Hysteria, hype and Hilary: the media, Mantel and Middleton

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Words can be so misreported that they become lies

You'll have seen the headlines, of course, which referred recently to an alleged attack by best-selling author Hilary Mantel on Catherine the Duchess of Cornwall – or as she used to be known, Kate Middleton.

In a lecture at the British Museum, arranged by the journal The London Review of Books, Mantel was supposedly reported to have engaged in a full-on verbal knifing of the Duchess. Words such as "vicious" and "venomous" were bandied around to describe this apparent assault.

Now I write as no great fan of Hilary Mantel – although I would have liked to have been. It is only recently that I picked up a copy of her best-selling, award-winning and highly-acclaimed novel Wolf Hall with great relish and anticipation – and after 250 pages (less than half way through) had to give up on it, having found it hard-going and confusingly written in places. That, of course, is another debate – but if you look at the reviews on Amazon you will find I was very far from alone!

However, there is no doubt at all that in the reporting of Ms Mantel's lecture about Kate Middleton, a grave disservice has been done. As Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian, the substance of Mantel's lecture was actually "discussing how the royal family and the media manipulate women," and her words about the Duchess – which were actually about how Mantel believes she is portrayed, rather than how she believes she really is – only took up four paragraphs out of a total of thirty in her talk.

Nonetheless, it was what were portrayed as Mantel's "withering rants and attacks on the Duchess that made the front pages of the Mail and Metro papers, as well as getting a prominent mention in The Independent and a somewhat smaller one in The Guardian." She continued, quite rightly: "This kind of extrapolation is reminiscent of when a critic describes a film as 'astonishingly bad' and the film poster then claims the critic described it as 'astonishing!' "

For Christians, there are several things to keep in mind here. First of all, we are reminded of just how powerful words in and of themselves are. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament has a number of pithy ways of putting this, doesn't it: we might think, for example, of Proverbs 15:1: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." When words are misreported in such a way that they become lies – a tarnished misrepresentation of the truth, as seems to have happened with Hilary Mantel's lecture in this case – then we do not need to quote chapter and verse to know how God views such things.

But, secondly, we should also keep in mind how difficult it is becoming for Christians to gain a fair hearing and representation of their views in the media. If Hilary Mantel, who as a leading author has been the darling of the press recently, can be so badly misrepresented, then it should not surprise us when Christian beliefs and actions are sometimes distorted and cast in an almost unrecognisable light.

Finally, we remember that God, of course, reveals himself as someone who loves words – and who comes to us as Jesus the incarnate Word – "full of grace and truth". It is an area many of us often fail in, but may we, following his pattern, seek to be people whose "conversation is always full of grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6).

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