Sentamu's bulldog to become top church spin-doctor

The Reverend Arun Arora has been appointed head of communications at Church House.

The smart money may be against him, but the Archbishop of York remains, at least in the minds of headline-writers, the favourite to succeed Rowan Williams at Canterbury next year.  So it's with some interest that I read that John Sentamu's former spokesman, the Rev Arun Arora, has been appointed head of communications at Church House, the Church of England's administrative headquarters.

Rev Arora, who is forty and a former solicitor, is currently leading a Christian outreach project in Wolverhampton called Pioneer Ministries.  But before that he was a church press officer for almost ten years, first for the Bishop of Birmingham and then (after his ordination) for the Archbishop of York.  In that position (which he called "one of the best jobs in the Church of England") he was once described as "a determined publicity-seeker for the archbishop".  In February this year, though no longer working for Sentamu, Arora wrote a post on his ministry blog in defence of the archbishop's decision to write for the Sun on Sunday.

He wrote that very few of Sentamu's critics in the church "would turn down the opportunity to preach the Gospel to 6 million people" and compared them to the pharisees who had condemned Jesus for associating with sinners.  And he went on to explain his approach to News International and the publicity opportunities it afforded:

As Sentamu’s former press officer it was one of my goals when I began in 2006 to make full use of the pulpit offered by both the Sun and the News of the World. From 2006 – 2009 numerous articles were placed on the precious op-ed page, often with accompanying editorials supporting the central message- usually but not always related to Easter or Christmas. Over time I established a good working relationship with Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World, his deputy and various people on the Sun, one of whom agreed to accompany the Archbishop in jumping out of an airplane to raise money for Paratroopers wounded in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Arora did turn down an invitation for Dr Sentamu to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, saying that "We don't do celebrity."

Last month, Arora accused certain people within the church, and also media commentators of "besmirching" Sentamu. He wrote of "anonymous whispering" and coverage that was "in stark contrast to the way other bishops are being portrayed".  Some of this -- such as the comment of an unnamed don who had allegedly described Sentamu as "brutish" -- Arora attributed to "the naked racism which still bubbles under the surface in our society, and which is exposed when a black man is in line to break the chains of history."

Greeting the news of his new appointment, Rev Arora says that the church has "a fantastic story to tell of lives and communities being transformed by people in God through faith" and promises to publicise the work of a "largely unnoticed army of men and women" in parishes up and down the country.  It's a fair bet, however, that like his predecessors Arora will spend a high proportion of his time fending off stories about splits in the church, especially over the issue of sexuality.  His appointment, though, does perhaps signal that the C of E intends to be rather more pro-active in its media engagement than has sometimes been the case.

Of course, the process for appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no way connected with that for choosing a director of communications for Church House.  But some might see today's news as some sort of omen.


Balloons are released as Dr John Sentamu becomes Archbishop of York, November 2005. Photograph: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.