A well-briefed, media-trained speakers' bureau of Catholics is being set up in the UK in advance of Benedicts XVI's visit in September. Declaration of interest: I'm one of those behind it.
Catholic Voices is a project of the Catholic Union, a venerable institution created in the late nineteenth century to raise the voice of the Church in the public sphere, whose president, Lord Brennan, is one of the project's patrons, along with a Benedictine abbot, Christopher Jamison, known to millions through his role in the hit BBC series The Monastery.
Without mentioning us, the Tablet columnist Clifford Longley makes an excellent case for Catholic Voices in this week's issue.
He writes of his frustration at the media spin that developed around the Pope's remarks to the English and Welsh bishops on Monday (see earlier post). Although the Pope was almost certainly not referring to the Government's Equality Bill recently rejected by the House of Lords, but to the anger felt by Catholics at the forced closure of their adoption agencies following legislation enacted in 2007 -- in other words, about past, not current, legislation -- the template set by the media assumed that this was an "unprecedent intervention" (BBC) in UK politics, which was "improper" according to one commentator.
Clifford explained the facts to one correspondent, whose paper still ran the "pope-intervenes-in-UK-politics" story. "I later asked the correspondent who had rung me why the false interpretation had persisted beyond the point at which it had been realised," writes Clifford, "and the reply was: 'As you know, sometimes newspapers are afraid to be a lone voice'." The story had been fixed in a particular way, and a result "for ever and a day, people will believe that the Pope had joined the debate over legislation before Parliament, and they also believe this was in some way unprecedented and ... uttterly improper".
The template here is about religion, and Catholicism in particular, as an anti-progressive force in society. So even if the Pope didn't mean to attack the Equality Bill, the "greater truth" served by this type of news reporting was that he would have done if he had thought of it. And never mind that he was speaking carefully, defending the church's religious freedom while praising the British tradition of freedom of speech, and indeed, of promoting equality. He was deemed to be trampling all over gay rights in general, not to mention parliamentary sovereignty.
And he concludes:
What the Catholic Church neeeds is a sophisticated media-rebuttal unit that knows the way the media thinks, and than can intervene to put out media fires before they can take hold. Sometimes spin-doctoring is a necessary evil.