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The free media: a price worth paying

The free media:
a price worth paying

by John Wilkins

from The Tablet, November 1st., 2003; republished here with permission

The Catholic Church has undergone trial by media over the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Some saw it as persecution.

Writing in The Tablet's monthly stablemate some years back, the columnist Paul Vallely wondered whether it would ever be possible to get the essence of religious life into the media. "In the end", Vallely wrote, "there is a fundamental incompatibility between much of the work of the Church and that of the media. The Church should not waste too much time on what is fundamentally a tainted process."

Vallely was, of course, pushing his argument in order to make his point, in the way that journalists do. He would be the first to acknowledge that if the Church opted out in that way, it would be omitting to communicate with millions of viewers and readers in a media-driven age.

The uneasiness between the Church and the free media surfaced again in Britain in the week of the Pope’s silver jubilee. Objecting to the BBC’s decision to kick off its schedule in that week with a Panorama programme called "Sex and the Holy City", followed by an edition of Kenyon Confronts looking at clerical sexual abuse cases in the archdiocese of Birmingham, Archbishop Vincent Nichols called a press conference. "Enough is enough", he told the journalists. He took his protest all the way up to the director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, and the director of news, Richard Sambrook. "The Catholic community is patient and long-suffering", said Archbishop Nichols to the journalists, "but I sense that it is time to say No."

The two sides find it hard to understand each other. Church perspectives on the media often seem to reflect a make-believe world. By common consent, Vatican II’s document on the means of social communication (Vaticanspeak for media) was the weakest text that the council produced. A later pastoral instruction sought to develop the council’s work. It said, of the media: "Such means of communication serve to build new relationships, and to fashion a new language which permits people to know themselves better and to understand one another more easily. By this, they are led to a mutual understanding and shared ambition, and this, in turn, inclines them to justice and peace, to goodwill and an active charity, to mutual help, love and, in the end, to communion."

Tell that to Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, and they might be somewhat sceptical.

Another person who would be somewhat sceptical would be the late Hugo Young, the Guardian columnist. He gave a lecture to mark the centenary of the founding of Westminster Cathedral in London. When the Church talks about values in the media, said Young, "the implication is that it is the values of the worldly, in this case the media world, that stand in constant need of testing by reference to Christian values. It is the newspapers and television that do not measure up to some higher ideal that Christianity and its prophets, both the ancient and modern, lay down." In fact, though, Hugo Young argued, "we should be clear that the values expressed and acted on by the Church are not always congruent with the kind of media that are of the greatest social importance. There is a clear disjunction between Christian values, at least as expressed by the Roman Church, and those of good journalism". This, Hugo Young concluded, "is decidedly not an area where we can say with confidence that if only Christian qualities were more evident, the media would be doing a better job".

So in this respect, Hugo Young did not count himself as being of the Pope’s party. What would the Pope himself have to say? He is, after all, a superb media communicator. In December last year he addressed the International Catholic Union of the Press. Journalists, said the Pope, should have the courage to seek and report the truth, however inconvenient the truth may be. They should look for moral, religious and spiritual aspects to stories, and report "uplifting actions", performed on behalf of "the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the weak, those who are otherwise forgotten by society". The secular media can indeed be very good at that. Fergal Keane’s remarkable reports on television about the Ethiopian famine, for example, had a dramatic effect on the late Cardinal Hume. Or think of the stories, so beloved of the Daily Mail, of ordinary people who have shown themselves in a crisis to be heroes and heroines.

On the other hand, the secular media are also very good at doing the opposite. In his biography of Rupert Murdoch, William Shawcross has a section about the Sun under its famous and notorious editor Kelvin McKenzie, whose motto was, "Shock and amaze on every page". Shawcross quotes a history of the Sun which gave a list of the sort of people whom Kelvin McKenzie thought were fair game: "Prisoners, criminals, drug takers, football hooligans, most blacks, homosexuals, militant trade unionists, muggers, students, peace campaigners, demonstrators, hippies, dossers, tramps, beggars, social security scroungers, terrorists, especially the IRA, vandals, graffiti artists, prostitutes, gypsies, winos, various foreign groups en masse and all deviants, particularly sex offenders." It does not jell with what the Pope thinks the media should be doing. The gap is wide.

The Pope gave a second address, this time for World Communications Day this year. In this second text he was looking at the pressures on journalists.

Catholic editors and journalists are themselves very accustomed to coming under pressure. When Cardinal Hume went to receive his red hat in Rome, he was approached by a very high official in the Roman Curia. "And now, Basil", said the official, "you can do something about those Catholic papers of yours." Cardinal Hume was able to reply, "No censorship please, we're British."

One remark the Pope made in his address for World Communications Day goes to the heart of the matter. In order to serve freedom, the Pope said, "the media must be free and correctly use that freedom". But who judges what that correct use of freedom is? If the press is free, the authorities do not have the last word; on the contrary, the free media specialise in publishing the things that the authorities want to keep quiet.

The Austrian bishop Kurt Krenn has one solution. He has suggested that religious journalists should be issued with licences, like dogs, which would be withdrawn if a journalist misbehaved. There are those in the secular world who might have a sneaking sympathy with that suggestion.

In the 1970s a battle royal took place at Unesco in Paris. The chief protagonist against the free press was Sean MacBride, the mercurial former Irish foreign minister, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize. He headed a commission charged to bring in a New Information Order. If he had succeeded, Western journalists covering Third World subjects would have needed some sort of authorisation or licence -shades of Bishop Krenn.

