Hypocritical media is new guardian of society's morals


If a man came down from Mars and listened quietly for a week or two, he might detect something odd relating to sexual freedom on Planet Earth. He would hear voices complaining that, formerly, an earthly institution called the Catholic Church had constantly stuck its nose into people’s private business – judging, condemning and seeking to prevent them doing what they pleased, with whomever they desired, in the dead of the night.

But, then, if he picked up the Observer newspaper one of the past couple of Sundays, our Martian visitor might have become confused. For here – and subsequently in every other liberal media outlet in these islands – could be observed the media-generated implosion of the career and reputation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien on account of alleged but rather hazily described sexual indiscretions in the past.

Our Martian might require some cultural and ideological clarification as to why it is that newspapers which campaign incessantly for the rights of gay people should in this instance become the instruments of the destruction of a man for behaving precisely as gay men might be expected to behave.

It is true, yes, that the Catholic Church, in its teachings, takes a dim view of such behaviour, especially by a priest. But since when did secular-atheist newspapers serving Protestant cultures become enforcers of the teachings of the Catholic Church? The allegations against O’Brien are in no way comparable to the issue of clerical child sex abuse. The four complainants – three priests and one ex-priest – were, in the early 1980s when the relevant events occurred, well over the legal age limit.

They allege that O’Brien, then in his 40s and the spiritual director of a seminary, attempted to “touch, kiss, or have sex with people in his care”. One man who says he was subjected to “unwanted advances” by O’Brien at bedtime prayers later resigned as a priest when O’Brien became a bishop, fearing the older man would “always have power” over him. Another man, still a priest, alleged that O’Brien instigated an “inappropriate relationship” with him. There is no suggestion that this relationship was not consensual.

The Observer asserts that the story is not about the exposure of one man’s foibles, but about a church official “who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others’ lives that he is not prepared to live out himself”.

Hypocrisy, indeed

Accusations of “hypocrisy” are often employed as an editorial prophylactic in the publication of otherwise unjustifiable stories which invade private lives. In the event of an inconsistency between public position and private behaviour, this logic goes, the public has a right to be informed. But, our Martian might inquire, how many earthlings behave privately always in accordance with the principles they articulate in public? And, yes, I would have to admit – editors and senior journalists have been known to make sexual advances to secretaries and junior reporters.

In the reporting of the O’Brien story, the public has persistently been reminded that, last year, the cardinal was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall. One Observer report asserted: “The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage.” Ah!

But, the Martian might infuriatingly object, there is surely a difference between gay people’s right to practise their sexuality and the issue of gay marriage. It’s true: although liberal media persistently insinuate that opposition to gay marriage is “homophobic”, many gay men and women themselves oppose this development. A recent public demonstration against gay marriage in Paris included a significant cohort of gays. Some gay people have no interest in gay marriage, not wishing to be absorbed into what they regard as a bourgeois institution. Others fear that unforeseeable consequences of gay marriage and adoption may one day result in a backlash against gays. Some even agree with “traditionalists” that children should, where possible, be reared by a father and mother.

Hence, there is not ipso facto a conflict between Cardinal O’Brien’s exercising of his homosexual tendencies and his opposition to gay marriage.

In seeking to enlighten my putative space-travelling interlocutor, I vacillate between two possible metaphors. One relates to what I call “Protection Racket Journalism”, which whispers, in effect: “If you say only things that we agree with, we will refrain from breaking your spectacles.” Hence, anybody who seeks to articulate any kind of principle repugnant to liberals risks having every facet of his or her life opened up to public scrutiny.

The other image depicts a changing of the guard. It is as though, despite fashion or superficial appearances of progressiveness and permissiveness, earthly society retains a deep and abiding need for a voice that judges and rules over sexual behaviour. Once, it was the churches, thumping their Bibles and warning about the sins of the flesh. Nowadays it is the media, fulminating about sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

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