Various people — well, the religious affairs journalists Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Damian Thompson, and Ruth Gledhill — have complained about my column this week in the Church Times on the grounds that what I wrote about Chris Morgan was “despicable” (Damian), “totally distasteful … incredibly low” (Jonathan W-J); “I would hate to have Brown’s conscience at the moment, if such a thing exists” writes Ruth, who also refers to my “peculiarly dark and embittered take on the world”. None of these good people can actually share with their readers the full horror of what I wrote, because it’s behind a paywall. So I am putting it under the fold for connoisseurs of the dark and embittered.
UPDATE: the revulsion seems now rather less widespread: Ruth has taken down her remarks. Perhaps the lawyers had a fit. I don’t care (goes with not having a conscience), but some of the things she said about the Church Times might have upset any lawyer. Damian has reprinted some of her remarks about me in his own comments, and adds that my dark and embittered character stems from the lack of any recognition of my role as a public intellectual. I will pass his diagnosis on to Lambeth Palace for appropriate remedy.
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CHRISTOPHER MORGAN, who killed himself last week after a prolonged depression, had been a good journalist of a rather old-fashioned sort, at the BBC in Wales and elsewhere. He was a very good presenter of the Sunday programme in the early ’90s.
His great mistake, I think, was moving to The Sunday Times, where he was expected to come up with scoops on the most tenuous basis. The paper, then as now, didn’t much care whether what it printed about the Church of England was true, so long as it was exciting. His downfall was to apply the same standards of evidence to stories about the Royal Family. A story in 2000 claiming that Charles and Camilla would marry in Scotland so infuriated the royal household that he was sacked.
He continued to write for the paper, but on a basis of increasing desperation. He had been an old and close friend of Rowan Williams, and had campaigned to get him to Canterbury; but it is impossible to be a true friend of the people you write about, when your career and happiness depends on printing stories that they do not want to see published.
The last really big story he had from those circles was the revelation that one of Rowan’s Welsh priests, the Revd Martin Reynolds, at the time a friend of both men, was about to become the first gay man in Wales to adopt a child. The publicity was damaging to everyone involved. In the long run, it didn’t even do Chris any good: to acquire a reputation as someone who will sell out old friends for a story does not help you get new ones. But, from his perspective, what else could he have done? He was under tremendous pressure to produce, and the story was true.
Chris cared a great deal for the forms of things, and the maintenance of appearances. He had an old-fashioned regard for the dignity of lunch. He must have eaten in every first-class restaurant in London: not just the Savoy and other obviously prestigious places, but Gordon Ramsay, and the River Café continued to be his haunts. The last time we met, he bought me lunch at the River Café. I wondered how he could still afford it, but he waved away any offers of help.
For a man so gregarious and indiscreet about others, he was extraordinarily private. I found this removed much of the pleasure I might have had from his company. He was intelligent and kindly, and very well informed, but I could never shake off the feeling that he wasn’t there. Beyond the sense – implicit in any political conversation – that important truths are being withheld, I had with Chris a sense that something unsayable occupied his deeper thoughts: that, under all the gossip, he knew something he could not begin to communicate. But perhaps this, too, is an illusion, brought on by the fact that any suicide feels like a communication to us who are left behind.
Andrew – the Gledhill seems to have been removed from The Times site- neither the link you offer nor indeed a link from the ‘recent comments’ sidebar of http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/ works… I wonder what can have happened?
For what it’s worth, your piece told me about someone I remember listening to but did not know, and offered me an insight into his life that a conventional Times obit would have completely lacked (I know, because I write them) . I’m grateful for it.
For what it’s worth as an outsider, your piece said more, more intelligently (as usual – curse you) than other commentators. You don’t say anything anyone else doesn’t say, and you say it more perceptively and without the cringing typical of hagiographic obits.
I don’t know that it’s _peculiarly_ dark and embittered, but you aren’t exactly being a little ray of sunshine.
