Mark Morley: attack on Catholic Church

With archbishop Vincent Nichols poised to take his place on the throne of English Catholicism, it is likely that the full range of political craftsmanship has been brought to bear to secure the post and, undoubtedly, some fierce backroom deals were brokered to pave the way for the appointment.

There is nothing remarkable here - the Catholic Church is, in my experience, as fiercely tribal as any other powerful institution or indeed political party, and rest assured that the benign alkaline of spiritual rhetoric surges through the Church’s arteries alongside the dizzying adrenalin of raw politics. What his arrival however is sure to do is change the nature and the style of Catholic media relations.

There is no ducking the issue that the modern Catholic Church is institutionally confused and divided when it comes to selecting its modus operandi. Some clerics embrace the media wholeheartedly, recognising that once you play the game you have committed to rolling with the punches. Some desire to have their cake and eat it, coupling with the media on their terms only to flail in righteous indignation when they become to focus of scrutiny. 

There is a sometimes rather gauche approach too. I recall once having to stand down a very senior cleric from a TV interview for reasons of practicality. So angered was the poor chap that he threatened to ‘destroy me’. The language of Westminster’s back alleys tripped off his tongue with an ease which reminded me that this institution has been at it far longer than Westminster’s pretenders. 

Vincent Nichols is a clever, erudite man, a skilled media operator and someone who has, despite the protestations of those close to him, harboured serious ambition for years. His career trajectory has been stellar and he is without doubt a formidable operator.

Attractive politicians will always play pied piper to a phalanx of followers, hangers on, acolytes and troubadours. This is the reality.  

If the new approach of the church is likely to have more in common with secular methods then, as recent shenanigans at Westminster have reminded us, it is wise to be sure of its footing and the rules of engagement.

Nichols is attractive in many ways and is far more media savvy than his successor, for whom I worked directly. Cormac O’Connor is a transparently thoughtful and generous man, one who attracted a rather traditional base and garnered a sympathetic following aghast at the perceived brutality of his treatment at the hands of the media and others when the lurid stories began to seep out regarding his handling of the Michael Hill episode. 2002 marked his annus horribilis when elements in the BBC and Fleet Street launched wave after concentrated wave of attack with the unapologetically stated aim of unseating him. As one who was intimately involved in the Church’s media management in those days, I can vouch for the horror of it all and the toll it took on O’Connor.

I can however also vouch for the worrying and as yet unresolved questions unearthed by some of the scrutiny on the child abuse issues. Sadly the heat and intensity of that media scrutiny merged with the Church’s instinctive secrecy to leave some nagging loose ends which, I have no doubt, will be revisited before long.

As with all political institutions under heavy fire, the tendency to turn in on itself proved irresistible. The tribes, clerical and secular, circled the wagons and proceeded to brief against one another. In another remarkably prescient mirror image of secular politics, the two centres of power -  Eccleston Square, the administrative HQ and Archbishops House, the Leaders Office - engaged in an ugly spat, corners were taken, lines prepared. Kieran Conry, the former head of media relations at the Eccelston Sq was quoted in The Independent at the time as saying, ‘It went badly and underlined the problem over lines of responsibility. It wasn't quite clear who was managing the issue’.

As gifted a communicator of Nichols surely is, I recall only to well as a former national director of communications that some of the media management he allowed around him was sometimes overly confrontational to say the least. For an insight into their modus operandi one would be well advised to check out Peter Capaldi’s brilliantly grotesque spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in new political comedy In The Loop.

The slapstick spin put about by the new Archbishop’s people that he was not ambitious for himself but only ‘ambitious for God’ was excruciatingly amateur, reminiscent of Tony Blair’s famous ‘hand of history’ non-sound byte . The sort of line that a trainee script writer, waking with a hangover and realising that the work was due, might scribble into the text on the Tube ride to work. 

For a sophisticated as Nichols undeniably is, hailed as being an adept media performer, the warning signs are there and have been for some time and he will be well-advised to ensure that his team do not undermine what will be a critical period for the Catholic Church by behaving like playground bullies whacked out fizzy pop and West Wing re-runs.

The danger is that they will respond in the spirit of an Opposition party seizing power after years in the wilderness, intoxicated by the sudden elevation. And it has started already, The Guardian’s Andrew Brown reported on his blog that one of Nichols’ most senior advisers referred to another journalist in ill-advised biological terminology and then reportedly went on to admit that he had indeed briefed against other bishops who had been mooted for the Westminster post but that everyone knew what he said was true.

For the record, it is my experience that such briefing and counter-briefing for and against senior Catholic bishops has gone on for some time, years in fact. It is nasty and bitter stuff, easily as toxic as anything seen or heard of in Westminster and those close to Archbishop Nichols have been regular and enthusiastic participants.

That is not to suggest that the Archbishop himself has engaged in such activity. But then again, as people say of Gordon Brown, if he is as clever and adept as the image of him we are given then he should know what his people are doing on his behalf and if he doesn’t, that is a problem.

Like Brown, he can deny that he knows anything of such pantomime news management perpetrated on his behalf, but again, like the PM, even those close to him will know that such denials trim the sails somewhat. If does not know the modus operandi of his closest advisers, those who have been with him for years, perhaps he should.

Perhaps they protect him from the worst of it but it would be a bleak day for Catholicism if the plausible deniability became acceptable as a means of doing business. The Archbishop should reflect on this.

I know from experience that the benign flattery of the features desk can all too often morph into the rapier of investigative news and he will, in the normal course of things, be confronted with troubles whilst in office. He will stumble and he will need friends. Things will go awry and if he has willingly granted a free pass to those close to him or turned a blind but knowing eye to their marauding hubris and bullying tendencies, he will find that over time the very media whom he courts so freely are rather less tame when he really needs their compliance. 

The strategic hinterland of the new archbishop is one of rude health, he draws those from all wings of the Church and this is a good thing. The landscape closer to home is however rather less healthy, infected by a certain casually high handed tendency given to hunting down potentially hurtful confrontation. It is one thing to fight the Church’s corner, the skill, as in all things political, is in picking those fights wisely.

Before he gets down to the serious business, he would be well-advised to drain that swamp. This is the nature of religious leaders in secular times. If those around him see things differently, observing their role as being soldiers in an ongoing no holds barred guerilla war, they will rob him of the much-needed moral authority and undermine the impact of his inevitable interventions.

They will also deprive him of the sympathetic secular audience, those who he will need to advance his cause, especially when tough times come calling.

Morley was the Catholic Church’s director of comms from 2001 to 2003. He is now head of corporate communications at the Qatar Financial Centre Regulatory Authority.

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