A case of the ‘comedy priest’?

Having written both a blogpost and a feature for the Catholic press on the subject of Fr Ray and his misrepresentation in the mainstream media, I don’t want to over-egg the pudding on this issue, nonetheless the whole affair has thrown up cause for further concern.

When posting the text of my Universe article earlier, I was searching for a flattering image of Father Ray online and found what I thought was a nice photo taken of him in the pews of St Mary Magdalen church. After clicking on the image, I saw that it was copyrighted by the Brighton Argus and lo and behold, linked to yet another misleading article based on the contents of his blog, in which it was claimed that Fr Ray was denouncing the traditional foot-washing on Maundy Thursday as ‘sinful.’

The piece was not penned by Bill Gardner, but in common with his recent feature, it did not link to the original post and gave a false impression that Fr Ray was condemning the practice of foot-washing, whereas Fr Ray once again with typical humility and frankness, described how it was an occasion of sin for him. Read in context, the post was moving and challenging in equal measure, Father’s concern for the homeless is almost palpable, far from de-humanising them as undesirable objects, he wondered whether previously he had unconsciously not treated people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, but rather as a quantity to be exploited.

With all the brouhaha surrounding the election of Pope Francis during Easter week, this didn’t get picked up by the nationals, but it did of course attract the usual anti-Catholic sentiment in the comment section and once again chipped away at the reputation of Fr Ray.

When the most recent story broke, I took at look at the Twitter stream of Bill Gardner, who despite being a local journalist hadn’t previously registered on my radar, even though I do use Twitter to keep up with other local journalists and politicians.

What I found was a little disturbing. On the one hand Bill Gardner is a lively, engaging and clearly very ambitious local journalist who is obviously trying to build his career in the profession, probably in tabloids. He is able to sniff out a good story and put quite a sensationalist spin on events, which is a pre-requisite for any budding journalist. Headlines and features need to instantly attract attention and it’s something that the Brighton Argus seems to have perfected down to a fine art, I am often struck by seemingly fantastic or scandalous local headlines on the sandwich boards outside the newsagents as I walk to school.

Newspapers and journalists are frequently and I think unfairly, described by the commentariat as “trolls” themselves, in that they publish deliberately controversial articles and headlines to attract interest. The internet may have made print and on-line media more cut-throat, but publishing sensational stories and photos to attract readers is not a new feature of the press. Back in the ’80s and ’90s an exclusive photograph of Princess Diana on the front page did wonders for that day’s circulation. The overriding memory I have of my A Level results day is of my mother waking up at crack of dawn to sneak to the post-office lest anyone local might catch her buying a copy of the Daily Mirror, but she was dying to view the photos of Sarah Ferguson having her toes sucked by the Texan millionaire, before they sold out!

So I am not going to criticise either Bill Gardner or the Brighton Argus for wanting to boost readership or interest, nor do I think we should take heed of the many comments I found on Bill Gardner’s feed criticising him for being a ‘troll’ himself following his appearance on ITV’s Monday night show about internet bullying. The Argus have run a good campaign highlighting the effects of online bullying and how ineffectual the police response is to this, therefore it is highly ironic that one of their journalists seems to be engaging in that very activity. Bill Gardner is not a troll, he’s a journalist attempting to further his career, but his methods are unethical. By all means report a story, but do so fairly, accurately and without bias or attempting to mislead the reader or incite hate upon a particular target.

I don’t want to make this a personal attack on Bill Gardner, his feed reflects an obvious left-wing and socially liberal bias, which he is more than entitled to hold, he does seem to care passionately about issues of social justice. I note he spent an afternoon with the police anti-begging squad, whose aims he seemed to sympathetically report, which makes me wonder why he attacked Fr Ray over his perceived attitude, but he does evidently possess some morals, not to mention charisma and has unashamedly and unapologetically borne the storm of criticism from Catholics. Perhaps living in Brighton has given him more front than Blackpool?

But here’s what I think is the crux of the attitude. One thing that is apparent from his Twitter feed is that in common with many of Brighton’s residents, Bill Gardner is a supporter of ‘equal marriage’.

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Frank exchange of views there, nothing for anyone to get upset about. Except it might then explain Mr Gardner’s reaction to Fr Ray’s wholly reasonable comments in response to being rung up and asked about a recent Brighton Bridal Bondage Fair.

