Unholy battle for faithful readers

Monsignor Michael Buckley, of the 'Universe', has issued a writ for libel against the 'Catholic Herald', edited by Cristina Odone. It's the latest skirmish in a fierce struggle involving all the Catholic press.
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In each of the editorial offices of Britain's phalanx of weekly Catholic newspapers, there is a list of words never to be mentioned in print for fear of the damage that wantonly parading them might do to readers. This latter-day Index contains - alongside Ian Paisley, the Devil, Pope Joan and various ungodly sexual variations - the titles of each of the rival publications in the hard-fought-over Catholic market. If reference has to be made, the phrase "another Catholic newspaper" is employed, dripping with decidedly unchristian disdain.

Strange, then, that the current issue of the Universe, the brand leader among Britain's 1.2 million mass-goers, abandons this hallowed tradition and refers in its lead story, without so much as a blush, to its nearest rival, the Catholic Herald. When I was editor of the Herald back in the Eighties, such a slip would have been tantamount to blasphemy. When, for instance, I presented a television series on Catholicism, the Universe could not avoid reporting it but managed to do so without mentioning my name, its title or - most importantly - the Catholic Herald.

However, reading on, a special dispensation has clearly been issued this week at the Universe to allow for such unheard of generosity of spirit. There has to be a sting in the tail and the paper is crowing that its in-house agony aunt, Monsignor Michael Buckley - the priest who weekly deals with readers' worries over dark nights of the soul, alcoholism and vengeful feelings about workmates - has issued a writ for libel against the Herald. Monsignor Buckley, who enjoys something of a reputation as a healer in Christian circles, is currently in no mood to extend an olive branch to the Herald after its report detailing an official investigation into allegtions of his improper sexual behaviour. The story went on to refer to "an alleged 20-year history of sex crimes". The police inquiry has now been dropped.

Ostensibly, the Universe - under a headline "Spare the Innocent" - is frothing with moral indignation about the unkind treatment of victims of unsubstantiated sexual harassment claims, but it clearly is relishing the discomfiture of the Herald and its editor, Cristina Odone. For in the long-running battle for hearts and souls between these two titles, the Herald and the glamorous and high-profile Ms Odone have of late been enjoying divine favour and thereby incurring the wrath of the Universe.

Even in Catholic circles, the scent of revenge - as long as it is atoned for with a spell in the confessional - is apparently sweet. The Universe, owned since the Eighties by an agency of the Catholic bishops' conference, is relishing not only the damage to the Herald's reputation but the potential cost to its rival should the case go to court. If it cannot win the circulation war by fair means, the Universe might just do so on account of its financial might. It has all the resources of the Catholic Church behind it. The Herald, on the other hand, is run as a commercial concern and although it counts Rocco Forte and Conrad Black among its directors and annually turns in a modest profit, its contingency fund is not unlimited.

Monsignor Buckley and Ms Odone might comfort themselves with the thought that they are not the first prominent Catholics to find themselves caught up in this long-running internecine rivalry between the papers. In theory, the two should be able to exist without encroaching on the other's territory. The Catholic Herald, with its broadsheet format, has always aimed at the quality end of church porch sales market, while the Universe, for many years a tabloid, has majored on pictures of nuns playing snooker, travel features on Lourdes and series on the lives of saints. Lately, though, with a steep and continuing decline in the number of Catholics going to mass, plus the success of two other titles, the weekly review the Tablet and the 1993-launched Catholic Times, the competition has become cut-throat in a dwindling market.

A strong news orientation and a willingness to engage on occasion in loyal dissent from the papal line is the hallmark of the Herald and has won it a reputation out of proportion to its current weekly sales figure of 20,000. It has always been able to box above its weight and attract distinguished columnists for tiny fees. Auberon Waugh, for example, began his career there.

The Universe, by contrast, despite having a larger budget and a readership estimated at around 100,000, has a more dated and homely image and struggles to make a splash, especially since it moved to Manchester several years ago.

It is therefore to the Herald that journalists and television and radio producers in the London-based media world turn for soundbites and informed comments on the state of Catholicism. With the arrival of the 35-year- old Ms Odone in 1992 they got much more. This Washington-raised Italian is an intelligent, attractive woman - of the type usually to be found lapsing from Catholicism rather than acting as its spokesperson - and this rarity value has seen her starring on Question Time, The Late Show, Start the Week and many daytime sofas. The recent publication of her first novel, The Shrine, received blanket coverage in the nationals and plaudits from long-time opponents of the Herald, such as the ultra-traditionalist novelist Piers Paul Reid. Cristina Odone is already a near legendary figure on the Catholic circuit, a regular at the Keys, the Catholic Writers' Guild, and therefore able to feature big names of all persuations week after week in her paper. Paul Johnson, Tony Benn and Alice Thomas Ellis are just some of her admirers.

