Saturday, 20 October 2007

Don’t mention the Daily Mail. (I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.)

I had one of those “Don’t mention the war!” moments last night. I was sitting next to a Catholic priest at a dinner party and found myself talking about the Channel Four sit-com Father Ted.

Too late, I realised that this could be compared with Basil Fawlty goose-stepping past a bunch of German guests with his finger under his nose. Not tactful, to say the least.

Mercifully, it wasn’t just any priest I was seated alongside, but Father Michael Seed, often referred to as “the priest to the stars”. His Guardian online profile plots his connections with the famous: “The former Liberal Democrats' leader, Charles Kennedy, and his wife, Sarah, the Barclay brothers (the Telegraph's owners), John Gummer, the classical musician Nicola Benedetti, the singer Suggs, of Madness, and Jeffrey Archer - all know him well.” (I know, too many commas, but you get the drift.)

It adds: “The celebrities he has cajoled into contributing to his books … make for an ecumenical rollcall: the Duchess of Kent, Hillary Clinton, John le Carré, Sean Connery, Prince Rainier, Jilly Cooper, Ned Sherrin, Richard Ingrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Terry Wogan, the Dalai Lama, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.”

As it turned out, I hadn’t put my foot in it – I’d struck a chord. I discovered Father Michael has just written about Father Ted for a forthcoming Channel Four book commemorating the station’s 25th anniversary. He chose to treat the show seriously.


So we chatted on about one of the very best sit-coms of the past 20 years. Father Michael loves the programme, as I do, and sees it as a wonderfully warm and sympathetic portrayal of ordinary priests working against the odds, sandwiched between a church hierarchy that is not always in touch with its flock and a congregation that shows all the human foibles.

We talked about our favourite characters, scenes and lines: the disco dancing priest who dances himself to death; the pack of priests trapped in the underwear department of a Dublin store (“It’s the largest lingerie department in all Ireland …so I’m told.”); the contest to see who can kick Bishop Brennan up the arse; and Brennan’s response when Dougal insists on calling him Len: “Dougal, ya little bollocks!”

The general view in the Catholic Church is probably that the programme is very bad publicity. Infact it’s very good. It presents priests as fallible, but very human, and Catholicism in a warm light. And it gets the Church on prime time television.

Father Michael has an instinctive understanding of how to communicate through the mass media.

This ability has sometimes got him into hot water. When he agreed to write about his childhood, and suffering at the hands of an abusive father, for his close friend John Blake, one-time editor of The Sun’s Bizarre column turned publisher of Jordan’s ghosted autobiography, he got some stick.

He got more when the book was serialised in the Daily Mail, house journal of the antichrist as far as many liberals are concerned.

The Mail blurbed it thus: “Michael Seed's childhood was one of the most shocking you'll ever read about. But in a testament to the human spirit, he became a priest and friend to Premiers and royalty. His story is at once haunting and deeply inspiring...”

In it he writes: “I have never, for one moment in my life, ever forgotten the most minute and horrific detail of [my abuse at my father’s hands] and yet, in the 45 years since it first occurred, I have never mentioned it to another soul.

“I only do so now, in all its horror, not to shock, but in the hope that others, facing similar torment, can identify with me and start to believe that there is some hope in the future.”

The book might be classed in the maudlin genre of ‘Mis Lit’ – yet much good has come of it. That good can be measured in the response of the readers. While Father Michael wrote it purely as an account of his suffering, he has had many letters, from some of the 40,000 who have bought the hardback, about how inspiring they find his story, and his triumph over his past.

One among the comments on the Mail’s website reads: “I read this book in a day, I couldn’t leave it. I wanted to know what was going to happen but at the same time afraid of what that might be. I am so happy that Father Michael was able to break free of his past and create a future filled with positive energy, but my heart breaks for all those little children who cannot break the chains they become tangled in and lead a life of pain and misery. We read about the children who have overcome but who speaks up for those who can't?”

Of course, Father Michael didn’t have to serialise the book in the Mail, but he was right to do so. His book, and the publishing and publicity strategy behind it, is a model of how the mass media can be used for good ends.

At this point I will begin to sound a bit like a sermonising vicar who performs a crunching gear change from what the Bible says to something that happened to him this week

So... on to something that happened to me this week.

I was teaching headline writing to a group of people from a charity. The charity was being rebranded and they were required to get on message, and learn to project this new image through the headlines, and other content, they wrote on its website and in print communications.

Rebranding. Sounds nasty. Especially if you are a fairly lefty sort working for a very serious and well-established charity.

I admit it didn’t sound great to me either. I imagined all sorts of abstract concepts and lots of money spent on logos and detailed instructions on where to place them on the page, but little thought given to how to talk to, and persuade, potential supporters.

I was quite wrong.

The rebranding material I was given to work with meshed perfectly with the headline-writing course I was delivering

Because the rebranding was all about good communication; about identifying, and communicating with, a given audience. It was about grabbing people’s attention: making them read, making them want to learn about the material to be presented beneath the headline.

Also, although I didn’t quite dare tell the delegates this, it was very tabloid. Because it talked about writing with commitment and passion. (We hacks call that bias, which the tabloids are great at.)

In talked about having an agenda, and writing with passion to that agenda. That’s the approach which has made the Sun – and more particularly the Mail – great.

So, my rather vicar-ly point is…the mass media can be used to get an important message across: one that connects with the average punter in a very profound way. That goes for TV and the press, but equally for charity websites and press releases.

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