They are best known for secret handshakes, embroidered aprons and the dire penalties reputed to be inflicted on those who break their oath of secrecy. But today's Freemasons insist that tattletales are no longer—if ever they were—subjected to "having my throat cut across, my tongue torn out ... and buried in the sands of the sea." In fact, so eager are Britain's Freemasons to dispel the sinister associations that still cloud their reputation that the United Grand Lodge of England (UGL) whose 300,000 members represent 90% of the Masons in England and Wales has hired a public relations agent.
Mike Dewar, a former army officer who heads the London P.R. agency MDA, calls the Masonic campaign "one of the most challenging accounts I've taken on." A challenge indeed. Even today, some 400 years after it originated probably as an English gentleman's club that derived its name, rituals and symbols from the stonemason's craft the mere mention of Freemasonry can inspire fear and suspicion.
The clandestine nature of what is still a predominantly all-male movement is one reason. What goes on behind the closed doors of members-only lodge meetings has long been a subject of speculation. Although its sole religious component is a requirement that members believe in a single God, to some outsiders the Masonic fondness for ritual looks very much like religious practice. A UGL booklet explains that "it is true that candidates have to roll up their trouser legs during the three ceremonies [for] membership ... [T]aken out of context, this can seem amusing, but ... it has a symbolic meaning."
An organization that contributes $25 million a year to British charities but remains preoccupied with refuting rumors about trouser length could use some professional help. Enter Dewar. While not a Mason himself, he has quickly been transformed into his new clients' staunchest defender. To questions about the UGL's refusal to admit women he responds, "In a sophisticated, grown-up democracy, if men want to do things on their own, that's totally natural." Dewar is planning a Freemasonry in the Community Week that will involve charitable events across England and Wales in June 2002. He is redesigning the UGL's website www.grand-lodge.org and will launch a quarterly magazine devoted to Freemasonry. But he knows it will take more than a few P.R. gimmicks to transform the image of Britain's Freemasons, who have faced a torrent of negative publicity in recent years.
In the late '90s Labour M.P. Chris Mullin led two Parliamentary inquiries into allegations that Masonic corruption pervades Britain's police forces and judiciary. "You cannot have at the center of your criminal justice system an organization ... which swears oaths in secrecy to each other," he said. UGL spokesman Chris Connop, a former teacher, claims that in addition to fueling paranoia, the inquiries' recommendation that names of Masons who are members of the police and judiciary be made public was impossible to carry out. "They wanted us to provide a list of magistrates" who are Masons, he says. "Well, I'm a magistrate, but there's no form that says so because I wasn't when I joined." Tory M.P. Charles Wardle has taken up the Masonic issue and recently introduced a bill requiring anyone elected to public office to register their membership in any secret society. Wardle dismisses the Masons' argument that they are not a secret society. "They are required to keep the membership secret, even if they are at liberty to divulge their own," he says.
France's estimated 120,000 Masons are also embroiled in controversy. In 1999 the public prosecutor of Nice, Eric de Montgolfier, denounced the existence of "networks of Freemasons" that, he said, were exerting an influence on the region's judiciary. His allegations were given renewed life with the revelation last October that Alain Bartoli, a Nice police officer and a Freemason, had used a law-enforcement database to conduct extensive background searches on several people. Bartoli has admitted using classified police files only to check up on candidates for membership in his local lodge, but among those he targeted for searches were President Jacques Chirac and De Montgolfier himself.
The Bartoli case is under investigation, and whatever its outcome, French Freemasons could also do with some image burnishing. If Dewar makes a success of his new account in Britain, there could be plenty of work for him across the Channel.
—With reporting by Nicholas Le Quesne/Paris