When I started my first job in 2004, as a reporter at the Catholic Herald newspaper, I was struck by the number of opportunities there were for me to appear on television and radio. Almost every week, somebody from a news network would call to ask for a talking head to comment on a story that concerned Catholicism or the Pope. My superiors were often unavailable, so I would go in their place. I was 24 and self-obsessed, so appearing on the box made me feel pretty special. There I was, a cub hack, being invited into studios to address the nation on matters of eternal importance such as the family, abortion, interfaith relations, clerical sex abuse, or even the meaning of life.
Deep down I knew — rather, hope I knew — it was stupid. I was often hopelessly out of my depth, which led to some pretty embarrassing situations. Once, hung-over on a Saturday morning, I went on to Sky News and found myself in the curious position of defending paedophile priests, live. ‘I think the clergy need to be told very clearly what they can get away with,’ I heard myself say, to the anchor’s disgust. On another occasion, during a TV phone-in on gay marriage, I was completely flummoxed when a caller rang in to say, ‘I just have one question, “Is it natural for a man to put his penis inanother man’s bottom?”’ My response was inadequate, to say the least, though I just about stopped myself from laughing out loud.
I was often confronted by another, non-Catholic guest who knew what he or she was talking about. In 2006, the BBC wanted somebody to comment on Pope Benedict’s visit to Auschwitz. I agreed, thinking I would be expected to say banalities such as ‘The Pope is keen to heal what he sees as the wounds of the past.’ Before I knew it, how-ever, I had been shoved into a live debate with a furious spokesman from a Jewish group who wanted to talk about Pope Pius XII’s ‘complicity’ in the Holocaust. I knew there were good arguments to counter the man’s canards; I just didn’t know what they were. I bluffed hard, but it must have been obvious that I didn’t have a clue.
Still, the channels kept asking me back. At that time, demand for Catholic opinion in the mainstream media far exceeded supply. Producers on news networks, especially the 24-hour channels, are always eager to cover religion, since stories about what people believe make a good break from politics as usual. In the mid-2000s, though, when Britain felt very secular and everybody was still reading Richard Dawkins, it was hard to find pundits who were willing to go on air and present the Catholic side of the argument. There was a gap in the commentator market which I was happy to fill.
Sometimes the presenters were clearly anti-Catholic and eager to make a fool of me. Perhaps the most humiliating experience was when, at a dinner party in west London, I went upstairs to do a late-night phone interview with James Whale. The subject was a row between Catholic child adoption agencies and the government over gay adoption. As I was bumbling on about what the Magisterium says on the nature of love, Whale, who is something of a shock jock, interrupted: ‘Are you gay,Freddy?’ I was taken aback, and my hesitant reply made it sound as if I were a man in deep denial. Whale had a jolly time at my expense. The worst part was rejoining the dinner to discover that the host had put the radio on, and the whole party had been listening in, roaring with laughter.
On the whole, however, I didn’t face overt anti-Christian prejudice so much as bewilderment. The producers, runners and interviewers — especially on the BBC and Channel 4 — just couldn’t believe that, in their day and age, people still accepted what the Catholic church teaches, especially on sex. They tried to be sympathetic, but ended up being patronising. The best example came during a Have Your Say phone-in session on BBC World News. Again, the subject was gay adoption. After an hour or so of recording, the show finished and the producers wanted ‘out takes’ for the repeat edit. I was asked to adopt various poses as though I had been listening intently. The presenter reminded me that a gay man had called from Mexico to say that the Church had made his life hell. ‘Perhaps you could look surprised,’ she suggested, delicately. ‘I mean Mexico is a very Catholic country, so as a Catholic maybe you wouldn’t expect a gay man to be there.’ A gay man! In Mexico! I found the request so ridiculous that I pulled an over-the-top horrified face, as if I had just seen a poltergeist. Alas, it didn’t make the final cut.