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A sad tale of irresponsible journalism and a cowardly church

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 20 September 2019

In early 2019 the Dean of Perth Anglican Cathedral, Richard Pengelly, resigned his position and a search committee was formed to replace him. Three names were eventually shortlisted, two of whom were invited to preach since the third had already appeared in the pulpit on another time. The congregation, of which my wife and I are members, were delighted by the visit of Nicholas Jepson-Biddle currently precentor at Wells Cathedral in the UK. He was chosen as our next Dean and accepted the position.

On the morning of August 21st, I opened the West Australian newspaper, Perth's only daily paper, to find an article by Ben O'Shea, who usually writes gossip on the second page. The article, headlined "CHRIST ALMIGHTY!" appeared over an unguarded picture of Nicholas wearing sunglasses, with his finger pointed to the camera and with what looks like a sneer on his face. We later learnt that he was doing an Elvis impersonation.

Pasted over his photo were two extracts from his Facebook page. One read: "Ok, enough with the Boy Seamen already. I say, enough." March 18th, 2012.


The other read: "wishes everyone would stop posting RIP Whitney Houston. Please." February 12th 2012.

Without the context, it is impossible to understand the meaning of these posts. However, Ben O'Shea subheads his article with: "Church role on hold after priest's bizarre posts" and goes on to say that the post referring to "boy seamen" has forced the archbishop to withhold the licence of the new Dean.

O'Shea goes on to say that: "With or without context, the joke was likely to have fallen especially flat in WA, where Archbishop Goldsworthy's predecessor, Roger Herft, resigned in the wake of the child abuse royal commission, admitting he let down survivors of child sexual abuse."

Five minutes of research on the web reveals that "Boy Seamen" refers to boys from mainly poor circumstances who were inducted into the Royal Navy. Nicholas, during 2012, was precentor of Portsmouth Cathedralduring which time a monument for 534 Boy Seamen killed in WWII was placed in the cathedral. It may well be that Nicholas' mention of Boy Seamen on his Facebook page had something to do with that!

O'Shea may sniff at the context, but a little research on his part would have revealed it. He would have saved himself from embarrassment by hinting that "seamen" might stand for "semen" and thereby raising a scandal. The post about Whitney Houston is left hanging. Why was it mentioned at all? Was this another bizarre post?

Now, the very sad aspect of this story is that a complaint was made about Nicholas to the Archbishop of Perth, who, I presume, submitted it to the Professional Standards Committee and Nicholas withdrew his acceptance to be our new Dean. This news was brought to a stunned congregation the September 15th. The grief in the cathedral was palpable.


So, what is going on here? A gossip columnist in the West has hinted that "seaman" actually stands for "semen" and has used the history of the church and sexual abuse to warn off a very able churchman from taking up a prominent position in the city of Perth. Presumably, O Shea's column had the blessing of his editor who has obviously taken the lowest, well-trodden path by the gutter tabloid press, to raise a stink where this is nothing rotten, cause a great deal of havoc and then walk away with presumably rising paper sales. The cynicism is unbelievable.

It is obvious that Seven West Media recognises no duty to the various stakeholders of its business and that it has followed the now increasingly questioned notion that it has only a duty to its shareholders. This means that it can behave in ways that cause damage to others while boosting its own sales. By publishing damaging sleaze, the West may have caused a brief flurry of interest, especially among those alienated from the church, but they have damaged their long-term reputation as a reliable source of news and responsible journalism. This is bound to catch them up in the end.

Kerry Stokes AO (1995) AC (2008) is the chairman of Seven West Media that owns The West newspaper. He is a major stockholder, a highly respected businessman in Perth and a prominent philanthropist. He may argue that editors of the West have independence. However, when a newspaper sets out to scandalise the community with made-up stories to make a brief splash, surely the chairman of the company must ask questions. Is it not time for Seven West Media to come to the table of Inclusive Capitalism and win the support of the community that buys its papers? Kerry Stokes is in the box seat to make this happen and build a healthy community instead of inflicting damage for short term gain.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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