The revulsion, of course, isn’t really directed at you. It’s directed primarily at the reality of Morgan’s life, at you only to the extent that you exposed it. There is ever something that we prefer to the truth.
Alas, I should have printed out Ruth’s outburst so that my wife could read it. I told her about it, but now it is too late. What stuck in my craw was going on at you for not having a degree: to spare your blushes I won’t comment on your education, intelligence, and width of reading, but… And I speak as someone who scraped through with a 2nd in Mods and a 3rd (it would now be a 2-2, a vicious Cambridge import) in Greats. Meanwhile Anne-Marie is Girton girl with a 2-1 in modern languages: as far as both of us are concerned, so what?
Speaking as an ordinary atheist with no particular axe to grind, I have to say that your piece is one of the most distasteful things I have ever encountered. It made me feel soiled, and the last time I could truthfully say that, I’d just seen Jim Davidson live on stage.
Bugger the degree. ACB has been thrown out of some of our most reputable educational institutions in the country. He probably read more (and drank more) in one Swedish winter than I did in three years at Durham. He certainly had more, . . . . well, whatever.
My experience, FWIW, is that, if you’re looking for God, the best place to start is the truth, however peculiarly dark and embittered. While ACB may not be looking for God, his writing is a good place to start for those who do. Ruth knows this.
What a splendid little bit of intellectual snobbery in the Gledhill piece. Really, people do reveal themselves.
And good lord, the Holy Smoke blog has some crazy commentors. It’s like YouTube in Northern Ireland out there.
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I’ve said in my blog that often your criticisms were valid, but the supercilious savagery with which you expressed them seemed disproportionate to the offence. If Chris seemed “not all there” at your lunches, it was because he was frightened of you. As he had every reason to be. True, I can be as vicious – but no one I’ve tormented has committed suicide.
Whitened sepulchres is the phrase that springs to mind, particularly reading the really deeply unpleasant item by Damian Thompson that you link to.
Anger and blame are often responses to the grief of bereavement. Perhaps it would be charitable to ascribe these emotions in this circumstance to Mr Thompson.
However were I you I should be seriously disturbed at being described as charming and undoubtedly brilliant by such a commentator.
Actually, while I was writing the above comment Damian Thompson’s comment appeared. I had decided against expressing the thought that his thinly-veiled implication, in the post you linked to, that you were in some way responsible for Chris Morgan’s death was probably actionable.
I see he has chosen to express this opinion again, in less tangential form.
I feel extremely sorry for him.
“True, I can be as vicious – but no one I’ve tormented has committed suicide.”
If that is meant to insinuate that Andrew bears some responsibility for Chris Morgan’s suicide — and I can’t see how it can mean anything else — then Damian really has descended into the gutter. What a foul and disgusting (not to say libellous) remark.
If I implied that you drove Chris to suicide, then I’m sorry: I don’t believe that. But your articles did contribute to his extremely unhappy mental state, as people close to him will attest. I’m amazed that your arse-licking friends can’t see how objectionable your Church Times piece is – certainly journalists at the Telegraph who knew Chris were disgusted by it. And what about your casual reference to his supposed homosexuality further down the Telegraph thread? That’s very typical of you – you did it to me once.
This may not add much to this discussion, but I think Andrew and Damian are both have a point, probably Damian more than Andrew. Chris was a good man but with his faults like everyone else. It’s natural and possibly helpful to wonder what inner struggles he must have been dealing with. But so soon after he died, and in such tragic circumstances, it’s best to focus on the good man he was, and the good he did in his life. It may seem cringe-worthy hagiography to some, but it’s the most Christian and charitable approach, in my opinion.
That’s a first for me Damian, I’ve never been called arse-licking before.
