Has the press secretary to the new Archbishop of Westminster been watching too many episodes of political satire The Thick Of It or its movie spin-off In The Loop?
Axegrinder only asks because Peter Jennings does seem to favour Malcolm Tucker’s approach to media relations.
Jennings has managed to spark an unholy row by offending Jonathan Wynne-Jones, religious affairs correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph. He introduced himself to Jennings, long-serving press secretary to Archbishop Vince Nichols, after the press conference confirming the appointment to succeed Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
“You’re a total shit,’Jennings told the Telegraph man, apparently upset that he’d reported letters sent by two bishops complaining that Nichols would be a divisive choice.
For good measure, Jennings then suggested Wynne-Jones had made up the story, and was, in fact, lying.
He put it to Jennings that it was perhaps unwise and unfortunate to have this outburst with his boss only a few feet away, and press everywhere.
Says Wynne-Jones: ‘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.
‘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.
‘I’ll forget about it. I hope the officials in Westminster will be as forgiving.”
Before forgetting about it, Wynne-Jones wisely wrote the entire thing up for his blog.
His fellow religious affairs correspondents seem to be greatly enjoying ‘total shitgate”.
Ruth Gledhill of The Times, who was sitting next to Wynne-Jones and witnessed the whole thing, has commented: ‘Press officers are generally taught at nursery school that they might think we are shits, 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.”
After Gledhill reported the row on her blog, she wrote that Jennings has reacted by threatening her ‘with all withdrawal of future cooperation”.
She adds: ‘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.”
Damian Thompson, a Telegraph leader writer and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, gave this reaction: ‘Peter really is his own worst enemy. Jonathan’s story was a proper scoop: some ghastly bishops tried to stab Vincent in the back by writing nastily to the Nuncio, and one of them (I have no idea which) decided to leak this to Jonathan.”
The Rev George Pitcher, religion editor of the Daily Telegraph, joked that ‘total shit’is ‘probably a badge to wear with pride, like ‘total football’ or ‘total war’. Better than being called ‘a bit of a shit’ surely, which doesn’t imply a satisfactory total evacuation.
‘I think the religious press corps should hold a competition to find the most insulted journo – but only because I know I’d win it, hands down as it were.”