Monday, August 30, 2010

Is Pope Benedict's media team up to the challenge?

Is Pope Benedict's media team up to the challenge?
As the pontiff prepares for his visit to Britain next month, the capability of his press team is under scrutiny
Paul Donovan
The Guardian, Monday 30 August 2010
Pope John Paul II was seen as the great communicating pontiff, a man who went out from the Vatican to engage with the world. The message was clear and the symbolism spot on: remember him kneeling to kiss the ground when he came to the UK during the Falklands war in 1982? The present pope, Benedict XVI, could not be more different. A scholarly man who made his way as the previous pope's enforcer in the Vatican, he is not a natural communicator.

Benedict XVI's regime has seen several PR disasters: the Regensburg address in 2006, which was widely interpreted as an attack on Muslims, then the suggestion that saving humanity from homosexuality was as important as saving the rainforest, and the decision to pardon Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying British bishop.

Those close to the inner sanctum of the church say the problem is that too many people seem to be participating in communicating the message. Statements are disjointed, as if several contributors have been involved and then it has all been hacked together by the Vatican press officer, Father Federico Lombardi. This is in marked contrast to the way the media operation worked under John Paul II, when the legendary press secretary JoaquĆ­n Navarro-Valls handled the operation. He was present at all meetings and had control of the message – a very modern spin doctor.

Abuse scandals

However, the mishaps experienced so far by the present pope and his media team slide into insignificance when compared with the potential damage that mishandling of the international child abuse scandal could wreak. Earlier in the year, PR weaknesses were exposed as abuse cases were uncovered in America, Germany, Austria, Holland, Ireland and Belgium.

Abuse appeared endemic in the operation of the church. The global media sensed blood as the crisis seemed to move closer to the pope himself. The first response from the Vatican was to try to shoot the messenger, accusing the media of dishonest reporting. The stories were said to be part of an "obvious and shameful" campaign to "damage" Pope Benedict "at all costs".

As the crisis gathered momentum, there were unhelpful contributions from Father Rainero Cantalamessa, the preacher at the pontifical household, who compared attacks on the pope to antisemitism, and from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the college of cardinals, referring to "petty gossip". Finally, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, suggested a link between paedophilia and homosexuality. Against this background, the first visit of a pope to Britain as a head of state was announced.

The trip, from 16-19 September, offers plenty of potential pitfalls, with the atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens claiming to be investigating the possibility of arresting the pope over allegations that he was aware of child abuse in the church and did nothing. Then there is the human rights activist Peter Tatchell's "protest the pope" campaign, and the National Secular Society's constant questioning of the £19m cost of the visit.

The attitude of the British government may be one of welcome, but hostility does not lie far below the surface in Whitehall, as shown by the infamous "blue-sky thinking" Foreign Office memo in April that suggested a brand of condoms be named after the pope and that he should visit an abortion clinic as part of the visit. The handling of the facetious memo was one of the more astute pieces of public relations from the church, which in effect turned the other cheek in public while in private obtaining more concessions regarding the costs of the papal visit from a government keen to make amends.

Lack of experience

The consistent strand that runs through 10 years of changes in official Catholic communications is a lack of people involved who have worked as journalists. The approach of the Catholic Communications Network (CCN) has been, on the whole, professional but reactive. It never seeks to set the agenda. This allows some of the more mischievous in the media to portray the church as "sex-crazed", interested only in issues such as abortion, birth control and civil partnerships. There has, however, been some improvement since Vincent Nichols took over from Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as the archbishop of Westminster last year. More comfortable with the media than his predecessor, Nichols has spoken out on issues as varied as the economic crisis and youth violence.

One commentator on all things Catholic is Cristina Odone, the former editor of the Catholic Herald, who is a regular talking head, particularly on the BBC, despite having left the editor's chair more than a decade ago. It has no doubt been in part to fill the vacuum that Odone and other chatterers have utilised that Austen Ivereigh, Murphy-O'Connor's former press secretary, and Jack Valero, the director of Opus Dei in the UK, have combined with the Catholic Union to create Catholic Voices. Ivereigh says the model for Voices "is inspired by the experience of the Da Vinci Code Response Group in 2006, when the release of the Dan Brown film created a similar demand for Catholics to be ready to discuss its claims, however far-fetched".

The fact that the media may not want to hear from these people seems to have escaped the organisers' notice. It is good copy to get the most outrageous Catholic voices who can be found on issues such as abortion, civil partnerships and child abuse. Many in the media are not interested in a rational voice from the Catholic church – it's not good box office. What is more, Catholic Voices has already hit choppy waters, being accused of ageism because of its upper age limit of 40, and a rival group called Catholic Voices for Reform has already been set up.

The question is: how will this all pan out? The worst-case scenario for the Catholic church here is that before the pope's visit journalists discover recent abuse cases. This would shoot to pieces the strategy that has attempted to separate the church in the UK from the rest of the world on child abuse, arguing it acted properly and put in place rigid guidelines.

CCN is certainly confident, issuing weekly communiques counting down the days until the pope arrives. However, if abuse cases surface from the past 10 years and a Catholic Voices representative ends up pitched against Dawkins or a Catholic Voices for Reform sharpshooter, anything could happen. In that situation, prayers may prove not to be enough.

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