Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Vatican secrecy ensures trivial media coverage

  • 11 March 2013

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.