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Taking away Rupert Murdoch’s papal knighthood would be unpleasantly self-righteous. We’re supposed not to avoid sinners

And the death of the News of The World, for all its remaining faults, is nothing to crow about

By on Monday, 11 July 2011

Rupert Murdoch at a conference last Friday in Idaho (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Rupert Murdoch at a conference last Friday in Idaho (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Should Cavaliere Murdoch have his papal knighthood rescinded? My feeling is that it wouldn’t do much good: he gave a lot of money (probably at the instance of his then wife, who was a Catholic, and who at the same time was made a papal dame) after he donated $10 million to help build Los Angeles Catholic cathedral. Just cancelling the knighthood simply gives the impression of futile censoriousness. If we made a mistake in giving him a papal knighthood in the first place, it won’t be undone by taking it away now.

It also gives the idea we shouldn’t have anything to do with people who do bad things. Actually it’s just what we’re supposed to do. When I was writing regularly for the Daily Mail, I had an amusing invitation to write a piece for the Sun. Well, it was the way the invitation was put that was amusing: the proposed piece was actually quite serious. “What,” the chap said, “do you think of the way the local council [or somebody of that sort] at Newquay is going around the beaches and distributing condoms to 12-year-old girls? It isn’t right, is it?” “Well, no,” I replied. “It definitely is not right”. “That’s what we thought”, he said. “But why? Would you write a piece explaining why it isn’t right?” “Well, certainly,” I said. It was to be a long piece, a full page: for the Sun, that is of epic proportions. “Could you get it in today?” He said: “Next week, we’re doing a big feature, with the headline ‘Nookie in Newquay’.”

You couldn’t make it up.

Well, I wrote the piece, which went down well, I was told, and a few weeks later, I got another phone call. They were going to run a story about two girls who had gone on holiday on the Costa del Sol and had decided (as a kind of holiday task) to try to clock up, during their seven days, sex with at least 40 different men between them. “It isn’t right,” said the chap, “is it.” No, I said, “it isn’t right.” “But why?” he said; “Why isn’t it right?” Would I write a piece explaining Why it wasn’t right.

That, too, went down well, it seemed; but I was getting a little puzzled. Why, if they were so disapproving of these activities, were they running stories about them in the first place, thus giving such behaviour a kind of popular currency? So I asked them about it. The answer was simple. They worked for the Sun: those were the kind of stories the Sun did. But they also had young families: and that somehow gave them this instinctive feeling that “it wasn’t right”. I wrote another couple of pieces of the same sort for them, one of which appeared when Rupert Murdoch was in this country on one of his flying visits. After that one appeared, I got an awestruck phone call. “You’ll never guess who told us he liked your piece,” he said. “No, who?” “Are you sitting down?” he said “Yes.” “Well. It was [lowered voice] MR MURDOCH. What do you think of that? That’s not bad is it? Well done!” You would have thought that he was telling me I’d been awarded the OM, or was going to be invited on to Desert Island Discs.

The then editor of the Sun was sacked shortly after that, so I got no more of these invitations; but when, shortly thereafter, Rupert Murdoch was given his papal knighthood, I hadn’t quite got the heart to join in the chorus of condemnation from Catholic public opinion. Publicans and sinners, I thought, publicans and sinners; we’re not supposed to hold ourselves aloof. And so I think now. That papal knighthood was never taken as meaning that the Church approved of page three girls or of stories about “Nookie in Newquay”. I don’t know quite what it did mean; maybe it was an encouragement to stick with his Catholic wife; if so, it failed, because he later divorced her and remarried.

But if we’re now to take this papal honour off him because of what some of his journalists have so appallingly done, are we not taking it on ourselves to declare his guilt for something he claims (almost certainly truthfully) not to have known was going on? Similarly with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade. The editor of a newspaper, said the ghastly (sorry, but I think he is) Ken Livingstone last week, either knows what’s going on in his newsroom, or if he doesn’t, he’s just incompetent. As a former editor of a much smaller newspaper, I can state authoritatively that there was no hacking of telephones at the Catholic Herald in my time. But that’s because my staff was so small I knew my journalists well enough to be certain they wouldn’t do that. On a huge paper the size of the News of the World that just can’t be the case.

So, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to spread the guilt around as widely as possible. That the journalists who carried out these really vile acts, especially the tapping of the phones of the bereaved, have been guilty of something really despicable, is clear enough.

