Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Hello darkness my old friend

Splintered Sunrise blog - 10.8.2010

I really hope our friend Austen Ivereigh has had a nice, relaxing time of it in Tanzania. Seriously, I do, because what follows beneath may have a bad effect on Austen’s blood pressure.

Okay, so if there’s one thing that should have been made abundantly clear in Catholic circles by the clerical abuse scandal, it’s that a culture of secrecy and silence is not going to fly these days. It especially isn’t going to fly given an increasing unwillingness amongst the faithful to keep quiet for fear of rocking the boat. Indeed, the fact that you are reading this on the interwebs tells you that we are long past the point where there were a couple of weekly papers that could be leaned on by the Magic Circle if an inconvenient story needed suppressing. And yet, there are still some dumbos in the Catholic establishment who don’t apprehend this basic truth.

Exhibit A is the case of the Birmingham Three. This has now moved up a gear, with two developments. One is that it’s been made public that the three exiles are not guilty of any wrongdoing, which prompts the question of why three Oratorians acknowledged to be guilty of nothing have been treated more severely than, well, I’m sure some notorious clerical miscreants will come to mind. The other is that Ruth Dudley Edwards is on the case, and Ruth is a fairly heavy hitter in the media. The longer this drags on, the more it will spread.

It strikes me that if Iggy Harrison had come out at the start of this with some anodyne statement about the Three being sent away because of, I don’t know, personality clashes at the Oratory, the whole thing would probably have died down by now. At least it wouldn’t have taken on the dimensions it now has. And now, of course, the silence has become the story, and the silence is going to feed the rumours and speculation. It’s no wonder Uncle Jack Valero seemed a little subdued, even pensive, at the Evangelium conference. Not quite his usual ebullient self.

Which brings me to Exhibit B, namely Catholic Voices. I mention this because there is no earthly reason for Catholic Voices to be run along Chatham House lines, and if you announce some high-profile project and then are less than open about it, you positively invite speculation. This appears to be lost on our friend Dr Ivereigh, who apparently has taken to phoning around the dweebs Voices in an agitated state, demanding that one of them fess up to being the leak. Really, I am disappointed. I knew Austen didn’t understand the blogosphere, but I would have thought he might have heard of something called a “grape-vine”. We’re not talking George Smiley here. Perhaps we might put that down to the personal eccentricity of someone who might urge his wedding guests not to talk about the happy occasion lest he be subjected to some mild ribbing on the internet; or someone who would cajole his pal Robert Pigott into something as ineffably dopey as this. But no, I have a feeling this goes beyond Dr Ivereigh’s idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps the liking for secrecy is an Opus Dei thing. But I suspect it’s got more to do with a general attitude that the Catholic establishment shouldn’t have to be answerable to the great unwashed, and that asking awkward questions is just terribly vulgar. That’s a habit that the establishment will have to break, or be broken from, like it or no.

In the case of CV, which I reiterate is a perfectly sound idea in principle and should have been done years ago, it creates a sort of air of shiftiness around something that could perfectly easily be transparent; in fact, if it was transparent, it would be easier to get the great unwashed to adopt the project as something they can be enthusiastic about. But have Beavis and Butt-head grasped this concept? Noooo.

And of course, if you’re used to operating without scrutiny, this makes amateurish pratfalls much more likely. For instance, CV made much of its rigorous selection procedure, helped along by the involvement of such as Fr Stephen Wang, who is used to rigorous selection procedures in his Allen Hall capacity. This rigorous procedure ran to summarily dismissing a number of enthusiastic young Catholic bloggers on the grounds of their being “mad” (Ivereigh-speak for “slightly more orthodox than me”); yet apparently did not run to basic things like, oh, making sure that all the Voices would be present at the roll-out in September, without being derailed by small matters like visas running out. Do you think Simon Cowell runs X Factor with that sort of slapdash attitude?

This may not matter if it was just a Jack ‘n’ Austen vanity project, but no, the Catholic establishment is heavily vested in this boondoggle. It’s being co-patronised by Dan Brennan and Chris Jamison, neither of whom is a lightweight. Luminaries such as Vin Nichols, Charles Wookey and Jamie Bogle have popped in to meet and greet. Uncle Jack has been appearing everywhere to talk about how tremendously significant CV is. With that sort of buildup, you’d better hope the end product is good.

Here’s a final thought. You will of course be aware that there’s this outfit called the “Catholic Communications Network”, which is supposed to do the comms for the Bishops’ Conference on a regular basis. Arguably, it’s the notorious uselessness of CCN that makes a project like Catholic Voices necessary. But hark! What’s this? Papal Visit Communication Officers, linked to the individual dioceses? To paraphrase the divine Oscar, duplication of functions may be put down to inefficiency, but triplication looks like extravagance. At least the Magic Circle can’t be blamed for this appeal from the BBC, or we might be talking about quadruplication of functions.

As the late VI Lenin used to say, “better fewer but better”. I’d rather have a handful of comms people who know what they’re doing than a small army who don’t.

Moreover, this is a bit like the Greg Pope situation. When Eccleston Square identify a problem, their stock response is to throw money at it. Hence dealing with the Oona Stannard problem by creating a job for Greg Pope and hoping that he cancels Oona out, rather than having the Oona Stannard problem compounded by a Greg Pope problem. And Alexander DesForges being AWOL making a new series of Changing Rooms is to be addressed by new media teams springing up like dandelions.

Bearing in mind that the Catholic Church has, how shall we put this, certain issues with cashflow, and that we’re in an age of austerity more generally, it really is striking that the Catholic establishment are doing a good impression of Formula One drivers spraying champagne all around them. Does Vin Nichols think this is a sensible way to proceed? Does Dan Brennan think it’s a sensible way to proceed? Because I don’t.