The media and a cheeky little grumble

Who wanted to be in rainy Rome anyway?
Who wanted to be in rainy Rome anyway?

Regular readers will have noticed that I haven’t been posting over the past few weeks, even though there has been no shortage of material. The main reason for this has been the time that I spend writing (usually evenings) has been taken up with vast amounts of reading around the conclave process, its history and the background of the various papabili in preparation for any media appearances which may crop up. Catholic Voices has really come into its own during these momentous weeks, many of the speakers have done a tremendous job in terms of informing the media and general public and one thing that I have noticed from my contributions, is that the attitude of the media certainly seems to have softened and become a lot less hostile and more open to a reasoned Catholic viewpoint, although there are occasions when one finds oneself addressing the same old canards again and again.

Whilst there will always be the same detractors, the one thing that should be borne in mind, is that despite the excellent and rigorous training and preparation for what it is like to be in the hot seat, there is no substitute for experience. The more media appearances you do, the more confident, relaxed and skilled you become at the whole process, so those who vociferously complain in the various coms boxes really need to bear this in mind before they let rip. I can certainly see an improvement and marked contrasts between my recent interviews and those of a year ago. It isn’t always easy being subject to scrupulous, superficial and often ignorant scrutiny when one has a microphone or camera trained on you. In most of these situations, nuance or an in-depth detailed theological discussion is impossible. Very often, such recently on the Big Questions, it’s superficial scattergun apologetics, bouncing from one neuralgic issue to the next, to the next, with no time for considered thoughtful answers. The opening shot of an interview I did yesterday was “well you obviously follow Catholic teaching on contraception then, you’ve got 4 children”. It then went down the usual rabbit holes and on reflection, I can see how at times I missed my chance to refocus the interview on the Pope, but it’s pretty difficult to concentrate when one is being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. But on another occasion, God Willing, I’ll be able to handle that better, having learnt.

I did an interview the other morning for Radio Merseyside, having woken up for the early morning interview chock full of cold and lurgy. It proved our saying, you are never as good or as bad as you think you are (I thought it was absolutely terrible), but judging by the stat counter on my blog, I’d obviously confused the listener by using the word pallium, without explaining what this was. Several people arrived here having asked google about “Caroline Farrow’s pallium”. I then received some friendly advice about not using specific liturgical terminology. ‘The problem is’, they explained, ‘that nobody knows what a pallium is. They probably spent the rest of the interview highly distracted wondering what a pallium was, how big is it, did he mean to leave it there and did he ever get it back. What happened to it? Is it like something out of Dr Who’. Which is fair comment and goes to show that for certain audiences, detailed complex theological or philosophical concepts are going to go way over people’s heads and prove counterproductive. But by the time I’d done 11 back-to-back interviews for local radio the other Sunday, I think I’d pretty much got the issues down pat and nailed, the only difficulty being attempting to make the same sentiments sound fresh after 2 and a half hours of non stop opining. As long as one can relax and enjoy the interview and realise that the presenter actually wants to find you winsome, a bit of jocularity goes down a lot better than jargon-heavy hectoring and might actually motivate people to find out more.

We’re in the realms of cloud cluckoo land if we think a short slot on local radio should aim to deliver the thunderbolt that sends the listeners rushing to their nearest confessional, certainly the common theme in both my journey of faith and those that Catholic converts have shared with me is not necessarily one incident but whole series of interlocking events that looked at as a whole, formed a path leading to the truth. A compelling media appearance can certainly play a part in that, but a 3 minute slot is not going to have the same effect as an hour’s talk or presentation by a great Christian or Catholic apologist.