But it is pretty clear, too, that most of the journalists who lost their jobs when the News of the World was closed down this week have paid the price for crimes committed by other people, as a direct result of the deeply unattractive tendency of the British people to whip themselves up overnight into a moralistic frenzy which can only be appeased by such dramatic (and in this case wantonly destructive) gestures. The death of a paper founded over a century and a half ago to cater for an audience which had previously been ignored – that is, the poor – has to be seen, whatever its remaining faults, as a tragic event. As the Times said this week, the News of the World was the first newspaper to appeal to the newly literate working class. It still catered for its working-class audience, an audience addressed by the press of no other European country. Of course some of its content was pretty nasty. But much of it wasn’t (the curate’s egg comes to mind). Personally, I wouldn’t have it in the house. But many others, who rarely read anything else, still did: it was their one tenuous link with regular functioning literacy. Now it has gone. There are quite a lot of people around in all this whose behaviour seems to me dubious to say the least. Those who are now crowing at the disappearance of this historic paper are among them.

  • Jlagrue

    I strongly suspect the the chorus calling for the removal the the knighthood is deeply outraged (as am I) that he ever got one in the first place. Such an “honour” should surely be reserved for those who do great things for Christ and His Church – not for those who have deep pockets and an incentive to look good by giving away a tiny amount of it. But Mr Oddie is right; to remove it now would be jumping on a slightly dubiously motivated bandwagon.

  • RJ

    I can’t work myself up into a lather about the knighthood. There are much more significant things to think about. Somebody put him forward, it went through the machinery. Perhaps they should have done a Google search!

  • Disappointed

    Papal knighthoods are pretty worthless (unless you paid for them, as some apparently have done; see the Mail’s disclosure’s re: Fr Seed’s little racket). Rupert Murdoch, John Wilkins… both men responsible for publications which published little if anything compatible with Church teaching.

  • Anonymous

    Unless I am mistaken, did not Groucho Marx said that he would not belong to any club that would have him as a member?

    When Mr Murdoch comes to hear that, he may well decide to resign of his own volition.

  • Observer

    I don’t recall Jesus saying we should give gongs to publicans and sinners.  In fact he was pretty quiet on the gong-front altogether…

  • penny

    Not all newspapers that cater for the literate poor punt pornography; The Sunday Post  is a very good example of a “family” Sunday newspaper.  The main rival to ‘The Sun’   in Scotland is the ‘Daily Record’ and it stopped printing page three pictures many years ago, as did its sister paper, The Sunday Mail.  It may well be that the NOW had worthy beginnings, but there has never been a need to use pornography to sell newspapers.  Introducing it was a cynical ploy to appeal to our base instinct for titillation in the hope of gaining an edge in the circulation wars. .  If you take the porn out of all newspapers, people would STILL BUY THEM.  I can’t mourn the demise of the NOW; images, once seen, cannot be unseen.  The casual acceptance of pornography and promiscuity in this country began with page three porn introduced into family homes.
    It doesn’t matter if Mr. Murdoch has his Papal honour taken off him or not; its enough that newspapers such as the NOW have had a reality check; live by sleaze, die in sleaze.  I’m sure the journalists who have lost their jobs will be quickly re-employed by whatever Paper Mr. Murdoch launches to replace the NOW.

  • Jeannine

    “Papal knighthoods are pretty worthless.” You bet it is. But these supposedly men in power would still like to add some Vatican bling to their collection.

    Don’t forget  to add Le President Sarko to your list.

  • Den flyvende hollender

    Is this even a real option? Is the Pope considering this at all? Personally, I would guess not.

  • Just Sayin’

    Wise up.  When one makes a mistake one does what one can to fix it.  The Catholic Church is no different.  Murdoch should have any and all accolades stripped from him.  Does the Catholic Church really wish to stand out as the only body in the world still fêteing this man?

  • Robert

    William Oddie writes: “That papal knighthood was never taken as meaning that the Church
    approved of page three girls or of stories about ‘Nookie in Newquay’. I
    don’t know quite what it did mean.”

    So he thinks he knows what the knighthood doesn’t mean, but he doesn’t know what it does mean. Wouldn’t anyone capable of writing such bizarre sentences – which would be unduly flattered by the appellation ‘casuistry’ – be happier back with Anglicanism, where mental confusion is the sine qua non?