Sean MacBride's commission argued that the Western media were selling the Third World short. They were not even attempting to give a rounded picture of Third World development. Instead, they swooped in to cover earthquakes, wars and scandals, provided saturation reporting which was sensational from beginning to end, and then went home until the next time. The Third World must have more control, MacBride's commission insisted, and irresponsible journalists must be banned.

In the end the supporters of the free media won a vital victory. For all its glaring deformities and deficiencies, the free media can invigilate power. They are the Fourth Estate. They can call to account governments, the police, those who are corrupt, they can give a voice to the voiceless. In winning the battle in Unesco, the free secular media won a battle for all journalists. Freedom of the press is basic to any free society. Secular journalists need it, religious journalists need it. Public opinion in the Church, Pius XII said, is "essential" to the Church's life.

Nevertheless, church authorities tend to be suspicious of the free media, and not infrequently to fear them. In consequence, most church media are to some degree controlled. L'Osservatore Romano, for example, gives the official line - that’s what it’s for. Diocesan newspapers tend to do the same. To a greater or lesser extent, they act as a transmission belt for information from the authorities. Controlled media like these can ignore the pressures of the marketplace. If they pay for themselves, good, but they do not need to, and they probably won’t.

In the last two years, the greatest clash between the Church and the free media has been over the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The media coverage in the United States, Cardinal Rodriguez de Maradiaga said, could be likened to the persecution of the Church launched by the ancient Roman emperors, Hitler or Stalin.

The crisis has been worst in Boston, where Cardinal Law eventually had to go, but it was replicated in varying degrees elsewhere. In Ireland the cardinal in Dublin was embattled for months. In Britain the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, had to face his own ordeal at the hands of the media.

The cardinal made it clear that he thought there was a media campaign against him. He went public about this in two letters last November, one to The Times and one to the Catholic people as a whole.

The cardinal told The Times in his letter to them dated 20 November: "You suggest that some may feel a sense of betrayal arising from mistakes the Church has made in the past, including in relation to paedophilia. I suggest in turn that many others feel deeply concerned by the apparently relentless attacks by parts of the media on their faith, and on the Church in which they continue to believe."

On 22 November the cardinal wrote to the Catholics of England and Wales: "As you know, not only I personally but the whole Catholic Church in England and Wales has been under attack from some quarters during these past days ... I have every confidence that the Catholic community will meet the difficulties and the pressures of the present time with its traditional faith and courage."

Last December, the cardinal called a press conference at short notice. He had asked a solicitor in Leeds to look at all the cases he had dealt with as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, and in every case the judgement was that the cardinal had acted correctly. Cormac Murphy-O'Connor thought he now had good news to tell the media. But the solicitor was a Catholic who had acted for the diocese. The atmosphere in that press conference was reminiscent almost of a lynch mob.

Stephen Bates, the religious correspondent of the Guardian, described the event afterwards in the paper’s media section. He related how "a BBC journalist rang the Guardian three times to ensure we would be attending to hear the latest allegations. Outside, the press conference, BBC and Times representatives congratulated each other on their coverage, with the newspaper’s representative thanking the broadcasters for their help with her latest story."

The media, Bates thought, had been "justifiably outraged" by the church cover-up, but he thought nevertheless that if the cardinal was feeling a sense of persecution, that would be "increasingly well-founded". He went on: "The Times and sections of the BBC, notably the Today programme, have been hounding Murphy-O’Connor for months in a campaign which has at times verged on the hysterical."

Some of the media coverage was very nasty. But would it have been any less nasty if, for example, it had been the Royal Family who were involved in the saga? Or if it had been the Church of England? Or if it had been the social services or the police?

The scandals have done terrible harm to the Church’s good name. At The Tablet those sexual abuse cases tested us to the uttermost. We had to tell the truth - and since people trusted us, they gave us inside information. We investigated all the Arundel and Brighton cases that came to our attention, publishing full details week by week, while defending the cardinal editorially from the assassination attempts against him. But we pointed to obvious failings, in particular the Church's apparent reluctance to identify fully with the plight of the victims.


In the investigation of clerical sexual abuse, all the vices of the free media have been on abundant display - competitive market values, sensationalism, exaggeration, the cruel willingness to destroy people’s careers and reputations, vulgarity and insinuation. But it was the free media that exposed a deep corruption inside the Church that had persisted for many years. The free media dragged the Church, resisting every step of the way, to admit the facts, and brought it to a mood that can fairly be described as one of repentance. Without the free media, would Catholics in Britain ever have had the Nolan Report and the establishment of a Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults? Without the free media in the United States, would Cardinal Law ever have had to face the consequences of his actions and step down? Rather, it is overwhelmingly probable that serial clerical sexual abuse in the United States and elsewhere would be continuing to this day. In the end, the work of the free media in this affair, despite all its distasteful aspects, comes out as a plus rather than as a minus.

This has been a time of great pressure on the Catholic Church. But the Church has only itself to blame for that. There is no alternative but to take the punishment, while waiting until the measures that have been taken show the public that the Catholic Church is now part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Archbishop Nichols was not wrong to complain the other day about the BBC's programming during the week of the Pope's twenty-fifth anniversary. There is always a danger, however, of asking for special treatment. The bishops of England and Wales were surely most unwise, gathered in Rome later, to repeat their broadside through the Vatican press office. The Catholic Church is not beyond criticism, whether in the secular or the religious press, and the free media are not to be regarded simply as devils with horns. There is a heavy price to pay for their freedom, but it is worth it - just.

John Wilkins

* * The material in this article is extracted from the Dora Turbin lecture delivered by the editor of The Tablet in Oxford last Saturday.


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