Wednesday, August 4, 1999 Published at 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Freemasons take PR tips
"The only thing we will not discuss is recognition signs"
A freemasons' lodge has employed its own public relations experts in an attempt to project a more open image.
Leading masons at the Provincial Lodge of Northumberland, which has around 10,000 members, have received tips from Newcastle-based PR firm Gentle Persuasion on how to handle the media.
They wanted to show they had "nothing sinister to hide", following Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin's outspoken criticisms of "the Craft".
He has since called for any freemasons in public life to declare their involvement in a register.
Gordon Leigh, Assistant Provincial Grand Master of Northumberland, said: "We are not a secret or sinister organisation. But we get a lot of incorrect and harmful misconceptions said about us and what we do."
He said they were happy to be open about what they do, with a couple of exceptions. "The only thing we will not discuss is recognition signs such as the handshake," he said.
Mr Leigh, a retired solicitor from Gosforth, Newcastle, said: "We think it is about time we became pro-active instead of reactive. We don't see why we should have to be on the defensive.
"Freemasonry gives millions to charity and is an ethical movement," he said. "Members are banned from using their membership for personal gain or advancement.
"Why should we be singled out and seen as sinister? You could point the finger at all sorts of groups like rotary clubs, round tables and trade unions.
"So, rather than just ignore these misconceptions, we decided to look at improving our PR."
For many people in the UK, the word "freemasonry" is shorthand for shady goings-on and secret agendas.
The ceremonial apparel, mythological terminology and role-playing ceremonies at the lodges have long fuelled perceptions of the organisation as a pseudo-religious network, promoting its own members within professions, especially the police and judiciary.
This has been exacerbated by masonic secrecy since the Second World War, when according to members freemasons were persecuted by the Nazis.
Recently, however, freemasons have tried to become more open, with a website and publications explaining their origins, beliefs and ceremonies.