  • W Oddie

    Saying what something doesn’t mean but that you don’t know what it actually DOES mean is perfectly coherent to anyone capable of consecutive thought. One interpretation is excluded: but the correct interpretation is left open. There is no mental confusion here whatever; except in this post. THINK about it (you clearly didn’t before you wrote this)..

  • Jamie Ensign

    Agreed – Robert’s argument would accuse Aquinas amongst others of mental confusion. I prescribe some study of the via negativa

  • Chjklnps

    Are Christians supposed to feel sorry for billionaires? I don’t think so. When they sell all their peoperty and give it to the starving poor things will be looking up. Catholics read their Gospel too. Until then we should pity the rich, but take little notice of them. As for the media, who cares what they say – those who actually believe in God don’t have any regard for worldly opinion. As Jesus said, “How can you believe when you look to one another for glory.” Democracy is about ordinary people. The rich can look after themselves. 

  • ReaderDawn

    The fact that he got a Papal knighthood in the first place is one of the reasons why people are getting sceptical about catholic spirituality, i.e. Jesus People. There is no other Church, there is no other authority except Jesus as The Holy Spirit (of truth, let us be reminded).

  • Anonymous

    “Just cancelling the knighthood simply gives the impression of futile
    censoriousness. If we made a mistake in giving him a papal knighthood in
    the first place, it won’t be undone by taking it away now.”

    “We” gave him nothing – the late Pope did. It is the ethics of despair to say that because the man has been made a
    KSG, he might as well remain one: the Christian reaction to sin and
    folly & error is, not to remain in them, but to turn from them. The Pope compromised the reputation of the Church by honouring a bad man – the solution is, to stop honouring him. Simples.

    My motives ? I’m sick to death of seeing the Papacy dishonour itself by honouring a man who by his filthy publications perverts public morals, his readers, his employees, and himself. The Papacy is rejects the “Gospel of Life” by honouring a man whose publications deliberately appeal, for no end higher that sordid gain, to the basest appetites of his readers. What is a mere building, however expensive, compared to the temple of God that is the human body ? But that temple is constantly profaned by this man’s publications. Not for the first time, those in the Church who should know better are overlooking an enormous evil while rewarding a little good; that is a perversion in itself :(

  • Adamgthomson

    But Saint Paul wasn’t enitrely quiet. “There must be no passing of premature judgement.Leave
    that until the Lord comes; he will light up all that is hidden in the
    dark and reveal the secret intentions of men’s hearts. THEN will be the
    time for each one to heave whatever praise he deserves – from GOD.’ (1 Corinthians 4.5).  Surely the whole idea of the Church giving a ‘papal knighthood goes wholly against that.

  • Anonymous

    “Are Christians supposed to feel sorry for billionaires?” Only to the extent that billionaires stand a much better chance of damnation than most other people. The exploitation of people’s appetites is much worse than having billions, for enormous wealth can be at least be used for a morally good end; exploiting people’s appetites can’t.

  • Adamgthomson

    Mr Oddie says, “Personally I wouldn’t have it in the house. But many others, who rarely read anything else, still did: it was their one tenuous link with regular functioning literacy.” One could say much the same about pornographic magazines : “Many, who never visit an art gallery, have this one tenuous link with the world of art.” Possibly true, but they would be better to break that link : Matthew 5.29-30.

  • Caiaphas

    Qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit

  • W Oddie

    The point is that there was other stuff as well, some of which was actually worthy of praise. Throughout its history, beginning with child labour in the 19th century, this was campaigning newspaper. It campaigned against corruption to the end: and ironically became partly (we just don’t know how much yet) corrupt as well as well. In other words, it was a mirror of society as a whole. So I persist in mourning its passing. What’s corrupt can be cleaned up. What’s dead and gone is dead and gone.

  • W Oddie

    The pope almost certainly knew nothing about it. This is an honour dished out by local prelates: hence a papal knighthod for John Wilkins for spending 17 years attacking the pope. Maybe that’s what needs to be changed? 

  • Anonymous

    The News of the World was fascistic porn – it destroyed many lives.
    The Sun is even more deplorable.
    Any equivocation or mitigation in any regard to these vile savage indictments upon modern journalism is inexcusable.
    Murdoch’s rags led to the further debasement and corruption of society.
    There is nothing else to discuss.

  • Jeanne


    HE STILL HAS THE PAGE 6 NUDE WOMEN IN THE SUN.  I am from the States and you all know what that is.l  PORN!!!!  