The last few weeks have been something of a roller-coaster for us all. We’ve barely had time to come to terms with the resignation surrounding our beloved Pope Benedict, before getting into the swing of the conclave and the speculation surrounding his successor. On a personal note, like many of my colleagues, I’ve been rushed off my feet preparing for interviews, which not only takes it toll in terms of time but also emotional energy as well as, for someone like me, logistics. It’s not especially easy to arrange childcare at short notice when one’s husband is miles away at seminary and family needs to come first. I was really disappointed to have to turn down Sky News on the day of Benedict’s final general audience, but Robin had his official formal interview and feedback for the diaconate, which was infinitely more important. And let’s face it, doing the big media stuff is always fun and challenging, even if nerve-wracking, although one really needs to be on guard for spiritual vanity, which is one of the consequences of this kind of work and a trap which I really do have to work very hard not to fall into. If readers could continue to pray not only for me, but for all of us who try to speak for our faith in whatever medium, it would be hugely appreciated. We always make sure that we have a prayer chain of folk praying for us before we go on air and in the final moments before the camera switches on, I always clear my mind and pray.

But now onto the grumble and observation. Last week, I had word that the BBC were looking to fly me out to Rome to be a part of their coverage for the conclave. To say that I was beyond excited is something of an understatement. Robin and I agreed that if it were possible, given that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, that we should do whatever we could to make it happen, hence I had a week of rushing about like a headless chicken, and a precise timetable of chores, involving making sure that two of the children could stay with their grandparents, clothes were meticulously laundered into handy piles, favourite cuddlies and books stockpiled and packed, along with bibs, beakers and all the various paraphanalia to ensure that life was as easy as possible both for them and my parents at the other end. A rota of other parents were enlisted to pick up the eldest from school and various favours called in, whilst in the middle of the week I made an eight hour journey to Peterborough and back to procure a passport to enable me to take the baby, as well as beginning to acclimatise her to taking a bottle of formula milk, in case the passport did not arrive in time and/or to make life easier whilst out there.

In between all the dashing about, I waited and there was nothing. No confirmation of what was happening or response to an email asking whether the trip was still on. As is their prerogative and their right, the BBC decided to change their line-up and were too preoccupied to respond. That’s fair enough really, it’s entirely up to them who they wished to cover the event and my childcare and personal arrangements are irrelevant and none of their concern. This kind of thing happens all the time – we need to be ego free, prepared to be dropped at a moment’s notice, but it was more than a little frustrating having to put in place a complicated contingency plan should I suddenly be asked to get on a flight at moment’s notice. Of course I could always have said no from the outset, but the BBC had asked specifically for a woman and the other candidates were already indisposed. Naturally I wanted to go, if at all possible. But it wasn’t to be.

Then to add salt into my wounds, the phone rang on Wednesday night, between the appearance of the white smoke and Pope Francis on the balcony, asking whether or not I would be able to appear on Newsnight. Robin said fine, he’d put the kids to bed and I ran to jump in the shower, with BBC News playing on full volume on the radio. Having made myself look vaguely presentable, I then sat there for a few hours, having spoken to the producer of the show, trying to stop the children from smearing sticky fingers and spilling milk all over my only clean suit, waiting for him to phone back and confirm that a car was on its way, having pressed on him that one needed to come quickly if it was going to get me from Brighton to London in time. All the while trying to compose myself as well as some cogent thoughts about our new pontiff. At 9pm, an hour before I was supposed to be at the studio, no car had come, so I rang the show, only to discover that they had decided to drop me in favour of two priests and had forgotten to ring me back and tell me.

So all dressed up, tons of adrenlin and nowhere to go. Which happens, it’s incredibly frustrating, part and parcel of life and every single Catholic Voice will have a similar story about being dropped at the last minute, it’s not the first time it has happened, it won’t be the last and is all part of being ego free, but nonetheless I was feeling a little antsy and fed up yesterday, having invested a great deal of time and emotional energy. It is disappointing when that happens, especially when one has built oneself up. So another thing to remember next time one sees anyone on television or on radio. We’re all members of the laity, we’re not full-time professional media commentators, we’ve all got lives and families of our own and we do this work gladly out of love for the church and though we undoubtedly enjoy what we do and strive to do well, it does entail sacrifice, and this week was something of a double-whammy in terms of building up expectation and adrenalin, only to come crashing back down again. I obviously need to take a leaf out of our new pontiff’s book in terms of humility.

