Time for the new crop of British journalists to return to school for their graduate degrees, studying “parts of speech, syntax, spelling & basic grammar rules” in “JOM926 Journalism Practice” — just the kind of training that will prepare them to eventually work at important daily newspapers where they may one day cover things like Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on “Faith and Reason,” a lecture the pontiff delivered to his former colleagues at a German university.
Part of the problem journalists face when they have to report on complicated, somewhat obscure topics, such as Roman Catholic dogmatic theology, is that graduate journalism courses like JOM926 may stress spelling & grammar, but completely at the expense of “faith & reason.” So maybe it’s not fair to blame journalists for the inanities in the week’s reporting of what was a very complex discussion by a scholarly pope concerning faith and reason in Christianity and in Islam. As you know by now, the pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine whose millennial empire had been reduced to mere acres and whose people had been dispatched by the hundreds of thousands by Islamic armies who thought death was a suitable end for unrepentant infidels. The emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, ventured to a visiting Persian that surely there must be a better way to do missionary work. Somehow a graduate of JOM926 got hold of the pope’s speech, and that was all it took.
Within hours, the BBC World Service had started skipping the complicated bits and simply reported that “the Pope described Islam as evil and inhuman” making the story a much simpler one to report. Allah only knows how the BBC told the tale on their widely followed Arabic service, but by Sunday, as Le Journal Chrétien reported, Islamic thugs in Somalia were out hunting for somebody wearing the pope’s uniform, found her in the form of an elderly nun who worked at a kids’ hospital and shot her dead — this in accordance with the perceived wishes of the country’s chief Islamic cleric who may find the pope’s comments on faith and reason helpful in crafting future sermons. Islamic demonstrations erupted around the world, but not against the nun-killers.
The International Herald Tribune reflected the prevailing media sentiment to all this by running the New York Times’s editorial, a piece of condescension that noted “Muslims’ shock at the Pope’s remarks” — as reported in the press, of course — and told the pope to shape up: “he and other top Vatican officials will have to accept that genuine communication cannot occur on their terms only,” presumably because that’s the Times’s work. Apparently to demonstrate that they know their Muslims, the paper also ran a piece by Tariq Ramadan, every liberal’s favorite, criticizing the pope for suggesting there is no rationalist tradition in Islam. Unfortunately, Ramadan offered as an example a 12th-century mystic, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who, Ramadan said, was one of Islam’s great “rationalist thinkers.” Al-Ghazali is indeed a very influential Islamic writer, but he specifically and stridently condemned exactly the kind of rationalism Ramadan claimed he represented. Ramadan is now the professor of Islamic studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, don’t you know, but Ghazali, schmazali — Ramadan knew nobody at the Times or the IHT would know the difference.
The coverage in British newspapers seemed designed to inflame much more than to inform and reflects the almost complete lack of interest in Christianity that now characterizes the interior life of your basic modern Briton, which is often otherwise occupied with beer and pie. The London Times, anxious to catch up with the Guardian and the Telegraph, papers it once dominated, employed John Cornwell to write its piece covering the controversy, failing to note Cromwell’s obsessively anti-papal tirades in books such as Hitler’s Pope.
Incidentally, this is consistent with the Times’s juvenile reportage of religion generally. You may recall that a year or so ago, Ruth Gledhill, the paper’s cynical religion writer, picked up a “study” that purported to show “religious belief can cause damage to a society.” She repeated the study’s findings without any apparent skepticism and identified the author as a “social scientist.” As it happens, the author wasn’t “social scientist” at all, but guy who painted pictures of dinosaurs and believes evolution won’t be complete until humans mate with computers. Like Cromwell, he also thinks Christianity and Nazism must have a lot in common.
The Guardian didn’t know what to make of the story, so they did what they usually do in cases like this — first they tried for a bit of character assassination, convincing a crackpot to accuse the “ruthless” pope of being “dangerous” and presenting, as evidence, his orthodox views on Catholicism. Just to make sure readers got what they needed, the paper also reported the story from the Iranian point of view.
The French reaction was more muted, perhaps because there’s still a flicker of awareness here that there is a tangible, sometimes frightening difference between Islam and Christianity — although that didn’t stop an impotent Jospin from taking his swipe at the pope, as Le Figaro reported. The real risk came from Britain’s papers and broadcasters, not from the continental bunch. It didn’t take much of that peculiar brand of English “journalism” before home-grown Islamic soapboxers, like this chap in the Daily Mail, were calling for the pope to be killed.
The Times carried similar accounts, adding that while the pope had indeed quoted the Byzantine emperor’s disgust at Mohammed’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” the “Pope said that the quotation did not represent his personal views.” Meaning, apparently, that the pope’s jake with spreading the faith of Mohammed by the sword. That should make even the New York Times happy! Of course it must be true. I read it in the paper.
Loose talk. There were other speeches this week, of course, mostly at the U.N., where bureaucrats oversee the globalization of mediocrity. Insinuated someplace between George Bush’s tired little speech and Iran’s Little Buddy president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo “I smell the devil” Chavez was French president Jacques Chirac. Chirac, as Libération reported, said some stuff about how there should be peace and no more genocides and that we should really give Iran a break and what’s with the Security Council, anyway. It was a moment of cosmic confluence, a corrupt politician delivering sedatives to a corrupt organization. By yesterday, according to the Guardian, New York was in love with the Iranian president and the quirky way he starts his press conferences with quotations from the Koran. Or maybe it was just the Guardian’s guy. Anyway, Chavez and Ahmadinejad — a perfect Manhattan twofer!
Loose lips. According to a book serialized in the Times, Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of State, wins the Ugly American of the Century award by telling the Pakistanis that the U.S. would bomb them “into the Stone Age” if they didn’t fall in line: “The intelligence director told me that [Armitage] said, ‘Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age’,” President Musharraf said. “I think it was a very rude remark.” Mush! Just Armitage talking. Meanwhile, in France, according to Le Monde, Nicholas Sarkozy, the Gaullist candidate for president, is threatening to do the same thing to inept French judges, of which there are beaucoups.
Blair-to-Brown-to-Reid. The British Labour party will soon slip into the hands of the apparently late Gordon Brown. But it’s expected that voters may soon notice that Brown apparently passed away several years ago. He has the charisma of Herbert Hoover, but Hoover now. Eventually, the party may have to turn to one of its few remaining electable politicians, Home Secretary John Reid, who this week, as the Guardian reports, had the temerity to suggest to Islamic mamas that they shouldn’t let their babies grow up to be Osamas. Week before last, he was accusing the British media of irresponsible reporting. He’s the kind of politician who makes the Conservatives’ David Cameron look lighter than air, which is why the Labour left will hate him.
Spitting mad. Remember Spitting Image, the British TV show starring insane puppets who looked like caricatures of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan? Nowadays, it’s on BBC-2, where it’s called Newsnight. The funniest puppet by far is the “Jeremy Paxman” one. He looks exactly like a pompous, self-righteous, self-important windbag with fabulous hair. But really the whole crew is hilarious, pretending to do news by speaking loudly and interrupting, when everyone knows it’s that typically British parody stuff, the kind of thing they call “barking mad” because only dogs take it seriously. This week, Newsnight did an ambush of Melanie Phillips, who is an actual and credible journalist, so a Guardian columnist, a would-be Michael Moore type, could make a claim that, well, it’s really cigarette companies who are behind global warming, isn’t it (don’t ask — it was kind of stream-of-self-consciousness). The Paxman character even had a live, American guest on the show to talk about global warming. The man was not a scientist — and Paxman got him to admit it! You can only get stuff like this on government TV — for a good reason.
— Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.