Sunday, 1 July 2007

Speaking in tongues

Tony Blair's departure after 10 years as prime minister was a lodestar for my week. I was in the office in London on Monday afternoon when it broke that he was going to reinvent himself as a Middle East peace envoy.

The Quartet of powers comprising Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the EU, felt he was the man for the job.

One reaction piece from Palestine suggested the very opposite. Well I'm going to be upbeat because the people who ought to have succeeded have so far failed. So there might be an inverse logic at work in those lands.

Blair's reinvention as a dove was one of the best meteorological metaphors I've witnessed for years. It coincided with a deluge in Britain. A month's worth of rain fell in a few June days, leaving six people dead and up to £1bn in damage.

In the good old days we would have all thought instantly about divine wrath. But these aren't those times. This here is the modern world when dissolute behaviour and rampant lust rule the roost.

So it was refreshing to read in the Sunday Telegraph on the train from Paris that the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Reverend James Jones, was harking back to a time when we were in thrall to belligerence from above.

He proclaimed that the floods were an act of God, adding: "We are now reaping what we have sown."

Ooh la, as my Parisian friend Sebastian, would say.

"If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences," raged the bishop. "God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done."

Bishop Jones is, says the paper, being seen as a future Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ooh la.

And with outpourings like that he fits into the fire and pestilance brigade of God squadders whom I thought had been cast into the wilderness.

Sundays of my youth were spent at Sunday school during the 11am church service and then a session in the afternoon between 3pm and 4pm because my mum was a Sunday school teacher.

There was no choice for me to stay home and watch The Big Match with Brian Moore. I missed a slew of games in the 1970s because I was at Sunday school. And that was something you couldn't bunk off.

So while I missed the elegant midfield play of Trevor Brooking for West Ham, I did get multiple lessons in religious ethics.

At that time in the late 60s Mitcham Lane Baptist Church was run by the Reverend William Oram. We had solid, bum numbing wooden pews and he went up into the pulpit each Sunday to impart the word.

One sermon in December, as the lunch simmered in the oven back home, was how Christmas had become a licentious orgy.

I liked that turn of phrase and have taken it to heart. And ever since then I have done my utmost to ensure that there's no enjoyment in my house.

Presents? What presents? Here, have some more soap child.

And with the amount of rain they've been having in Britain, there could be a whole lot of cleansing going on.

The showers are certainly playing havoc with the Wimbledon schedules. Who does God not want to win?

Is it Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Amelie Mauresmo? Is it the Israelis? Surely not.

Blair dribbles out of being British prime minister into a high-profile position. Some people are God's gift.

And it was a bit of Blairite smarm that came to my rescue on Wednesday while I was chairing a workshop on inter cultural dialogue at the Council of Europe in Paris.

The mission was to see if around 50 journalists from around Europe could come up with ideas as to how to promote communication between the communities so that the mainstream media stopped belching out the usual cliches about ethnic minorities, their menace and the crimes they heap upon all decent thinking people.

After an opening few minutes I felt I was floundering to take control of the workshop because the ideas were flooding in on the need for more awareness and more training, but then the phrase: education, education, education, came out.

There ought, our workshop proposed, to be education in schools of journalism on the various ethnic minority communities. And for the big organisations, there ought to be classes so that journalists can learn - if they don't already know - about what words and phrases are permissible and what comments ought to be met with retribution.

On the day of the handover to Gordon Brown, my comment appeared to show an awareness of both the macro and microcosm.

I surveyed the firmament and was pleased.

It was pure Blairite showmanship when I later issued the decree: regulation, regulation, regulation.

The workshop concluded that the national media had to be independently monitored to make sure newspapers and TV stations were operating within universally accepted guidelines on how stories were covered and also to see if there were people from diverse backgrounds in positions of power.

Here we came in for division.

One French journalist said that there had to be an element of coercion because in France there'd hardly been any movement on getting ethnic minority journalists through to the positions of shaping the news agenda.

Though not everyone agreed with quotias, his line was that we're nowhere without them. And though it's a risk, he claims it's a measure that's worth taking in France.

That kind of action didn't happen in British media organisations. There the problem always seemed to be that once you got the ethnic minority journalists in, the assumption was that they somehow embodied their communities and could be spokesmen or women for them.

It took years in Britain for the industry chiefs and the newsroom bosses to understand that though someone might be black, they might have more interest in the films of the Taviani Brothers than the music of Bob Marley.

Ethnic minority journalists in France seem to be reaching a point which has been experienced in Britain.

But then British-born ethnic minorities have a completely different relationship with the mainstream than their French-born counterparts.

My trip to the ICA in London to see the Battle Of Algiers showed me that in no uncertain terms.