So moaning aside, and yes this is admittedly a minor personal grumble although I am sufficiently recovered and able to take disappointment in my stride, what I find most interesting about this, is that the BBC, who are usually preoccupied with diversity and representation and who repeatedly question the Catholic Church in terms of whether or not it represents women, have on two occasions in its recent coverage, ignored the opportunity to represent the viewpoint of an ordinary faithful Catholic woman in the church, in favour of men. I’m loath to draw any conclusions about political agendas, sometimes these things just happen without reason, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not a dissenting or ‘liberal’ Catholic woman would have made a more compelling narrative? I think it’s why they were keen to interview me over the celibacy controversy and found that they didn’t quite get what they were bargaining for.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Catholic TV station EWTN had Colleen Campbell doing an excellent job covering events. Whereas the UK media’s coverage was predominantly male-dominated. In some ways that doesn’t bother me, I’m not one for shortlists, it should be whoever is best able to do the job, regardless of gender and certainly in the case of Newsnight, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith was his usual erudite and charming self. But next time the BBC wishes to berate the Catholic Church over its representation and treatment of women, it perhaps ought to look at the predominant gender of who it chose to represent the faithful in their coverage of the past few weeks.

Still it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry and an additional Lenten penance. I’m now due for a bit of a rest, unless anyone fancies subbing me a quick flight out in time for the inaugural Mass…

Now then…

The torrent of indignation flying from high profile Catholics at the Telegraph,in the direction of the BBC following the revelations about Sir Jimmy Savile is unfortunate and insensitive. Motes and beams comes to mind. We are still trying to heal and come to terms with what went on in our own beloved Church, accusing other organisations so pointedly, may not be the most prudent of moves.

The BBC undoubtedly does have a case to answer, in terms of whether it did cover up or ignore any allegations regarding the former star and it also needs to make public the relevant documentation and emails surrounding the suppression of the Newsnight report, which would have brought the allegations to light.

The inevitable parallels have been drawn with the abuse scandal that the Catholic Church has had to deal with, but there are some differences, such as the Catholic Church does not rely on a compulsory tax levied by the government for its existence and we are only dealing with the alleged abuse surrounding one particular star.

Of more interest is the similarities between the two organisations. Everyone likes to think of the Catholic Church in terms of “The Vatican”, believing it to operate in a similar fashion to the Labour Party under the expert hands of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, but the reality could not be more different. The Vatican consists of a myriad of different departments, consisting of hundreds of staff, both lay and clerical. Anyone who has had any dealings with the Curia will know that administration tends to be interminably slow, simply due to the complex number of channels various documents and procedures have to go through, although they are thankfully in the process of modernisation. Only yesterday Fr Alexander Lucie Smith complained how the Vatican museums need to catch up with the rest of the world. It took the Catholic Church far too long to get to grips with the abuse scandal that shamed us all.

Whilst the same claims could not be made of the BBC in terms of technological advancement or ease of communications, in fact one could argue that its much easier for the BBC to keep tabs of its employees, especially when one compares the size of the corporation to the sheer numbers of members of the Catholic Church spread throughout the globe; they are both similar in terms of trying to keep track of each individual diverse employee or associate. So for example, allegations have spread that Saville’s abuse was an “open secret”, i.e. various chauffeurs, make-up artists and production assistants knew of his propensity for wandering hands and his eye for the young girls, in the same way that perhaps members of the congregation may well have had suspicions about members of the clergy.

But that is not the same as the BBC having definite evidence of Savile’s crimes. Now the allegations have surfaced, various other pieces of the jigsaw are coming to light, such as his involvement with the Jersey children’s home which was investigated for abuse or his associate with Duncroft Approed School in Surrey, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Various employees having their suspicions about Savile’s proclivities does not equate to an enormous conspiracy at the BBC. A chauffeur or production assistant may well have noticed something untoward, a surreptitious fumble or grope, but that does not mean that they would have reported it either to their superiors or more importantly the police, especially if the subject of his attention did not seem to be uncomfortable.