I took the post down on the advice of a friend whose judgement I trust. One thing I forgot to mention in the post though – I don’t have a degree either! I just have an HND. Of course, Andrew, you are quite entitled to criticise me and others, that is your job. Sometimes there is just the teeniest, weeniest amount of merit in your criticisms of me and I do try and change accordingly when that happens. I just wish that sometimes, you weren’t quite so nasty about it. Often you make me laugh but quite often you do seem to go over the line into malice. Senior journalists at The Times were shocked by your Church Times piece on Chris as well as at the Telegraph, and many clergy have also contacted me privately, even liberal ones who normally support you, to say you went too far this time. It is one thing to have a go at us when we’re living, those of us who dish it out have to be able to take it, although I dispute that I sink to the same levels of spite as you do. It is quite another to do it to people who aren’t around to fight back any more. If you wanted to say and imply those things about Chris, you should have said them when Chris was alive.
Edward Pentin: the CT did also publish a formal obituary, much more sympathetic, from an old college friend of Chris Morgan’s. I was simply trying to consider his life as a journalist.
As for the consistent complaints that I am nasty, malicious, spiteful, and so on – I try not to be and no doubt often fail. But there are in fact other reasons than my own inadequacies for brutalising Ruth’s copy, or Damian’s, or Chris Morgan’s, and I do give my workings. It may be absurd or pompous to think that journalism ought to be as truthful as we can make it, but I do think that, and it’s my justification for the CT column — well, that and the money, and the recognition as a public intellectual. So when people write stories that are untrue and in some cases damagingly so, I think that’s morally and professionally wrong. I say so. It hurts. Obviously not too much, because the same thing happens again and again. And I try — as I say — to give reasons for my reactions, and to justify what I criticise with quotes. And I do look for stuff to praise rather than blame and when I find it, I praise it. Again, I give my reasoning.
Perhaps my articles did contribute to his unhappy mental state — though not half so much as being sacked and losing old friends must have done. It is a recognised part of depression that every nasty thing that has ever been said about you circles endlessly inside your head and quite probably mine did form part of the chorus of condemnation he heard. I regret that. But I don’t see that it’s blameworthy. It is something that comes under the heading of the unavoidable ghastliness of the world. The whole point about depression is that it is not a sane nor balanced response to life.
But I formed my opinion of his veracity in the years when I was expected to follow up his Sunday Times stories. Again and again, when I looked into them, they were not true. This isn’t complex. It’s a matter of empirical, checkable fact. They were very light on named sources; they were often denied. Where they could be checked, there was an expectation that they wouldn’t pan out. They weren’t all that often followed up. Of course it must have caused him pain to see these things written, and to see story after story “fisked” as young people used to say. It will have stung his vanity and possibly his professional conscience. But when he got real stories, I praised them, too.
What I deny, though, is that my judgements are arbitrary: that I beat people up for the sake of being vile and unpleasant. I know I did so as a young man, though not, then, other journalists. It’s what young men do. Again, I have lost friends for the sake of a good joke when I might not do so today (of course, my jokes aren’t nearly so funny now). But when I write about journalists, I do so illuminated by the understanding, from the inside, of how difficult it is to be a news journalist, and with a pretty clear idea of what constitutes being good — and bad — at the task.
None of which excuses your Church Times piece about Chris.
I can’t quite understand why you’re so astonished that Chris could never ‘reveal’ his inner self to you, when you were not really a friend but a critic.
His friends could take him at face value, accepted his faults and revelled in his qualities. What he kept personal we could all respect, and it was always those who professed ‘not to really care’ who speculated so authoritatively about what he kept private. He was very intelligent but also wonderfully naive at times. I guess that’s why he persisted in generously entertaining people whom he clearly should have jettisoned a long time ago.
Nobody who knew Chris would attempt to whitewash over his faults, but your piece is mean spirited and loaded with baseless insinuation.
I’m not given to finding meaning in death, let alone in one which has a burden of so much personal unhappiness. But when one illustrates things that are rarely said but explain much, I think it’s an abdication of the job to look away.
