Pope Francis as media role model for Tony Abbott


Pope Francis in-flight media conferenceThe travails of Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott have focused attention on how public leaders engage with their public. Most advice suggests that they should be more controlled and less quirky in their actions and totally on message in their words. A darker shade of grey.

In this climate they might go to school on Pope Francis whose approval ratings are off the scales. He famously engages with the public through symbolic gestures that embody his program, such as moving out of the Vatican palace and washing Muslim women’s feet in a jail.

For politicians his most interesting symbol might be the press conferences and interviews he gives. The interviews are uncontrolled: questions are not vetted beforehand: the journalists are not simply from church but also from secular media; He does not prepare for them with his media minders. Nor does he put a time-limit on them. And in his answers he is personal, anecdotal and colloquial, going beyond the language of Catholic theology to find words that his audience will resonate with.

Political advisers, including those in the Catholic Church, normally advise political leaders strongly against such uncontrolled press conferences. They inevitably lead to misunderstandings and to partial representations. Journalists will highlight the spiciest phrases taken out of context, will focus on apparent inconsistencies with the party platform, and will identify gaffes. Then they will gather divergent opinions within the party, so contradicting the appearance of unity, sobriety and solidity. The result is the impression of incompetence, disunity and arbitrariness. That is why most leaders and parties avoid uncontrolled interviews, plan what issues they will address regardless of the questions asked, and always stay on-message.

The critics, of course, are right. All these things happen to Pope Francis. But the do not deter him. He simply addresses matters on which his views have been misrepresented, affirms his acceptance of recent Papal teaching, expresses trust in open expression of opinion and keeps giving press conferences. 

His way of proceeding is not simply a personal strategy but embodies his vision of the Catholic Church.  In an open press conference Pope Francis goes out beyond the church, speaks informally as himself and so is vulnerable. The press conference is inherently democratic in its style, is exploratory rather than declaratory, and sees truth as something to be sought together, not simply handed down.  

These qualities enact his vision of how the Catholic Church should be present in the world, and of how leadership should be exercised in the church. The mission of the Catholic Church, and particularly of its teachers and pastors, is to go out vulnerably into the world and to let the power and joy of the Gospel be seen there.  This requires the trust that when people explore the implications of faith together the Spirit will make the truth attractive.  

For any leader sensitivity to symbols is a great gift. It enables others to see and feel, not simply to hear, what the leader’s vision and strategies are. But acting symbolically is also challenging. Pope Francis has been much admired because his symbolic actions as Pope express so seamlessly his inner self.

He is transparent. His simplicity of life, his constant reaching out to people who are disadvantaged, his telephoning people who write to him, his criticism of economic systems that put wealth and not persons first, his lack of concern for his personal security, shown most recently in his insistence against advice to fly to the typhoon stricken communities in the Philippines and his matter of fact acceptance of church doctrine, all reflect the adamantine link between who he is as a human being and what his program is for the Catholic Church. He has nothing to fear from open press conferences because nothing is hidden.

But his example also suggests why few of us, and therefore few church or secular leaders, would unhesitatingly follow the pope’s example of open press conferences. In our case there is too large a gap between reality and appearances.

So when leaders of our political parties declare their intention to govern for the good of all Australians or all Queenslanders, but then pursue policies that are manifestly unfair to the poor and weaken the bonds of compassion that hold communities together, they cannot afford to be publicly vulnerable. They must rely on spin to sell their policies. Ordinary people sense this, of course, and refuse to listen. They long for integrity and recognise it in the most unlikely places. Even in a Pope.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman, media, politics



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Existing comments

I would add that while I won't listen to politicians like Abbott or Shorten because it's all spin and deceit, I'm interested in this Pope even when I think he's wrong, because wrong is different to mendaciousness, or spouting predictable, rigid ideology. I'll disagree with him about contraception, abortion, gay people ... or whether he should punch people, but if he's listening and engaging, it might be worth listening to him.
Russell | 04 February 2015

Is Pope Francis really transparent? Or is he merely a puppet or the product of a highly professional public-relations campaign. Especially if you take into account the fact that the head of the Vatican media (public relations) used to work for Fox (faux) "news" and is a member of Opus Dei too.
Sue | 04 February 2015

Unlike Pope Francis ,Tony had long abandoned his Jesuit instilled codes of behaviour as early as his Uni days .I believe I have long ago declared here ,my disapproval of him as a Howard clone ,politically & a Pell clone, spiritually .Regards John
john kersh | 04 February 2015