By Savile’s activities being an open secret, I suspect what is meant is that he had a reputation. Which is why the BBC never held any investigation or enquiry into his actions, simply because without any formal or even informal complaint or specific allegations it is very difficult to take action. It is probably quite likely that this did go to the top, in as much as producers and directors would have been aware of his reputation, but if one remembers the era and social climate surrounding Savile’s rise to fame in the sixties, then it is hardly surprising that a blind eye was turned to any underage philandering in a time that was all about the breaking down of sexual taboos. So long as the jangling jewellery pulled in the millions of viewers and listeners, then who really cared?

As we now know, sexual abuse was allowed to run unchecked in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s in a number of institutions, schools, children’s homes, Scouts, the Church of England, the Catholic Church and now, we learn, the BBC. That does not make the abuse acceptable nor should it colour our response to it, but historical context is important. Even as the recent report on the child abuse that occurred in the Anglican diocese of Chichester makes clear, organisations are still struggling to ensure that appropriate child protection measures are in place, something that the Catholic Church in the UK pioneered, following the publication of the Nolan Report, which is now widely accepted as the gold standard.

The BBC, like the Catholic Church did not deliberately oversee or enable deliberate and systematic child abuse. The truth of what went on will be more nuanced, involving failures of reporting and communication, alongside the wilful misbehaviour of any individuals. What investigation into the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has demonstrated is that incidents of abuse steadily increased throughout the sixties and seventies, and declining rapidly by the noughties. In common with what seems to have happened at the BBC, there was a substantial delay of the reporting of the sexual abuse, with many incidents still being reported as of today, but they continue to fit into the distribution of abuse incidents concentrated in the mid 1960s-1980s. Savile’s alleged behaviour seems to fit in with this.

Fortunately society has moved on, there has been a substantial increase in knowledge and understanding about the methods, psyche and treatment of sexual offenders and the harm that sexual abuse causes, changes have been made to all institutions or employers who are responsible for children, safeguarding measures have been implemented, legislation has been passed and most importantly attitudes have changed and we are all now far more vigilant and aware of these issues, in a way that we were not when Jim was fixing it for millions. The fact that an authority figure might have a penchant for young boys or girls is no longer seen as a harmless or worse still, amusing, foible.

What the BBC is experiencing, is similar to what the Catholic Church had to go through and perhaps there could be some lessons to be learnt, these things must not be brushed under the carpet and the y shame us all. The BBC, like the Catholic Church needs to thoroughly examine its history, procedures and culture and where necessary make amends and reparation to the victims. All of its dirty dank recesses, need to be held up to the purifying light and it must get its house in order.

What isn’t helpful is to indulge in the hysterical accusatory language that the BBC was somehow involved in a giant conspiracy to enable widescale rape and cover-up, particularly when the facts are not yet known. We as a Church did not like the factually incorrect hyperbole surrounding the Papal visit in 2010, we need to shy away from calumny and detraction and above all offer our sympathy and prayers to the victims. We also need to remember that though our memories of Jim’ll Fix will now forever be tainted, in my case I never forgave the show after they ignored my letter, actually Sir Jimmy Savile was by all accounts, not a pedophile abusing the children on his show, but a hebephile, a necessary but important distinction. That’s not to apologise for or lessen his behaviour in any way, but to state that it’s unlikely he would have targeted those on the show, who tended to be of a much younger age. We were not sending our children off to be abused by him on live TV, despite what some of the more emotive tabloids would have one believe.

Finally, we should remember, that heinous though Sir Jimmy Saville’s alleged offences were, he did also raise over £40 million for good causes and dedicated a substantial amount of his time and energy to helping the less needy and fortunate. That’s not to excuse him in any way, but to point out, that the pathologising of sexual offenders that makes for good copy is rarely nuanced or helpful. As the life of Sir Jimmy Savile indicates, there is capacity for enormous good and enormous evil in all of us, it is rare to score so highly on both sides of the spectrum, but it seems that he was a troubled and conflicted man. capable of altruism and evil in equal measure.

As a wiser, infinitely more saved person than me pointed out yesterday, Sir Jimmy Savile was a Catholic, we should all pray for his immortal soul.