In common, I’m sure, with most of Andrew’s readers I never knew nor met Christopher Morgan, so I read the CT piece cold. It comes across as uncompromising, certainly, thoughtful and revealing and sad. But bitter. spiteful and nasty? Only if you think that the politeness of nil nisi bonum is more important than saying something worthwhile, and that you further think that Andrew thinks that too but decided that cruelty was more fun.
I met Chris Morgan at the occasional Christmas party in Cardiff and he seemed to be an affable gent who could get on with just about anyone. On a personal level it’s sad that he has decided to remove himself from this world and his circumstances were undoubtedly both private and tragic.
But it’s also salutary to be reminded just how such likeable journalists operate: by wringing scoops out of their friends and acquaintances over expensive dining tables. From this point of view, I’m glad that Andrew Brown forcefully stated things that were merely hinted at in the circumspect “approved” obits in the broadsheets.
I feel that Chris’s private life was not the subject of Brown’s article, but rather his modus operandi. And that provides an illuminating insight not only into his sad demise, but also the workings of the press in general.
To those who think Brown’s comments were “mean spirited”, I think it’s entirely appropriate to be critical even after a recent death. My parents, who both knew Chris, read between the lines of the Times obit and nodded knowingly when they read the Church Times article. They didn’t do this because they disliked Chris but instead felt deeply sorry that such issues had bubbled beneath the surface of his public persona. Brown’s more forceful take gave them some possible answers to questions raised by the suicide.
In my view that’s good and legitimate journalism.
First things first. I am sorry to hear about Christopher Morgan. If he was seeking peace, I hope he found it.
The last really big story he had from those circles was the revelation that one of Rowan’s Welsh priests, Martin Reynolds, at the time a friend of both men, was about to become the first gay parent in Wales to adopt a child. This was damaging to everyone involved.
There are times I wish I had a god to pray to. This is one of them. I’d pray that, within our lifetimes, the fact that a gay Welsh Anglican priest had adopted a child would be even more shatteringly boring than it is now; boring enough that even the usual bores would be bored by it.
But perhaps this, too, is an illusion, brought on by the fact that any suicide feels like a communication to us left behind.
It is an illusion, I think. Perhaps some suicides do it to leave a message. If so, I can only find them the most frightful sort of drama queens. But I’m pretty certain they are a minority. I have been to the end of that pier a few times myself but (obviously) have not leapt off in the end. I cannot say for sure, of course, but I think most of those who continued past me did so despite any message it might send; indeed very possibly with strong regret for any message it might send.
As an aside, who on earth is this unpleasant man Damian Thompson who sometimes comments here?
Time was when he wasn’t. But that was some while back.
Andrew thank you for the response to my comment. Since I have, perhaps rashly, admitted for the first time now that your writing does actually hurt quite a lot, I might as well go on and say that it is equally hurtful when I’ve had a really good and well-written scoop in the paper not to see it mentioned. I actually dispute that you dish out praise as well as criticism. Certainly, you praise your friends, but once you’ve got it in for someone you use your formidable intellect to stick the knife in time and time again. Blessed as it is by the apparent sanctity offered by writing for a church publication, it makes it extremely difficult for the victims of such malice, people such as myself, to answer back. Much of it is forgivable because you can be so very funny, but I am not sure that you do really understand the pressures of news reporting. Writing for the Indy at the time you did hardly counts as writing news, does it! However, I try on principle to take responsibility for what I write, and not to blame the pressures of the job for anything. I posted my blog article, maybe a little rashly, still feeling pretty upset by Chris’s suicide. The extraordinary thing is that from this whole episode, I now feel much more willing to engage with some of your criticisms. So maybe some good will have come out of it. I just plead with you, try not to be so nasty. It does really, really hurt and just as maybe some of my comments were perhaps beneath me, so some of yours are beneath a man of your undoubted abilities.
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I think you had to know Chris personally to realise just how mean-spirited Andrew’s article was. And it was clearly also written by someone who knew him, with a sharp eye not just for his professional failings but also for the ways in which he unconsciously betrayed his personal troubles.
