Alan Watkins: Turn his picture to the wall, mother

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The Independent Online

The nearest this country can offer to a Mafia funeral is a memorial service at St Bride's, Fleet Street. Large men in their best suits line up to cast suspicious glances at one another and to listen to long-forgotten words whose meaning is often obscure. "Through a glass, darkly," may be clear enough, but what is anyone to make of faith, hope and charity?

"Funny sort of ideas they seem to have had in those days, Rupert."

"You've got to remember that times were different then, Les."

Usually these solemnities begin at noon and end at around one, so leaving ample time for the consumption of numerous drinks before a late lunch. As drink succeeds drink, and the proceedings grow ever more disorderly, one old lag will say to another: "It's what he would have wanted."

Wednesday's service at this church was unusual because it was held in the afternoon and because no deceased person was being commemorated. It took place to mark the departure of Reuters news agency from its handsome premises in Fleet Street. It was wholly appropriate that a principal part was allotted to Mr Alexander Chancellor, the son of the man who had effectively taken Reuters to its former pre- eminence, and himself a notable editor. The position of Mr Rupert Murdoch as the chap who read the lesson was perhaps more equivocal. For Mr Murdoch had been responsible for the exodus in the first place, even though scholars of the industry will pay tribute to Mr Eddy Shah as his John the Baptist.

It is certainly within the admirable traditions of the Anglican Church to provide consolation to those who need it, however little they may deserve it. It is also very tricky trying to maintain your position as the journalists' church if you do not have any journalists left in the parish, except those working for The Beano (in any case a Dundee publication), and the rest of the inhabitants are working in merchant banks, or worse. You have to pretend the area includes Kensington High Street and Canary Wharf too. St Bride's needs all the friends it can get.

At the same time as the church was sucking up to Mr Murdoch - which, if it is a sin, is one shared by the present Prime Minister - the Archbishop of Canterbury was delivering an attack on modern journalism from the safety of Lambeth Palace. I put it in that way because these days Dr Rowan Williams is rarely allowed out on his own. Correspondents who are in search of a snappy quote on one of the issues of the day find it more profitable to make a beeline for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor at Westminster Cathedral, who has recently, or so I am told, undergone a course on friendliness and approachability in the modern world.

In one of those serial spats between Lambeth Palace and No 10 which punctuated the 1980s, William Whitelaw remarked of Robert Runcie: "Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a very religious man." So likewise is Dr Williams today. There is no doubt about that. He is also an honest man. Part of his honesty lies in his insistence on making distinctions and in his refusal to use simple catchphrases. For this, one pays a price: papers lose interest, refuse to make the effort or get things the wrong way round.

At the same time, it must be said, Dr Williams does sometimes seem to take a delight in obscurity for its own sake. After all, Bishops George Berkeley and Joseph Butler dealt with the most difficult subjects but are among the most lucid writers of English ever to put pen to paper. Occasionally Dr Williams is being less than lucid because it suits his purposes. He is a seeker after compromise often where none is possible. The Anglicans thought they were getting a figure like Aneurin Bevan; he has turned out to be more of a Harold Wilson.

I have wondered several times what led Dr Williams to attack journalism at this particular moment, though "attack" is really the wrong word for a series of mildly dismissive observations, loosely strung together. But what was the apropos, what - to use the old journalists' word - the peg? Last week's observations were strangely reminiscent of those that were made during and immediately after the Iraq War. Most (not all) of those who made them supported the Government's position on the war, as Dr Williams did not, even if he was not as impassioned in his condemnation as one might have expected him to be.

The curious thing is this: the various tribunals and inquiries set up to look into the matter - under Lord Hutton, Lord Butler, the various parliamentary chairmen - all came down on the Government side, and against the press and the BBC; or so the Government asserts. As things are, it is a bit of a cheat for the Government to claim Lord Butler as an ally, but let that pass. The public does not believe that any of them supported the Government: or, if they did, it was all a matter of jobbery and whitewash. Mr Andrew Gilligan, who bears a certain physical resemblance to Whitaker Chambers in the Alger Hiss case, has, like Chambers, turned out to be right after all, as some of us said he was all along.

Those who struggle for freedom are not necessarily, or even usually, admirable personally; and the press is no exception in this respect. Nor it is true that the press is freedom's only defender left. The courts are more vigilant on the citizens' behalf now than they were even 40 years ago, not solely on account of the Human Rights Act. Even Parliament is not as powerless as it is popularly supposed to be, as it showed by the substantial modifications to the Terrorism Act. But the press, when its dander is up, is unstoppable. It is so precisely because it is entirely unreasonable.

Some months ago, for instance - how long ago it all now seems! - we were told that Mr David Blunkett had done nothing wrong. In any case it was a personal matter, he retained the Prime Minister's fullest confidence and he would be staying in the Government. I did not believe it at the time; nor did numerous others; and in due course Mr Blunkett took his leave. Now he is back - ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - for all the world as if nothing had ever happened. But that is the way with modern resignations. Mr Peter Mandelson kept coming back like Marley's Ghost.

For myself, I should prefer it if Prime Ministers were a little more firm in their approach and a little less flexible in their judgements. Out should mean out: or, turn his picture to the wall, mother. But ministers have to watch their ways to the extent they do entirely because of the press. I do not see why Dr Williams wants to bring this healthy state of affairs to an end.