I am sorry I must correct you Sue . Francis for years before Rome showed The Way by his lifestyle of living in a one room apartment & travelled on the workers train each morning to his days work at his Palace .Regards John
john kersh | 04 February 2015

Brilliant. Simply brilliant analysis. RD
Fra' Richard Divall | 05 February 2015

Integrity, transparency, vulnerability, all qualities which demand faith, and confidence in oneself to be able to present one's truth in a way which clearly defines who you are. Pope Francis demonstrates the ideal for public figures by being true to himself and living out his own words. A fine example for all of us.
Anne Doyle | 05 February 2015

Thanks Andy. There is no need for cynical reservations. The link between vulnerability and authenticity is there for most to see, and for most of us who despair at times of our Church leadership, love him for it because it is a real source of hope.
ROGER WOODS | 05 February 2015

Jesus was a media fiasco in 33 CE, and his popularity poll was nada on Calvary. [And His Holiness knows this.] The poll value of Nero's martyrs was abysmal as Jesus was later in atheistic declared Albania and former other Soviet vintage. From early church the Marks of the true church have oft been One, True, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and perrenially Unpopular [forget Oscars and banal Logies! and in flight greasing. Jesus was Divine, not Elvis Presley.
Father John George | 05 February 2015

Religions that have stood the test of time exhibit a core of common moral values and ethical behaviours that are (amongst many other fine attributes) kind, loving, empathetic, fair, just and humane. Given the extreme scrutiny presently experienced by all leaders of society, it is very pleasing to see religious leaders setting aside dogmatic differences and focusing their media communications on basic core values that appeal to most good people. This is a key factor in the popularity of Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and the prominent Islamic leaders who attempt to bridge barriers and overcome prejudices. People admire and “like” these leaders, not because of some ephemeral, fabricated image created by media relations professionals, but because the substantive content of the messages they deliver and the core values they represent, earn respect, trust and alignment from good people everywhere. Tony Abbott says “it’s not a popularity contest”. What nonsense – of course it is. People will vote for people they like. Many political leaders fail to understand that their popularity is judged on the public’s perceptions of the quality and humanity of the politicians’ core values, what they really stand for and whether they can be trusted. Many in the current Australian Government, clearly influenced by Tony Abbott’s shallow self-awareness and divisive leadership, have lost the community’s respect and support. We are seeing their “core values” – and we do not like them. Paul Keating recently lamented that politicians “no longer know what they stand for”. Too true.
Richard Heggie | 05 February 2015

Dear Fr JG, i thought Jesus was able to draw, hold and feed quite a crowd, and has continued to do so for 2000 years! This Pope and his style has done great things for me and my family .
Eugene | 05 February 2015

it would be good for john george to reflect on what Andrew is expressing and perhaps, if such is possible, learn from it and from the actions and words of a pontiff that theoretically John adheres to. If such be the case what will become transparently clear would be that the gift of Francis' way of communicating is that he works with tenderness and imagination, something Abbott and his cohorts fail the test with.Tenderness consists in the joy of friendliness, the consideration and respet for another person. Imagination looks beyond the clutter of things and allows one to free oneself from an unloved world where one is expected to do what others think one should do. What Francis has done in his communication is to light up a world caught in darkness. The last pope to really do that was John23. Tony Abbott needs darkness for his divide and conquer approach to keep afloat. But at what a cost. John Hill
john hill | 05 February 2015

There is no doubt that Pope Francis is media savvy in displaying Christianity as a compassionate religion. But there are two problems with this global presentation. His charisma overshadows that of local leadership - would the average Australian Catholic even know the name of the head of the Australian Bishops Conference? Secondly, Pope Francis' vision of the Church suppresses the concrete reality of diverse expressions of Catholicism trying to adapt themselves in our culture and society and to these times. As has been said before me, media savvy popes like Francis and John Paul, and less so Benedict, have collapsed Catholicism into the papacy which resides in the Vatican or a plane.
Jane Anderson | 05 February 2015

There are several differences between the Pope and our current PM which are more than a matter of style. Pope Francis has tenure: I would suggest Mr Abbot will go, either relatively soon, through a party room move, or at the next election. One other difference lies in what they represent. The Pope is, basically, a small "c" conservative with heart. He is the main representor of classic mainstream Christianity when other Christian denominations are becoming extreme, either as with American Evangelicals or proponents of Liberal Christianity. Doctrinally the Pope is completely sound whilst being tolerant. He is also capable of enforcing discipline without alienating his constituency. I think, by and large, his constituents approve of both what he is doing and how he is doing it. As the panel on last Sundays "Insiders" program said, no purported challenger of our PM has come out against the government's socially and economically regressive policies on a number of issues. This stance is not popular with the constituency. Australia, like the Catholic Church, faces a number of problems which have an economic basis. What is needed is someone who is not extreme who can facilitate necessary economic reform without destroying the social welfare network we are justly proud of.
Edward Fido | 05 February 2015