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Here’s the piece, despite the hyperbole, I’m not sensing the ‘outrage’, Fr Ray’s comments seem measured enough and indeed the organiser of the event explicitly says that she agrees with much of what he has to say. I can’t quite see what there is to get excited about in the following quote.

“Sexual fantasies belong in the bedroom, not at the wedding altar.

“Marriage is ultimately about building a stable environment for the procreation of children.

“It’s supposed to be about partnership, but this event seems to be designed for the fulfilment of individuals.

“From a Catholic point of view, marriage is sacred and I think dressing up in fantasy outfits risks damaging that.”

I suspect however the key sentence that provoked a reaction is the one with regards to the purpose of marriage being about creating a stable environment for children, given Bill Gardner had previously publicly baulked at similar sentiments.

It might explain why Bill Gardner seems to then go on a bit of a crusade, dredging his blog to find what other ‘damaging’ or ‘scandalous’ quotes or stories could be attributed to Fr Ray. Or maybe I’m being unfair and it was a slow news day, but the timing of the next piece, reporting Fr Ray’s purported disdainful attitude to the poor and homeless is interesting, coming as it did, the following day. I think one can definitely conclude that Fr Ray’s blog was being trawled on an offence-finding mission and may explain why a blogpost that was over a month old was seized upon.

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No need to re-hash the piece or the response to it, but it has been the source of great pain to Fr Ray. For those who may claim that no publicity is bad publicity and that overall it’s done him good, I would point to the response of my mother, who rang me up to ask me all about the affair, presuming we would know the priest, she and her Catholic neighbour (in extremely good standing) having been scandalised and appalled by what they had seen, although they had noted that the Telegraph was more balanced in their coverage.

The Catholic blogosphere is a specialised niche, there will have been many people who were therefore given a one-sided view of the story which is why it was important that the Catholic press could provide a balance.

In the meantime, the following set of tweets from Bill Gardner, definitely seems to be inviting ill-will, contempt and scorn upon Fr Ray and the Catholic Church by association and could be perceived as bullying.

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Fr Ray has been caused a lot of distress, but fortunately he also knows that he enjoys the support of his parishioners, his blog readers and his Bishop has described the piece as “mischief”.

The problem is that the “mischief” on behalf the Brighton Argus, does not seem to be an isolated case, that’s three stories that have misrepresented him in the last six months. I’m loath to accuse the Argus of outright anti-Catholicism, more likely his views on same-sex marriage, have made him a target for criticism in a city that likes to pride itself on its ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ credentials. Being a local priest, Fr Ray’s blog provides a rich and steady stream of local outrage to boost circulation and hit rates, especially when there might be a slow news day. Nothing that Fr Ray actually says is any more controversial than anything that any other priest blogger has come out with, it’s just that he is Brighton’s very own ‘outrageous celebrity priest blogger’. What is concerning is the one-sided and inaccurate way in which the Argus has presented him of late, which has sought to turn him into a local comedic hate figure, who hates the smelly poor and holds the obligatory ‘bigoted’ view of the LGBT community. Brighton’s very own Fred Phelps if you will.

A complaint to the PCC certainly seems to be in order as does boycotting the Argus as well as their advertisers and informing them why, until Fr Ray receives a formal apology at the very least.

As a final point, it might be worth noting that in his haste to get the story, Bill Gardner and the Argus, have made previous mistakes and errors. It could be claimed that lifting and distorting quotes from blogs, is something in which they have previous form.

Happy to clarify for an important MP
Happy to clarify for an important MP
This tweeter faced a minor twitter storm as a result of misattributed tweets in the paper
This tweeter faced a minor twitter storm as a result of misattributed tweets in the paper
Sounds a bit familiar
Sounds a bit familiar

Trawling local blogs for titbits that can be distorted into a scandalous feature is quite the opposite innovative or go-getting journalism, it’s indicative of laziness and lack of inspiration. If you are going to do it, then at least have the decency to quote in context or do some background on your target.

Trouble is all this enhances Bill Gardner’s reputation as an edgy journalist, he’ll love the controversy, whereas the constant attacks on Fr Ray, could do his important ministry irreparable damage.

It’s all tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, or at least it would be were it not for the permanent nature of the Internet, but following three concurrent occasions of blatant misrepresentation, enough is enough.