Here’s a quote from a friend of Chris’s on my blog:
“Although his private life was as informed by his orthodox Christianity as his public persona, this is not the first time the Church Times column has clumsily attempted to “out” him. Chris was simply unmarried, observing the discipline required of him as a Christian.”
I was also casually “outed” in that same column, at a time when Andrew and I were friends. I didn’t particularly mind, but it seemed a strange thing for a friends to do.
What Rupert said
Strangely, I didn’t read the last paragraph of the piece as an implication of homosexuality, but of some deep, existential despair. Perhaps this is simply a generational difference, in that the idea that gayness might be a dark, life-eating secret is largely alien to me outside of Gerald Manley Hopkins poems.
Thanks, JamesP. That’s how I meant it, though in the camp darkness of some forms of Anglo-Catholicism all sorts of spectres lurk.
As for outing Damian — it was an accident, for which I apologised at the time; I had simply forgotten that anyone didn’t know. Of all the things to which anyone might object about his personality as it’s on display here, that seems very low on the list.
Ruth, I’ll write to you privately. I’ve been ill today, and have a couple of deadlines.
Again, FWIW, I’ve never read acb’s pieces as having any spirit of deliberate malice. What there is, I think, is a delight – which many readers share* – in the clever barb, and sometimes this delight overcomes charity. There’s also a very hard-edged commitment to a rigorous notion of good journalistic practice, and the combination of the two – righteousness and the cruelty of humour – must sometimes be unbearable for the target.
*God knows I wouldn’t read John Dolan, among others, if not for this. ‘In honour of our special issue on the Congo, this article is dedicated to another great Central African disaster; the poetic career of Ben Okri.’
Of all the things to which anyone might object about his personality as it’s on display here, that seems very low on the list.
If it’s even on that list. Privacy is privacy and, if Mr Thompson (who I take it, is gay?) hadn’t wanted a big deal made of that, others should have respected it (and if you didn’t, Andrew: your bad).
That said, I long (as I mentioned upthread) for the day when this issue will be regarded as amusingly quaint if it is regarded at all. And even today, anybody who would think less of Mr Thompson or Mr Morgan or, for that matter, you or me on the basis of where we have managed to find love is to be discounted and ignored.
As someone who knew Chris pretty well professionally – in some periods we spoke or met once a week – I’m very grateful for Andrew’s perceptive piece. I was shocked to hear of Chris’s suicide, and went looking for reports — only to find in Ruth’s and Damian’s blog posts an anxiety to gloss over anything awkward or troublesome in Chris’s life and character. Journalists try never to write badly of other journalists — part of the professional omerta – but this was really pushing it.
As explanations for taking his life, they simply did not add up. Depression brought on by his mother’s death many years ago fails as an account of his suicide. I expected either Ruth or Damian – but especially Damian, who knew him well – to give us an account of his torment; instead, they told us only of the big lunches and the scoops. It is good to speak charitably of the dead; but it is a betrayal of charity — contempt dressed up as kindness — not to tell the truth.
Andrew’s CT piece, which was obviously born of the same frustration as I felt, has provoked both into telling us a little more. As ever, Andrew’s pieces tell the harsh truths — and for what it’s worth, I never find them spiteful: AB uses irony with devastating effect, but is never malicious. He is a watchdog in a dangerously clubby world, and I for one am grateful to him for pointing out the little hypocrisies and false pieties in that world.
As for Damian, of all people, accusing AB of spite — I had to go and lie down for a while.
Chris wrote a deeply damaging, and deeply untrue, piece about me in the ST which provoked my resignation from the Cardinal’s office in 2006. Afterwards, Chris was filled with remorse, and desperate for me to understand that it was all the fault of the editors (his standard, and unpersuasive, defence whenever I challenged him about his stories which, as Andrew says, were often lacking any basis in fact). I reassured him that I did not take it personally, that he was just doing his job; but I was left with the impression of a tormented man — one who was kind and sensitive, yes, but also ruthless in trying to get a story into his paper. People cannot live with that kind of dichotomy; perhaps this is the reason for his suicide.
