's purchase of the paper. Luke Coppen has done very well since, steering the paper to its present assured place in the Catholic porch. And since he reads this blog from time to time, perhaps he can correct me if I have gone wrong anywhere.

Where the Herald has recently been particularly acute is the move onto the Web, which Luke Coppen wisely pioneered, seeing that the internet has changed everything. The Universe has its site now, too, labelled TotalCatholic.Com (and that very title tells its own story, doesn't it?). This reflects what Fr Ray has been writing about; the decreasing use of traditional-type newspapers. Like St Mary Magdalen's, the Adur Valley has to dump piles of unsold newspapers every week (though fewer Heralds than the others, since people like it; they found they liked the paper when their parish priest was asked to write an article or two at the time of the Papal elections).

These days, more and more people are reading websites, and the websites are reaching far more people than traditional papers ever could do. This is what has done more to reassert the traditional forms of Catholicism than anything else. While the media were in the hands of the few, the media had to reflect their owners' views. Now anyone can publish anything and have it read, and real opinions of real people can make themselves known. Now, people do not have to physically walk into a Catholic Church to find out about Catholicism; they can do it from their own desk, and this is having its impact.

With its journalistic experience, the Catholic Herald should be able to keep ahead of the competition; but, let's face it, the competition these days is not from The Universe: it is from the Hermenutic of Continuity, or Fr Ray's blog or others.

The media that matter are now in dialogue in a way that they never were in the past, and in this way a consensus is being reached about the future of our faith. And it would seem to be right where Pope Benedict is pushing it.


Inspired by the same article on Fr Ray's blog, Ttony in The Muniment Room has a hilarious list of hate-words; go along and play.


Ttony said...

Thanks for the plug!

One thing about is that its forum was where some of us first encountered an on-line opportunity to learn to be "Benedictine before Benedict" and in a Catholic atmosphere, and in spite of what our PPs or Bishops might be like.

Moretben's being barred from the forum by the editor of the Universe (and this quite a while before he swam the Bosphorous) was the point that quite a few of us moved to Blogger. I popped in to totalcatholicn earlier for old time's sake but it's not the same any more.

It is an amusing irony that it was the Universe that provided a space for a bunch of people to begin to articulate what they felt, and the Tablet that gave them a focus at which to aim.

Damian's role is key in all of this, as well.

What we need is a Rolling Stone-style profile of the Frs Fin(n)(e)(i)g(a)(e)n, Blake and one or two others, and a reflection on how social media are changing the Catholic Church in E&W faster than the Bishops' Conference can keep up.

jangojingo said...

A clear analysis of what is really happening in the "Catholic" media. I have not read a Catholic newspaper for many years and I cannot think of a reason why I would.