    TAKE IT AWAY.  He runs a porn shop in those papers.  He may cloud the Fox News as conservative but for bleepy years  and years  Lonesome Roads Beck is gone now.  

    Down with Murdoch.  

  • Jeanne


    HE STILL HAS THE PAGE 6 NUDE WOMEN IN THE SUN.  I am from the States and you all know what that is.l  PORN!!!!  

    TAKE IT AWAY.  He runs a porn shop in those papers.  He may cloud the Fox News as conservative but for bleepy years  and years  Lonesome Roads Beck is gone now.  

    Down with Murdoch.  

  • Michael M

    But who would have recommended Rupert Murdoch for papal recognition?
    Does the Church need such recognitio?
    Canonisation, yes. Knighthoods, no.

  • Anonymous

    It was handed out in his name. Shouldn’t the authority in whose gift an honour lies make sure that an intended recipient is a fit and proper person to receive it ? Maybe one thing to change is the competence of bishops to award Papal honours – how is that the function of the pastors of the Church ? What are such baubles compared with eternal life ?

    As for “attacking the Pope” – Dante called Rome “a sewer running with blood and filth” (Paradiso 27), and made no difficulty about consigning three Popes to Hell. Yet he has been admired by several Popes, including Pius IX (who laid a wreath at his tomb in 1857); Benedict XV, who marked the sixth centenary of the death of the poet with a letter in praise of his works in 1921), and Paul VI, who marked the seventh centenary of his birth with another letter in 1965. There is not the slightest doubt – despite several attempts over the years to make out that he was a Cathar, a Protestant, or an atheist -  of his Catholicism. His severe comments about the corruption in the Church and the behaviour of many clerics have not prevented Catholics of high character (Don Orione, Frederic Ozanam, & Cardinal Manning among them) speaking very highly of his poem – even though it contains passages that, nowadays, some people would regard as “anti-Catholic”. It would be interesting to know which of the “usual suspects” has ever called Rome what Dante does. I doubt very much John Wilkins has gone that far. It was Jesus, no less,  Who called Peter “Satan” – which is more than has been said of Peter’s successors.

    Freedom to criticise Popes and other such characters in the Church used to be normal before the Reformation. If rot in the Church, no matter where in the Church, goes unchecked, it becomes very hard to purge, or even recognise. Criticising Popes when they set an evil example by the depravity of their lives or the unwisdom of their actions is not wrong in itself. It is wrong of the Papacy to reward evil-doing, and nothing can make it right to do so. To flatter Popes as though they could do or think or say no wrong – that is not good; as Cardinal Newman points out. They need prayer, not flattery. It is their function that is sacred, not them. They are our servants – are we never to point out their shortcomings ?

  • Siobhan

    If the pope did not know that is even more shameful, it is akin to a train driver being blindfolded, having no idea where he is going. In the light of more revelations about the Vatican and the scandal in the Irish church a lot of very ordinary Catholics will question if there is any integrity in Rome at all.

  • Clivejw

    As far as I’m aware, the rich have always had the option of buying redemption of their sins from the Catholic Church in return for a nice tax-deductible lump sum payment. The practice is known as the ‘sale of indulgences’, and the present pope has done much to restore the practice officially. Rupe’s purchase of a papal knighthood shows it never went away. It doesn’t matter that his papers peddle soft porn and hack the phones of murder victims, or that his film corporation produces a high proportion of movies condemned by the Vatican’s own censors. It doesn’t matter that he left his wife of 31 years (who was probably responsible for his attraction to Catholicism in the first place and was honoured by the Vatican at the same time as Murdoch himself) for a bimbo half his age; he gives some of his ill-gotten gains to the Church, and is therefore immune to criticism.

    Perhaps Rupe can rewrite the Bible to get around that tricky
    camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle passage. News Corporation lists as one
    of its holdings Zondervan Publishing House, the designated publisher of
    the New International Version of the Bible (NIV). Although the NIV
    copyright is held by the International Bible Society, Zondervan has
    exclusive publishing rights. At least, the NIV could put the other side
    of the story and let the reader decide — using Fox News’ famous formula
    of presenting truth and lies as if they were of equal force.

  • samson

    The idea that the News of The World was a newspaper for the working man is little less than an insult. I remember as a youngster in a working class area just after the war it was considered quite daring to purchase any newspaper at all on a Sunday. The NOTW was despised and I never knew any working man who would have it in his house.