William Oddie, who died last week aged 80, may not have been the longest-serving editor of the Catholic Herald, but he was one of the most influential. During his five-year tenure, he charted a new course for this publication, which it has followed ever since.
Dr Oddie was appointed in 1998, when the Herald was a struggling broadsheet newspaper. The announcement provoked anxiety in the Catholic world. Why? Because he was a formidable polemicist and former Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism in 1991 amid a ferocious battle over women priests. One writer characterised him as “a traditionalist who will ensure editorials are firmly to the right”. That description irked him. “Can we please abandon the inappropriate language of left and right when writing of Church affairs?” he wrote in a letter published in the week of his appointment. His editorial policy, he said, would simply be to “support and defend” the vision of John Paul II.
That might not seem controversial today. But in the late 1990s it was regarded as eccentric in elite Catholic circles, which regarded the Polish pontiff as a reactionary figure. William firmly rejected that view, championing a kind of cheerful orthodoxy which was faithful to tradition but, in the spirit of his hero GK Chesterton, fully engaged with the world.
Outlining his editorial stance, he wrote: “I anticipate, for instance, that the Herald will be stepping up its support for the Pope’s call to the world’s wealthier nations to substantially remit the debts of all Third World countries. Like him, we shall be opposed to economic sanctions, which (as in Iraq) victimise the poor without countervailing political benefit. We shall continue, as the Pope does, to oppose the death penalty. These policies (and many others I could cite) are hardly right wing; but then neither is the Pope himself.”
His editorship got off to a slightly bumpy start. A few weeks in, he wrote an article apologising for a headline that had appeared over an article by a distinguished Catholic scientist. It read: “No pope ever thought the earth was round.” Of course, it was meant to say: “No pope ever thought the earth was flat.” Characteristically, he took full responsibility for writing the headline (which, as his then deputy, I should have spotted). He assured readers that “rigorous” editing procedures were now in place. “We ought in future to rise above the proof-reading level of the Guardian of the Sixties (which older readers will remember was christened the Grauniad by Private Eye. At least the masthead last week did not proclaim that you were all reading The Catholic Harold.)”
William was a connoisseur of tabloid journalism – and that was another thing that alarmed his critics, who claimed that he would turn the Herald into a Catholic red-top. (His favourite tabloid headline was “Sex-change wife elopes with embezzling manager of Co-op bacon factory”.) But William, in fact, produced a newspaper of great intellectual seriousness. The revival of conservative Catholicism in Britain was in no small part thanks to him.
Though turbulent, his editorship was creative and successful. He arrested the paper’s circulation decline, increased the number of pages, doubled the foreign news coverage, expanded the letters section and introduced a culture page.
Most importantly, he gave the Herald what every vigorous publication needs: a clear and enduring identity. The magazine you hold in your hands today would have been inconceivable without him.
On behalf of our staff and readers, I extend our condolences to William’s family and assure them of our prayers.