Bill Hagerty on the Press

Religious press in deep water over Asian tragedy coverage

"Where was God in all this?" asked a headline as the world struggled to cope with the greatest natural disaster in half a century. Religious leaders also laboured as they attempted to comfort those whose faith had been severely tested by the Almighty's lack of intervention when the tsunami ravaged Asia. So in search of a way to reconcile belief with such momentous tragedy, I went to the obvious source. Where was the religious press in all this?

"Where was God in all this?" asked a headline as the world struggled to cope with the greatest natural disaster in half a century. Religious leaders also laboured as they attempted to comfort those whose faith had been severely tested by the Almighty's lack of intervention when the tsunami ravaged Asia. So in search of a way to reconcile belief with such momentous tragedy, I went to the obvious source. Where was the religious press in all this?

The answer for many religious publications, I discovered, was not at home. There's usually little news to miss over Christmas, so many shut up shop for a fortnight. But cataclysmic events bring out the best in journalists. and even in the church-based press this one produced the kind of initiatives that can establish reputations.

If, in October 1931, Arthur Christiansen hadn't dashed back to the Sunday Express in the early hours of the morning to pump out four extra editions and organise special trains to carry news of the crashed R101 airship to readers, he might not have ended up with an editorship of the Daily Express that lasted almost 24 years.

Such a reward doesn't await Harry Conroy, whose long career on Scottish newspapers was interrupted by 15 years as general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. But the spirit of Christiansen lingers in Conroy, who now edits the Scottish Catholic Observer, a paper that, unlike the rest of the Catholic press, had not opted to produce a "double issue" to cover the holidays. When the news broke, Conroy hurried into the office and for his issue dated 31 December wrote a new front-page lead on the Scottish International Aid Fund's rapid response to the disaster. Compared to the secular national paper coverage it wasn't much, but it left the other Catholic weeklies - The Universe, the Catholic Herald and the Catholic Times - and the similarly thwarted Methodist Recorder and The Church of England Newspaper looking as stale as leftover sprouts.

The Anglican Church Times, which publishes a day later than the majority of the religious weeklies, was even sharper. An enterprising reporter's calls to Sri Lanka on 28 December meant that when editor Paul Handley returned to work the following morning, he was able to throw out much of what had been prepared previously and run prominently in his 31 December issue Rachel Harden's story about how churches had become sanctuary for some of the homeless.

Handley was ahead of everyone else in the field by also running, in the same issue, an editorial on the religious implications of the catastrophe. "Christian belief needs to embrace phenomena of this kind, and hold fast to faith in the God of compassion, even when the world seems to have destruction built into it." Not even The Jewish Chronicle managed a leader, although its journalistic sophistication shone through with - again in an issue dated 31 December - a front page wipe-out on the story and more on page two.

It was catch-up time for the others this past weekend, with T he Catholic Herald's editorial expressing a political thought that would have sat happily in any left-leaning secular paper: "As long as...citizens sit frozen in their armchairs, governments will continue to express pieties about poverty relief while the gap between rich and poor widens." As for The Universe, it was left with a face redder than a cardinal's cape. Instead of publishing a double issue it had prepared two in advance, so parishioners paying 90p in churches around the country for that dated Sunday 2 January were astonished to find not one word on the story.

Was that false date-line a justifiable fib? Heaven knows.

Tinpot weekly rags get Spiked

"Journalism is a triumvirate of diligence, integrity and truth," the new editor of a tinpot weekly paper told his bemused staff during ITV1's Dead Man Weds. Noble sentiments indeed during the first episode of what writer Dave Spikey describes as a "mystery comedy series", but the show swiftly lost its diligence, integrity and truth as it metamorphosed into a ruthless parody of what are still referred to as "local rags".

On reflection, perhaps truth wasn't such a casualty. The staff of four inherited by the incoming editor, played by Spikey, were lazy, gormless and barely literate. Using a word like "triumvirate" in front of them was wildly optimistic.

Not that fine journalists cannot be found working in the one sector of the industry that is thriving. But many weeklies, most of which lack the competition that promotes high standards, are poorly researched, poorly written and crammed full of press releases that they don't have the resources or inclination even to sub-edit. But then again what can one expect from publishers interested only in the bottom line, who pay their journalists appallingly low wages (starting salaries are at least £7,000 less than the national average for graduates, an NUJ survey has revealed)?

Spikey claims the idea for Dead Man Weds came to him when he saw a real headline on a paper in Bolton and, "got obsessed about local papers - free papers more than anything - because they are just full of nothing".

Mind you, he needs to be careful with his criticism. On his website he spells "compere" incorrectly.

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