History of The Tablet 7

Tom Burns, a founding director of The Tablet Publishing Company, had considerable experience of publishing - including running his own journal, Order. During the war he had been press attaché to the British embassy in Madrid. On his return to England, he took charge of Burns & Oates and became chairman. He was now 61 years old.

His appointment announcement implied that there would be no change to editorial policy. The full text of Humanae Vitae was published on 3 August 1968 and Burns wrote "neither joy nor hope can we derive from the Encyclical itself". But he went on to say that this was not necessarily a criticism, more an issue of authority:

"A new chapter in the relationship of the Pope with his bishops and with the faithful at large has now opened on a sombre note. There will be doubt and dismay about the Church herself among her more reflective members, a new bravado in some sectors: a mutual distrust.
Loyalty to the faith and to the whole principle of authority now consists in this: to speak out about this disillusion of ours, not to be silenced by fear. We who are of the household and can think of no other have the right to question, complain and protest, when conscience impels. We have the right and we have the duty - out of love for the brethren. Quis nos separabit?"

Some readers wrote to congratulate Burns, others to criticise him. That same issue held Woodruff's last "Talking at Random". Woodruff wrote in December 1968 that the Pope was upset by an article on the encyclical. Burns replied that he heard with "great joy and gratitude" that the Pope was reading The Tablet. The Apostolic Delegate wrote that "it is our duty to help The Tablet find its old equilibrium again". Woodruff was unhappy with the way The Tabletspoke out on the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in October 1970 (written by Thomas Corbishley SJ). He was "concerned" [he said,with]…"the tone of the Church editorials, with their suggestion of being rather disaffected towards the Holy See, over-anxious about what Anglicans are going to feel, even opposing canonisations".

But Burns held to his convictions. At Burn's seventieth birthday in 1976 Woodruff's speech at the dinner concentrated on his achievement as a publisher, rather than as editor. Two years later, Burns wrote Woodruff's obituary for The Tablet and noted how "for him it (the Church) seemed to be falling apart, for many others it was pulling itself together", but the lengthy appreciation in the issue of 18 March 1978 was generous to Woodruff's many virtues.

Burns' stance over Humanae Vitae had been a brave one and cost the paper much in terms of circulation, which dropped to 8,500 in 1978. In ecclesiastical terms, the paper was seen as radical, and politically as right of centre, so it lost readers both ways.

In the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, Burns also took an independent line. Contrary to other Catholic papers, Burns supported the British and Lagos Government, rather than the rebel and largely Catholic, Biafrans.

In 1967 Burns & Oates Publishing was sold to Herder and Herder of Freiburg. Three years later the firm pulled out of England. More significant was the sale of The Universe, which was sold for £240,000 at the beginning of 1970. In 1971 The Tablet was bought by Tom Burns himself. Henceforward it had to pay for itself.

Burns had already made efforts to extend the paper's outreach. He built bridges with the Irish and in 1968 an Irish supplement was begun. The Tablet dining club was instituted and the Board of Directors was widened to include more business people. July 1972 saw a new, specially designed, title-piece, and a revamped front page.

But the circulation continued to drop as the prices rose. Burns had approached a number of people to give money in form of shares and looked to both individuals and religious houses. Some capital was acquired, but not enough. In 1974 the Editor launched a discreet appeal. This was more successful, as a succession of wealthy backers made donations. The Tablet Trust was therefore established in May 1976, as a registered charity. An impressive body of trustees was headed by the Duke of Norfolk with Sir John (now Lord) Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary, as its vice-chairman. A wide range of talent and expertise included the novelist Graham Greene, the economist and writer Barbara Ward and Frank Doria Pamphilij, an Englishman married into a noble Italian family, who was resident in Rome. By the end of the year all shares in The Tablet Publishing Company had been donated to the Trust.

Shortly afterwards the paper reached its "bedrock" of subscribers and circulation began to creep back up.

The year of Burns' retirement, 1982, was a dramatic one, marked by the Falklands War and the visit to Britain of Pope John Paul II. For the Falklands War, Burns urged moderation and the mediation of the United Nations. The paper's stance won commendation for its independence of mind from Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, in a BBC survey of the weekly press.

In the weeks before the Papal visit The Tablet invited more than two dozen contributors to write what they would say to John Paul if they were allowed five minutes alone with him. The topics were amazingly varied, ranging from human rights in the Church and the world, to the ordination of women and the need for married clergy.

At the close of these events John Wilkins became editor. He had previously worked at The Tablet in 1967 as Burns' assistant, leaving in 1972 for Central Talks and Features of the External Services of the BBC. Like so many previous editors, he was a convert, but one under the inspiration of Vatican II. Having weathered the storm of Humanae Vitae alongside Burns, he did not come to the editorship to change the paper's direction. He meant to make the news more immediate and the political stance a little more radical. In his first editorial, on 10 July 1982, he wrote,

"We are committed to orthodoxy that 'wild truth reeling but erect' of which Chesterton spoke. We believe in the dogmatic principle, as Newman did, whose example John Paul II commended so strikingly at Coventry … Nor should The Tablet be a paper of any particular party, whether of Church or State. It has a distinctive stance, but we believe no party has a monopoly of truth ...

Our concern is with the world as much as with the Church: with everything that is human. We shall seek to inform and interpret as well as to comment. We shall seek to entertain. Above all, we shall hope that in the future, as in the past, readers may find in our pages that message without which the world perishes".
Since his editorship circulation has gradually increased to its peak today of well over 20,000. The ecumenical dimension initiated by Burns has meant that readers now come from both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

In 1840 Frederick Lucas set out to create a paper that was radical in politics but traditional in religion. His commitment was to independence of mind in politics and, as he discovered in his last tragic clash with the Irish hierarchy, to independence of mind within the broad boundaries of the Catholic faith. One hundred and sixty years on, The Tablet is, happily, back where it began.

John Wilkins retired at the end of 2003 and was succeeded by Catherine Pepinster, the first woman editor in The Tablet's history.