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.

A tale of truth – Chris Huhne and Fr Ray Blake

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 15 September 2013

Chris Huhne
Lying – of no great import to the man who cheated on his wife

Chris Huhne, the disgraced former government minister who resigned following his conviction and subsequent jail sentence for perverting the course of justice over persuading his ex-wife to accept penalty points that he had incurred, came out with an astonishingly frank statement this week. Under pressure from the perennially brutal Jeremy Paxman with regards to his blatant and repeated public lies, he defended himself as follows:

 “Anyone who tells you that they have never told a lie is lying, the reality that white lies, small lies help in certain circumstances and avoid you hurting other people’s feelings.”

I was torn between amusement at the delicious irony of a former politician’s impassioned and honest defence of untruths and an instinctive horror, recoiling at the notion that lies, no matter how small, can ever be anything other than pernicious.

Lying, in the context alluded to by Chris Huhne, can never be justified because its purpose is always to mislead and to put it in theological and philosophical terms, lying goes against the God-given purpose of speech, namely to assert a truth about reality in order to communicate or convey the concepts in one’s mind. St Thomas Aquinas therefore describes lying as ‘a statement at variance with the mind’ and the Catechism reminds us that it is a sin because ‘to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error’.

Though Chris Huhne may be correct in observing that most of us will at some point have told an untruth, as human beings we are called to rise above the lowest common denominator. The actions or thoughts of the majority determine neither truth or even morality, which is the main flaw in any democratic system. That many people might have told a lie, does not render the action acceptable. The only person whom lies can ever benefit is the person uttering them, even if they believe that they are doing so with good reason, such as to spare the feeling of another, or for the greater good, but the ends never justify the means.

 It can be argued that in a few limited contexts we do not expect to hear the truth from another and not every literal falsehood is a lie. For example when someone asks ‘how are you?’ the response ‘fine thanks’ is a general pleasantry and not an attempt to deceive, but we’ve reached a pretty poor and dangerous state of affairs, if our cynicism to politicians is such that we always expect to hear untruths and thus they are therefore justified in misleading us.

Perhaps most disturbing is that Mr Huhne’s public apologia for lying seems to have been largely unremarked upon in the mainstream press, indicating that most of our political and media commentators are in agreement with him. A society that condones, accepts and even expects lies is one that is in grave danger and on a personal level, even the tiniest of lies can often spiral into tangled knots of deceit, angst and despair.

On the other side of the coin, this week has also seen Fr Ray Blake, a priest local to me in Brighton, slammed and vilified by the press both nationally and internationally for a searingly honest blogpost in which using the very same language as Pope Francis, he described the poor and homeless of his parish, which is right in the heart of the city and attracts many addicts, as ‘messy’.

 In a shameless misrepresentation of his original post, which was a theological reflection upon how we are called to treat the outcasts in society, a local journalist, who was seemingly already irritated by Fr Ray’s thoughts on marriage and looking for controversy, picked up on a recent article in which the priest had expressed the very specific challenges posed by the homeless with stark candour, describing how he has to clean up blood, excrement and used needles on a daily basis.

Far from attacking the poor as widely reported, Fr Blake was in fact reflecting upon his own shortcomings; the homeless challenge him he said, they shake him out of his complacency, he doesn’t always find the mess and chaos easy to deal with, but this is no bad thing, and reflects the message of the Gospels. We are not called to live comfortable lives of compromise, but to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty, which Fr Ray and his parish team do, with a soup distribution apostolate that runs 365 days a year.

 Rather than patronising the homeless, with a dewy-eyed romantic view, Fr Ray Blake expounded the issues surrounding their care with his typical mixture of forthrightness and compassion. To pretend that issues related to homelessness such as addiction and crime do not exist, does the very people in need of help a huge disservice. One can only assume that his words pricked too many consciences.

While Fr Ray Blake is now contemplating closing his blog as a result of the unfair press coverage surrounding his brave honesty, Chris Huhne is now reviving his career  as a journalist and commentator, off the back of being a convicted liar.

I wonder what the avowed atheist George Orwell would make of the fact that in 2013, a Catholic priest would prove his maxim, “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

Telling an uncomfortable truth
Telling an uncomfortable truth