This Papal Visit Is Hardly in the National Interest

By Sam Leith
London Evening Standard
September 6, 2010

Big hitting: X Factor contestants Abbey Johnstone and Lisa Parker

I think we can agree that Popemania is not exactly sweeping the nation ahead of His Holiness's visit this month.

Four people in five say they have “no personal interest” in the Pope's visit, and a similar number objects to public money being used to pay for him. Various eminent atheists want him arrested for crimes against humanity, a big tent coalition of special interest groups from Islamic fundamentalists to gay rights campaigners want to see him egged or worse, and even the faithful seem under-enthused.

The organisers of a far-from-sold-out rally in honour of the beatification of Cardinal Newman have “blamed the disappointing response on a lack of coaches for pilgrims and the 6am starting time required to attend the beatification ceremony”. When people spend 48 hours camping on the pavement for an iPhone, the Pope's claim to a monopoly on eternal life can't be very compelling if a 6am start is the deal-breaker.

So most of us are either indifferent or actively hostile to the papal visit. Personally, I'd rather have an ear infection than a visit from the Pope. It seems to me iniquitous enough that general taxation is used to fund “faith schools”, without having to pay for this silly-hatted old crackpot to parade around the place waving at half-full auditoria.

But my personal feelings, and those of the respondents to these polls, don't really matter. Our diplomatic relations with other countries are not a matter for pollsters at Gallup or MORI. And be they Pontiff or private citizen, anyone facing credible threats to their safety in this country deserves the protection of the police. The Rushdie principle holds.

The problem here is, so to speak, upstream: it's that the Pope is a head of state in the first place. We have Benito Mussolini to thank for that. It means that not only are his religious and diplomatic status muddled but that “diplomatic immunity” may put the kibosh on hopes of placing him under arrest.

It's the “non-policing costs” of his visit that are the issue. These will be split between the Catholic Church and the Government, with the taxpayer likely to be soaked for any shortfall.

“The church will clearly meet all the costs of the visit which are rightly the church's,” says a spokesman. Fine. But what aspects of his visit aren't rightly the church's? It is the nakedest of fictions that the Pope's visit has anything at all to do with our national diplomacy.

Let's set aside our moral views on the Catholic church. What are our commercial interests in trading with the Vatican? What are our strategic interests in relation to its military might? What cultural and scientific commonalities can be explored? If these questions strike you as laughable, you're halfway to answering the question of how we should relate to the Pope as a political leader. The Vatican is a pretend nation. Treating it like a real one makes us look silly.

The X Factor's sucker punch

I'm quite taken with X Factor contestants Abbey Johnstone and Lisa Parker. They seemed confused as to what they were doing on the show in the first place yet affronted by the audience's lack of enthusiasm. They ambled off in a grump then ambled back on again. They sung badly and weirdly. Then one of them punched the other one in the face. Now they are famous. If the X-Factor were an exam, AbLisa — as they styled themselves — would be the equivalent of “show your workings”.

Coulson and the harsh reality of a hack's lot

When David Cameron came to power, he seemed to be a man strapped to two unexploded bombs. One of them was his party's sugar-daddy, Lord Ashcroft. The other was Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who now advises him on handling the media.

Lord Ashcroft has already detonated. The ticking from Mr Coulson seems to be getting louder. As you will remember, Mr Coulson was News of the World editor when, as it later emerged, its royal editor Clive Goodman was using a bent private detective called Glenn Mulcaire to illegally tap the phones of royal aides.

Mr Coulson denied any knowledge of this in formal evidence to a Commons Select Committee. But a New York Times investigation quotes named reporters claiming he actively encouraged them to hack phones. Is that plausible? I have had a number of friends who have worked as tabloid gossip columnists — and for all of them, phone-hacking was the matter of routine conversation in the pub: that is to say, it was part of the institutional environment in which they worked. The evidence of the New York Times's interviewees tends to confirm that. “Everyone knew,” said one. “The office cat knew.” It bears further, proper investigation. “Dog doesn't eat dog” is a lousy credo for journalism.

Seeking divine intervention

My girlfriend's father was at the cricket the other day, and among his companions was a minister of the Church of Scotland. It was to this gentleman that my friend turned when dark clouds gathered above the field.

“Couldn't you do something about this weather?” he joked as the first fat plops of rain fell. The minister looked at the cloud.

“I'm afraid not,” he said. “I'm in the sales department, not administration.”


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