Sticks and stones

The Archbishop of Canterbury says that he is “delighted” that Archbishop Vincent Nichols is the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. Well, he’d better be nice or else Nichols’ press office might start calling him names.

The British religious press/blogs are telling of a confrontation that took place shortly after the April 3rd announcement of Nichols’ appointment, where Peter Jennings told Jonathan Wynne Jones of the Telegraph that he was “a total s**t” for publishing leaked letters from other RC Bishops criticizing Nichols.

Wynne Jones writes:

I’m a total s**t.

So said Peter Jennings, the press secretary to the new Archbishop of Westminster, when I introduced myself.

Normally, it takes a little longer for people to work this out, but Peter is clearly no slouch when it comes to forming an opinion.

He had come to this conclusion on the back of a recent story in which I revealed that a couple of Vincent Nichols’s colleagues were not particularly warm to the idea of him arriving in Westminster.

I’d made this up, according to Peter.

Sadly not, I suggested, and asked whether he was accusing me of lying.

Yes came the reply.

And like an erupting volcano, more came spouting out.

“You’re a total s**t,” he said, as both Andrew Brown and Ruth Gledhill have already reported.

I suggested that perhaps it was unwise and unfortunate to have this outburst with his boss only a few feet away, and press everywhere.

I also questioned whether total was quite fair, arguing irritating or arrogant might have been more appropriate.

Considering Peter should have been celebrating given that his boss has just got the top job, I thought he might have been in a slightly better mood.

Wynne Jones says that Jennings later apologized:

To be fair though, he did calm down and came and apologised. He even admitted that he realised that Archbishop Nichols isn’t universally popular amongst his colleagues, and said that he didn’t doubt my story.

Andrew Brown says that Jennings is unforgiving of any criticism of his boss.

Archbishop Nichols has a clear idea of the benefits that Christianity brings to this country in practical terms, and he is willing to defend this both intellectually and tribally, as his mobilisation of the Catholic vote to defend church schools proved very clearly. In the last three years he has fought a couple of bruising public battles with the Labour government over gay adoption, which he lost, and Church schools, which he won. But the period leading up to his selection was also full of private battles with enemies within the church, leaked to the press in a way quite unprecedented in the traditionally loyal and close-mouthed Catholic church.

Not only were the religious blogs full of speculation and increasingly vicious rumours about the various candidates, but someone leaked to the Sunday Telegraph letters from other bishops denouncing Nichols as abrasive and ambitious: caprine, in fact.

Nichols’ press officer, Peter Jennings, did not forgive this, and after the press conference this morning called Jonathan Wynne Jones, who had written the story, “a total shit.” When Wynne Jones responded that Jennings, too, had been briefing against other bishops, Jennings at first denied this; told that his work was on tape he responded that everyone knows what he had said was true.

Ruth Gledhill wonders of Archbishop Nichols might be imitating secular politicians, who put on a nice face but keep an attack dog on staff, just in case:

Half an hour into a new era, a new Archbishop, and we have a new eschatology.

Press officers are generally taught at nursery school that they might think we are s**s, they might think they know some of us are, they might even find a way to keep us in the dark and feed us on it like mushrooms. But they should never, ever tell us this to our faces, especially when surrounded by bishops and archbishops of the Roman Catholic church, itself an institution only beginning to recover from a series of PR disasters….

…Peter Jennings subsequently apologised and withdrew the remarks. But it raises questions, not least because his response to this post has been to threaten me with all withdrawal of future cooperation. Great isn’t it? Within hours of the appointment of the new Archbishop of Westminster, his press officer falls out with The Times and The Sunday Telegraph and makes a laughing stock of himself over at The Guardian.

Vin Nichols, meanwhile, could perhaps be compared to Tony Blair. He’s swung to the right, he’s commendably pragmatic, he has a deep, deep faith, he’s good-looking, charismatic, charming, personable. He can expect to stay in office a long, long time. But as Blair had Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, so Nichols has Jennings. In a politician, perhaps, some might find it acceptable to have a legman to do the dirty work you’re not prepared to do yourself, and phone up newsdesks at midnight after the first editions drop to tell them they’re a bunch of s***s. Personally, I don’t find that acceptable. I find it even less so in a member of an Archbishop’s staff.

Lets hope the language of scatology is not the tone of things to come at Ambrosden Avenue.

Read the rest here, here and here.

Past Posts