Sad to say Mr Abbott is not in a position to adopt Pope Francis as a model for communicating with the mass media, or for that matter in communicating one on one. Mr Abbott has to be partisan. It is in the nature of parliamentary democracy. He knows everything he says or done is open to attack. He cannot follow the guiding principles St John XXIII enunciated to guide dialogue. In essentials unity, in peripherals liberty, in all things charity. Pope Francis manifests the advantages of having had a long pastoral career as well as intense intellectual discipline. That's why he can speak the language of the common people. It is also why he is capable of seeing the holes in his critics/opponents arguments but perhaps more importantly rebut them with charity, sometimes with humour. He is open-minded enough to see the other person's point of view but confident enough in his own position not to be swayed by it. The Pope also has the advantage of not having to stand for re-election.
Uncle Pat | 05 February 2015

Fr Hamilton, You have answered the perennial question. In his universal approach Pope Francis is indeed undoubtedly Catholic.
john frawley | 05 February 2015

Andrew a wonderful article.I follow politics closely. And I am almost always in despair at the utter falseness of political speak, from either side of the political fence. So to me Francis is not only an inspiration to me and to many Catholics, he is, as you so rightly point out, in stark reality to our political leaders. Just before I was married John 23rd was made Pope. I will never forget the impact he made.Before him there was in Australia an almost complete dichotomy between Catholics & Protestants. After Pope John there was a distinct change and the Ecumenical Movement started to gather momentum. For me the election of Pope Francis is a life changing event in my Catholic Faith. In my opinion this man is a power for good not only in the Church but also in the World. Along with John 23rd, Francis is the greatest power for good I have witnessed, in the Catholic Church and arguably the World. Thanks Andrew.
Ron Hill | 06 February 2015

When you're the Pope/You're a Pope all the way/From your first Latin Mass/To your last dyin' day/When you're a Pope/Let them do what they can/You got brothers around,/You're a family man!/You're never alone,/You're never disconnected/You're home with your own-- (With apologies to Stephen Sondheim's "Jet Song" West Side Story).
Pam | 07 February 2015

My understanding is that Pope Francis has approved (if not personally directed) the brutal suppression of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate: a congregation which was hitherto one of the few shining lights in the religious life of the Church. With no explanation. Can someone who barracks for the "transparent" Pope Francis please justify this seemingly autocratic move ?
HH | 07 February 2015

As for Pope Francis "working with tenderness" in communication. Already his special commission on child abuse is in dissent on his child spanking dogmatics!
I am a total papist though recognising 32 lesser levels of non infallible magisterium [spamking kids and rabbit quips rank a benchmark 34 and 35
Father John George | 08 February 2015

It's amazing how even people commenting here how claim to be the most staunch Catholics show little faith in the good will of their fellow human beings, including their own Pope, and merely reduce everything to the same banal left/right squabble. So sad for you, and so frustratingly boring for readers with half a brain.
AURELIUS | 09 February 2015

Actually, Pope Francis' popularity is now pretty much confined to the left, who still believe his pontificate will deliver their agenda. His popularity (for what that's worth) is rapidly dwindling amongst practicing Catholics :"The phenomenon of Pope Bergoglio’s increasingly “empty” audiences has been going on for some time now, although the media talks all the time about the (invisible) “crowds” and the Vatican establishment confirms this account. This phenomenon is parallel with the sales of Pope Bergoglio’s books, which are anything but flourishing: try and ask the publishing houses and you will be surprised…" Not that you'll hear this from the media, especially the liberal Catholic media. http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2015/02/heres-photo-newspapers-wont-show-empty.html
HH | 15 February 2015

HH forget not that growing Pope Francis comic industry http://ncronline.org/feature-series/francis-comic-strip https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/pope-francis-comics/id813620711?mt=8
Father John George | 17 February 2015

First of all, you will ?ave to search f?r the movies you ?ant t? watch.
It ?lso presented a crowd scene in the same w?y as that w?s d?ne ?n 'Antz'. T?ere are thousands ?f websites which make av?ilable online movie downloads completely without charge or ?t negligible payments.
Tillman | 28 June 2015


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