It is not a slur to allude to his homosexuality. It was part of who he was. A gay friend of mine who lived close to him told me how he would see Chris, in his fifties, leave his flat late at night in leather trousers to cruise gay bars. He spoke to his mother many times a day. These are simply facts; they imply no judgement, but they help to paint a portrait of a very lonely man.
Chris wanted out from the ST — they regularly ignored his copy, or cut it down to a tee-hee piece in Mandrake. No wonder he applied to be Rowan Williams’s press adviser at Lambeth Palace. Because of his earlier friendship with Dr Williams, his rejection in favour of Tim Livesey must have hurt.
But Chris was entirely unrealistic to believe that after Rowan was appointed to Lambeth he could continue to have kitchen-table discussions with him. Rowan and Jane Williams simply did not trust him — one of them told me so – and they were right not to. Chris would shmooze and flatter and then stitch you up.
My point is not that he was oily and untrustworthy — although he was — but that this was not who he really was. That’s why I quite enjoyed meeting him, and always had time for him — especially over those famous lunches. Underneath the bluster, he was a kind, sensitive man who was anxious to be loved. But as a journalist, he left those qualities at home. In depression, as Andrew suggests, what he did to others through his journalism may have tormented him; we just don’t know.
Whatever: I pray he has peace now.
Depression brought on by his mother’s death many years ago fails as an account of his suicide.
More likely not having the feelings of a mother to consider is simply one less reason not to commit suicide, I suppose.
I thought Brown’s article was a perfectly reasonable and honest portrait of a troubled man.
I am a total outsider to all of this. As an outsider, I read the Brown piece as being a sincere expression of grief. We are only as sick as our secrets.
I did not read the statement about Morgan’s perceived guardedness in relating to colleagues as “outing” him.
I read it as a deeply saddened person asking whether the deceased really let anyone in — if he had isolated himself and paid the ultimate price for it. This isolation is generally true of every suicide. The poor souls don’t feel that they can express their truth to another human being and find an accepting listener. Nobody understands — because nobody has been allowed in. The demons can’t be exorcized until they are named.
Mass yesterday at an Anglo-Catholic church in London where Chris Morgan was an occasional attender, and known, at least by sight, to most of the congregation. He had never spoken of his professional career, and many of us had seen his obituary without connecting it with the quiet middle-aged man who sat on his own at the back of the church. ‘I didn’t realise he was a journalist’ several people said. The final hymn was ‘Just as I am’ (‘though tossed about / with many a conflict, many a doubt’), one of the few hymns which has anything to say to the reality of mental illness.
After Mass, coffee. Someone had brought a copy of the Church Times which was avidly passed around. Opinion on Andrew Brown’s piece divided pretty evenly between those who thought it malicious and mean-spirited (‘unchristian’ was the word used) and those who thought it honest and truthful and rather melancholy in tone.
Reading the piece again I still find it hard to understand why other people found it so offensive. (No doubt a failure of imagination on my part.) The facts don’t seem to be in dispute, and as for innuendo, I’ve read much worse in many a Telegraph obituary. Indeed, Damian Thompson’s piece has two choice examples, ‘bon viveur’ (which, perhaps mistakenly, I read as obituary-code for ‘alcoholic’) and ‘private man’ (read ‘gay’). The official Church Times obituary says that his behaviour could sometimes be ‘challenging’, which is really a much worse thing to say because it leaves so much more to the imagination.
As an outsider, I find the press column in the Church Times valuable because it helps to explain how the media works — many Christians, particularly evangelicals, will tell you that the media is ‘anti-Christian’, but Andrew patiently points out, week by week, that no it isn’t anti-Christian, it just has its own agenda (‘all the news that fits, we print’ as they say in America). This particular piece, I thought, was less about Chris Morgan than about the soul-destroying effects of working for the Sunday Times, which is perhaps why it provoked such an outraged reaction.