The church and the media


A Catholic journalist reflects on the challenges of living and working between two worlds.


‘Catholic Journalist’ isn’t an oxymoron, but it feels like a relative: an oxy-idiot, an oxy-imbecile.  As editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, every day feels like an attempt to keep the ‘Catholic’ and ‘journalist’ parts of the job in balance.

Today’s journalism is relentless: a never ending whirl of always-pressing stories and scoops, a hustle-bustle of information, a fizzing, bristling, secular kaleidoscope that never stops.

Then there is the deep, lasting silence of the Church.

Flitting between the two is disconcerting but essential.  I took over as editor of the SCO a year ago, and our best moments since then have been because we harried and chased, nipped and hassled, and dragged some lump of hidden truth from the shadows and deposited it in the porches of our churches – much to the alarm and delight of Scotland’s Catholics.

A newspaper can provide many shades of value, be it rich, moving features or witty, biting columns, but reporting is what truly matters.

Yet those same instincts are the ones that have led to our most difficult moments, when we’ve pushed a story too far or overlooked something obvious in our haste.  The nature of our business model means we are separate from the Church, but utterly dependent on it.

Rub a priest up the wrong way and the paper could be pulled from a parish indefinitely, with ruinous financial consequences.  Rub a bishop up the wrong way and…well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Generally – fortunately – people are quite forgiving when we make mistakes, but there are plenty of Scottish Catholics, clergy and lay, who harbor a general ill-defined hostility to journalists of all stripes.

The roots of this suspicion are understandable.

Historically, the Scottish media was seen as intrinsically Presbyterian and anti-Catholic, like all the other great institutions of Scottish life.  That hasn’t been the case for a long time, but suspicion lingers.

I recall telling a friend I’d applied for a job at the Daily Record about a decade ago – and he burst out laughing at the very idea they’d employ a Catholic.  That suspicion has largely and rightly dissipated, but its residue remains.

Of course these days, the average Scottish journalist is about as religious as the cobbles on the street – and less likely to stroll into church on a Sunday morning.  They also tend to be more left-wing than the population as a whole, and these days with the great wave of redundancies having thinned the herds of veteran reporters to near extinction, they tend to be fairly young as well. Youthful and left-wing: not a constituency that has a lot of time for the Catholic Church.

Among the daily circle of the middle-class, the secular people working on Scottish newspapers, in Scottish charities and in Scottish politics, a religious person is an oddity; belief is an embarrassment.  The Church is seen as anti-modern, something to be suspicious of.

Yet with the disappearance of a generation of older reporters, an even greater issue is that huge reams of specialist knowledge have gone with them.  Even the big London papers barely have religion correspondents these days, and in Scotland that knowledge is almost non-existent.

Outside of the SCO offices, I’d be stunned if there are five journalists in the country who have a decent understanding of the Scottish Catholic Church: what its internal politics are, who the hierarchy are, and even the fundamentals of what we believe.  All of these are mysteries to most of the people who report on it.  Even the ones who might be broadly sympathetic have seen Spotlight.

As All the President’s Men inspired a previous generation, so too does Spotlight this one.  Not without reason is the malevolent, concealing bishop a key bogeyman in the imagination of the modern journalist.

So for all there remain many talented reporters here in Scotland, doing vital work up and down the country in resource-starved environments when it comes to reporting on Catholic matters, the media here is generally somewhere on the spectrum of being hostile and ignorant.

When you are on the receiving end of it, it’s hard to ignore.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve phoned a priest and audibly heard them clam up as soon as I said: ‘Hello I’m a reporter…’ Thankfully they usually relax a bit at ‘…from the Scottish Catholic Observer’.

But that tension is real.  As Scotland becomes less religious and Catholicism again seems very alien to many Scots, the media can feel like an aggressive beachhead into Catholic territory.  Social media has also helped create tighter bubbles of separation so it’s easiest, sometimes, to forget that big non-Catholic world outside.

Of course, it’s not just Catholics who dislike the media these days.  In the decade or so I’ve been a hack, the hostility of the public to the journalists feels like it’s exploded.  When I first started at the Observer, I soon learned that describing myself as a Catholic journalist in the more liberal circles I moved in would get me a lecture on atheism, homophobia, the abuse scandal and God knows what else.

As time has passed I’ve grown more robust and confident in the Faith and better able to defend it – yet I’ve rarely had to.  For in the last year or two, it’s become the journalist part that draws the ire, not the Catholic.

‘Are you one of those journalists that hacks dead kids’ phones?’, ‘Did you help the BBC steal the referendum?’, and ‘Do you just like lying for a living?’ are all questions I’ve been asked that I dearly wish were exaggerations.

Of course the conduct of journalist and proprietors is hardly beyond reproach but I blame social media or the general soaring in contempt for my profession.  In addition to privileging the loudest, angriest voices, and driving public discourse towards conflict, it’s revealed too much of how the sausage gets made.

People see journalists on Twitter trading jibes, hinting about how they’re in the know and wisecracking about the darkest tragedies, and think unprintable things.  Journalists have always done these things of course, but seeing it done is unattractive – and it’s all too easy to project whatever bias you like.

So for all the mutual suspicion between the Church and the media, they have one think in common: wider Scotland doesn’t increasingly ignore them.

Somewhere in the middle is the SCO, plotting its own course through these choppy waters.  All of which sounds very gloomy.  Yet the need for us is greater than ever.  No one else will report on what is happening in the Catholic Church.  As often as not, the mainstream papers just lift our stories.  Similarly we are out there rowing against the current, trying to find out how the ways in which Scotland is changing will affect the Church.

At times it seems a tightrope – in particular I wonder if, soaked in the social media of the secular world, I am too attuned to the negative, to hostility towards the Church.  The balance between the worlds of the Church and the media is always on my mind.

I’ve always had a simple explanation for the paper’s existence: it’s to ask what it means to be a Catholic in Scotland.  That will always be an interesting question, to those in the Church and out of it. So on that rock, we do our work.

Ian Dunn is the editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.