OPINION: You can't beat a saucy vicar

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

Here's a moral tale for our times about the media and the message.

I've spent the past nine months organising what has become an annual charitable lecture to celebrate and continue the work of the social and prison reformer, Lord Longford. Our speaker, Bishop John Sentamu of Birmingham, produced a challenging talk on restorative justice. That, in short, is the eminently sensible but still unfashionable idea that if you mediate between offender and victim, get them face-to-face, each is rehabilitated by the experience.

The bishop, God bless him, even managed to apply this process to global events. So why didn't we try restorative justice with Saddam Hussein rather than a second Iraq war, he asked?

All provocative, all passionately felt and all, we thought, likely to lead to a lively debate in the more thoughtful papers and broadcast outlets.

And you don't have to take my word for it. When he read an advance copy of the bishop's speech, David Blunkett, the lock-em-away-forever Home Secretary, issued a statement saying he agreed with much of what was in the lecture and was trying to put it into practice. Bullseye.

But where were the headlines? Save in our sponsors, The Independent, and on Radio 4's Today programme for whom the bishop did an interview, nowhere. Why? Because at that precise moment, by a twist of fate that none of us had envisaged nine months earlier, "Anglican bishop" meant only one thing for the media and it wasn't reform of the criminal justice system. It was the ordination of gay bishops.

Why all the fuss? Well the story had prurience, sex and vicars, hypocrisy, a national institution split, and religion looking foolish. Perfect for headlines, perfect for stereotypical readers, but all pretty hollow. Yet next to it, no one was that interested in a bishop with no secrets in his closet talking about the trifling matter of global justice. Depressing, but then since many of the 'difficult' issues are the lot of the third sector, I suspect it is a familiar story.

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