On St. Ruth and the state of Fleet Street religion news

Sad news to report from the Press Gazette, the trade newspaper for British journalism. On May 16 it announced The Times was eliminating its religious affairs correspondent post, and Ruth Gledhill would be leaving the newspaper after 27 years of reporting on religion.

The Times decision to make redundant the religion spot means that there are will no longer be a reporter dedicated to covering religion on Fleet Street. The Press Gazette reported:

Fleet Street is to lose its last religious affairs correspondent next week when Ruth Gledhill leaves The Times. Gledhill has confirmed her position is being made redundant as she leaves the paper after 27 years.

The Daily Telegraph has a social and religious affairs editor, John Bingham, but Gledhill is believed to be the last full-time UK national newspaper reporter dedicated to covering religion. Meanwhile, Caroline Wyatt was appointed as the BBC News’s religious affairs correspondent after seven years working as a defence correspondent for the corporation last week. She replaces Robert Pigott, who is moving to become a BBC news correspondent.

Reporter Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail and columnist Andrew Brown at the Guardian cover religion also for their newspapers, but Ruth’s was the last stand alone Religious Affairs Correspondent in the daily press.

I’m of two minds about this development. On one level this is a shame. Perhaps it is an opportunity.

I’ve known Ruth Gledhill for about 15 years. She has written diary pieces for the publication where I serve as senior correspondent, and I’ve worked on stories with her for The Times. I’ve been her house guest and am acquainted with her husband, the poet, playwright and musician Alan Franks, and am an admirer of her work. I am biased.

Ruth’s departure is a tragedy for the profession. I say this in that Ruth combined a knowledge of her field and its players with high literary skill. Having Ruth at the top of our craft meant we lesser beings had to work to her level. Because she is so good, we hacks have been forced to work harder — and better.

Ruth also brought kindness, compassion and a passion for truth to her work. She received no thanks for this, I’m afraid.  Ruth did not buckle under the unfair abuse she received — though I know it took a toll on her. She stood fast in the interests of truth and did not bow to her mendacious critics.  But then, that was what I expected from Ruth. When I write that her reporting made me try to be a better reporter, I mean a better craftsman and a better person. I applaud her for her aesthetics and her craft. I honor her for her courage and character.

Loosing a person like this from your profession is a tragedy. But is the loss of the last full time Religious Affairs Correspondent post bad for religion reporting? It can be.

If The Times has been motivated to eliminate Ruth’s position out of cost considerations, or because it believes religion is not a newsworthy topic, then that is a tragedy. Please read GetReligion’s last few thousand posts as to why the secular media needs to “get religion”.

The news of the impending death of print journalism is reported with some frequency. Try as we might, however, the Internet has not yet been able to replace the work of specialists like Ruth Gledhill. Having a regular salary and prestige of working for The Times has meant the print media can produce the detailed investigative work that a self-funded blogger cannot replicate.

However, if the elimination of the religious affairs correspondent position is akin to the elimination of the “Women’s Page” of newspapers past, then this may not be such a bad thing. If The Times has made a conscious decision to release religion news from a ghetto, and will ensure that faith and religion find their place in mainstream reporting, then this is for the good. The mission of GetReligion would be accomplished.

Count me a skeptic, however.

I’ve not linked to any of Ruth’s stories at The Times — because I can’t. They are behind a paywall. While the pay as you go model may generate some income for News Corp., I do not believe it is a sustainable model. One of the consequences has been that Ruth’s work fell out of the blogosphere. While the Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail, and The Independent‘s reports on a religious items became grist for the commentators, Ruth’s work for The Times did not (because no one read it save for the subscribers.) That decision was economic, and I fear the decision to make her position redundant was taken for economic reasons also.

It is my hope, however, that religion will find its way into more reports from The Times. I can hope, can’t I?

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  • Julia B

    Sorry. As a Catholic, I say “good riddance”. Same as when the Times’ long-time Rome correspondent retired. I was very happy when the firewall for subscribers-only went up. I was no longer tempted to see her latest diatribes.
    It always appeared to me that US newspapers got their articles on the Vatican by filching stuff from the both of them. He was worse because his sources were histrionic Italian hacks that he could read and US papers had nobody who could read more reliable Italian sources, but she sure had her snarky attitude at times. Now US papers have other options: La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider”, European papers’ on-line English editions, faster translations of the Pope’s speeches (although flawed at times) and the likes of John Allen to steal from.

    • George Conger

      To what diatribes do you refer? Your experience of her work is different from mine.

      • Julia B

        Can’t get to her column any more and I don’t remember when the wall went up. But she had some really snarky, harsh things to say about the Catholic Church. I was a regular commenter at Amy Welborn’s blog back then. There were lots of discussions about why Ruth was so incensed at the Catholic Church and mischaracterized actions of the Pope and the Catholic bishops in the UK. It wasn’t just me – there were quite a few of us back in the early days of blogging that found the attitude toward Catholics in her columns offensive at times. I checked Fr Z’s archive and found his reaction to one of Ruth’s posts on Benedict’s offer of an “Anglican Use” type of accomodation. Here’s a throwaway line by Ruth that is truly unnecessary: “The Orthodox Church, with which the Pope is also desperate to achieve unity, does not demand a celibate priesthood although its bishops cannot marry.”

        Here’s the link to the whole piece: http://wdtprs.com/blog/2009/10/the-anglican-anschluss/

        • Julia B

          One more – claiming defecting Anglican priests will be accepted by the Catholic Church because they are short of priests (???) How does she know that would be the reason for accepting them and not theological reasons:

          “The signatories are largely from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church and many will attempt to seek a ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is short of priests and is expected to welcome them again, even if they are married with families, as it did when the Church of England ordained women priests.”

          http://wdtprs.com/blog/2008/07/anglican-communion-falling-apart/

          I concede that Fr Z and his commenters are also snarky, but they don’t write a column for the New York Times or the Washington Post. Ruth Gledhill was writing for the Times (of London)

      • Julia B

        How could I forget to add this line right up top in that article:

        “Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lawn after manoeuvres undertaken by up to fifty bishops and begun two years ago by an Australian archbishop, John Hepworth.”

  • FW Ken

    My first reaction is that newspapers reflect their culture, and is often said that religion no longer plays a part in ordinary English life. Perhaps that’s true, and economics are the main factor, but perhaps the economics reflect a more fundamental bottom line: not enough people care.

    Also, I think specifically religious reporting does have a place. Certainly, faith aspects of any story should be included, but there is also a fair amount to say about the local faith communities. Ann Rodgers was, I think, the queen of telling local stories.


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