Vatican secrecy ensures trivial media coverage


Channel 7's Weekend Sunrise mocked the Catholic Church during its papal conclave preview a week ago. Giggling presenters Samantha Armytage and Andrew O'Keefe mused on a theological text that had caught the attention of reporter Chris Reason in St Peter's Square. It was Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-critical Biblical Interpretation, an exposition of the ideas of one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century.

'The papal version of Fifty Shades of Grey?' asked Armytage. 'More like 3000 shades of grey,' replied O'Keefe. It got sillier, with O'Keefe wondering if Pringles could be included in the cardinals' strict diet of bread and water during the conclave.

Some Catholics take a dim view of trivialisation in reporting about the Church at such a critical time. However they need to accept that this is a consequence of the Vatican's culture of secrecy and its reluctance to engage with the media except on its own terms. Journalists become idle and resentful and they behave like children. On the other hand, if you treat them like adults, they are more likely to take the church seriously.

During the week, a number of US Cardinals broke with tradition and held special afternoon press briefings. The increasingly media savvy cardinals turned a blind eye to the secrecy rules in an attempt to ensure the media told a good story about the Church. It worked, but still they got 'slapped down' and had to cancel further briefings. 

The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen commented on last Monday's briefing, which allowed Chicago's Cardinal Francis George to get on the front foot in answer to a question about child sex abuse scandals. His point that 'zero tolerance' is now Church law to which the next pope will be bound, became the day's sound bite. It put an end to endless recycling of reactions to Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien's admission of sexual misconduct. 

'From a strictly PR point of view, George turned a bad news day for the church into a fairly good one. Now, that sort of 'save' is no longer an option.'

After the US cardinals' press briefings were terminated, the next day's coverage was predictably bad, dominated by news of the crackdown on the briefings. 

To an extent it seems the Church can ensure positive media coverage if its leaders are perceived as honest and open, and prepared to engage with the media on a level playing field. This in turn enhances the authority of its moral and spiritual leadership. 

It's a simple lesson that the Vatican is yet to learn, and indeed one that applies to many other organisations that attempt to control the flow of information.

Even the Victorian Liberals were consumed last week by the desire to keep their inner workings secret, refusing to tell the public why they dumped the elected premier. This will cost the party, just as secrecy does the Church.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Vatican, conclave, Fifty Shades of Grey, pope, cardinals, Cardinal Francis George



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Existing comments

A light weight commercial tv show mocks the process of selecting a Pope, and its the Vatican's fault? Seems like a strange conclusion to come to. Thhere are a lot in the media who would mock the Catholic Church no matter what information we provided to them.

Miss Marvel | 08 March 2013  

You are quite right, Miss Marvel. I take it that you, Michael, are using the Weekend Sunrise program to show what can happen when the Vatican gets its media relations wrong. I fail to see how this is so. I fail to see how when journos behave like children we can place the blame for that on the Vatican's less than slick media-savvy attitude. Channel 7 must be aware that its viewing audience will comprise in part of catholics, some of whom take their faith seriously, so let us not attempt to justify media bullying that ridicules the Church and humiliates catholics. This may not be your intention, Michael, but it is the effect. Not that I think we should be too harsh on Samantha Armytage and Andrew O'Keefe; they are only doing what the ABC has been doing for years and years - conclave or not. So let us not be so naive as to think that this is all just a bit of a misunderstanding that can be worked over with a bit of spin. I'd like to believe that catholics are not so thin-skinned that they cannot appreciate a little gentle mockery regarding what they believe, but media behaviour is not something that can fairly or squarely be laid at the feet of the Vatican. And I don't believe you have any right to do so, Michael.

DavidSt | 09 March 2013  

Yes Miss Marvel, there are some who would mock the Church no matter what. But the Curia secrecy just makes it that much easier for them.

Bruce S | 09 March 2013  

I agree that Sunrise should have a sunset declared on it but maybe the Vatican does need to own up to being irrelevant to most people, particularly those who are not meek followers of all its antics? Let's face it, these Cardinals are electing one of their own, another Benedict type character, so there really is no need to be agog over it is there? Now, if Father Bob were to be elected Pope, that would be different and interesting, and useful too.

Janice Wallace | 11 March 2013  

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