Back in Manchester, the Universe team has watched the rise and rise of Ms Odone - and by association the reputation of her paper - with growing frustration. They have a photograph of her pinned to the newsroom wall. Underneath are collected a selection of her bon mots. This is not, it should be stressed, a shrine, somewhere to turn for inspiration. More your proverbial darts board, one insider reports.

Principal among the Universe's many gripes against Ms Odone is that because their circulation dwarfs hers, it is their editor, Joe Kelly, who should be a regular feature behind the mike and under studio lights. They are the official paper, runs the line, and given Ms Odone's international background she can hardly claim to be speaking for people in the pews.

So peeved did the Universe bosses get at the buoyancy and cachet of the Herald that in 1993 they launched a spoiler, the weekly broadsheet Catholic Times, which aimed to chip away at the Herald's small but significant number of more conservative-minded readers at the same time as stealing its advertising revenue. The new paper even contained, in the weekly columnist Joanna Bogle, a forceful, eloquent and youthful firebrand who has made it her business, with some success, to act as a counter-balance to Ms Odone on the chat-show and soundbite circuit.

The Catholic Times has attracted some 20,000 readers and has outlived many prophesies of its imminent death. Yet many of its successes appear to have been at the expense of its sister paper, the Universe, and not the Herald. So of late it has been turning its guns not on the long-standing bete noir but rather on the Tablet, the fourth title in the via dolorosa that is Catholicism's version of Fleet Street.

Like the Herald and the Universe, the Tablet has been around since the nineteenth century. However, its appeal has always been unashamedly international and intellectual, more a review than a newspaper. Since the appointment of the former BBC man John Wilkins in the early Eighties, the Tablet has broadened out from its narrow Catholic base to attract readers of all faiths and none with political and social commentary and analysis. Circulation has more than doubled and now stands just below 20,000.

The sense of being on a rising tide - unlike the Herald and Universe, which have both seen substantial falls since their heyday of the Fifties and Sixties - has given the Tablet the confidence to have its circulation figures verified by an independent agency. With the others you have to take the advertising manager's word. And that quiet confidence has upset the Catholic Times's veteran editor, Norman Cresswell. In a recent editorial, he took the Tablet - not mentioned by name, of course - to task for being the preserve of a "clique of club-room Catholics" who acted like "a latter- day Bloomsbury Set" in "playing intellectual ball with cherished doctrines". Mr Wilkins himself, currently on a sabbatical, was attacked and then dismissed as being in academic exile.

The Irish columnist and author Mary Kenny, who has written regularly for all but the Catholic Times, sees in such infighting a metaphor for the shortcomings of Christianity in the world. "It's a good example of how Christianity is unnatural to our basic instincts. They tell us to fight back and be competitive - just as these papers are - but Christ's message was don't do it. Maybe what all the editors need to do is come out of the closet and admit they are rivals and that competition is part of life. The market can be a healthy place, but when it's all covered up and done by insinuation it becomes malevolent."

That would perhaps be a more fitting challenge to Monsignor Buckley's healing mission than an appearance in court.

Peter Stanford was editor of the 'Catholic Herald' from 1988 to 1992.

Mass readership: the Catholic market

WEEKLY

Price: 45p

Based: in an old school building, central London

Editor: since 1992, Cristina Odone, known to Cardinal Basil Hume as "The Odd One"

Owner: the Catholic Herald Ltd, a newspaper group with other titles in Glasgow and Dublin

Circulation: approx 20,000. At its peak, in the Fifties, 100,000

Format: broadsheet with news, features and arts

Star columnist: Alice Thomas Ellis

WEEKLY

Price: 50p

Based: Manchester

Editor: since 1992, Joe Kelly, local newspaper man who transferred after long interregnum from monthly, glossy stablemate, Catholic Life

Owner: Gabriel Communications, part of the Catholic Media Trust

Circulation: approximately 90,000. At its peak in the Fifties, 300,000

Format: tabloid, with family oriented features

Star columnist: David Alton MP

WEEKLY

Price: pounds 1.25

Based: Hammersmith, west London

Editor: since 1982, John Wilkins, widely admired, with a scholarly demeanour

Owners: controlled by a charitable trust since the early Eighties

Circulation: 18,859, mostly on subscription

Format: A4, dense type, period feel. Has recently introduced line drawings

Star columnist: the cult of personality is eschewed

WEEKLY

Price: 40p

Based: in Universe offices, Manchester

Editor: since launch, Norman Cresswell, who formerly owned and edited Liverpool diocesan paper

Owners: Gabriel Communications

Circulation: approximately 20,000

Format: tabloid style spread over broadsheet pages

Star columnist: run-off between Joanna Bogle and Ann Widdecombe

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