According to a report in today’s Financial Times, Chris Patten has been appointed by Pope Francis to take on the new role of improving the Church’s Vatican media relations.
As former Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten should have a lot of experience in terms of advising the Vatican how to overhaul their communications department and in particular their media outlets, which let’s be honest, need bringing up to date. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating both the Gospel message and using the media as a form of Catechesis has already been done by enterprising American apostolates. The Vatican has, for some years now been lagging behind, the Church’s own media agency is never the first port of call when it comes to catching up on Papal news and events, or what’s going on in the Catholic world, unless you are a well-connected Vaticanista or official reporter looking for confirmation of facts. The Vatican still needs to get its act together when it comes to stopping a lie from travelling half way around the world, while their press operation is still switching on their fax machine.
Of course the very last thing that Pope Francis needs right now is the services of a spin doctor, which I suspect he’d eschew, but if Lord Patten is going to use his expertise to help the Vatican in terms overhauling their digital output (which has markedly improved over the past few years), or getting Vatican radio, TV and newspapers more up to date and able to better maximise the opportunities presented by the rolling news cycle, it will be no bad thing. Patten is a canny operator, in possession of a sharp intellect with a passion for public service and by all accounts a very personable and charming individual. Whatever one may think of the BBC’s editorial policies, their output is of a consistently high quality.
That said his tenure at the BBC wasn’t free of controversy, there was the disastrous coverage of Queen’s diamond jubilee river pageant which Patten admitted was ‘not the corporation’s finest hour’. Also was the affair of the over-generous pay-offs to executives which revealed a chaotic management with no-one willing to take responsibility, and there’s also the issue of the shiny new refurbishment at Broadcasting House (a project which came into being prior to Patten’s tenure) which came in millions over budget. Anyone whose visited there can’t help but to admire the place, I was struck between the transformation between October last year and just last month, the building seemed more high-tech and glossy than ever-before, all the lifts have been replaced and modernised, the recording studios are more spacious and comfortable, but nothing had previously seemed to be screaming out for improvement. I was nonetheless amused to learn that despite the billions spent on the place, apparently bits of the set on the news studio have a tendency to fall off. Perhaps it’s a deliberate retro-70s effect? BBC News meets Crossroads.
One doubts whether or not the Vatican, which is currently engaged in a Curial streamlining and efficiency exercise will have the inclination or surplus cash to play about with in the same way as the BBC – they simply don’t have large amounts of liquidity at hand, nor can I see senior Cardinals and prelates or lay officials getting together for a blue-sky media brainstorming mind-map session followed up by spot of team-building – although the sight of archbishops blind quad-bike racing or rock climbing in St Peter’s Square might be rather fun!
And of course, the big elephant in the room when it comes to the BBC is the Savile affair, although taking heed of the lessons learned in the Catholic Church Lord Patten stated that the BBC must tell the truth and face up to the truth about itself, no matter how terrible. He is no stranger to an institution rocked to its foundations by an abuse scandal and the need for confidence to be restored. At the beginning of this week BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell launched a scathing attack on Lord Patten’s ‘ignorance’ in apparently ignoring talented female broadcasters and presenters, so it might be that this appointment is further grist to the feminists’ mill.
Lord Patten oversaw arrangements for the phenomenally successful Papal visit of 2010, and in September of 2010, The Tablet named him as one the UK’s most influential Catholics, such an accolade being something of a double-edged sword. Perhaps that’s why Damian Thompson appears to have little time for him, describing him in one tweet as being as Tory, as Tony Blair is Catholic. Ouch! It’s a theme reiterated by Damian in several posts, along with the fact that Lord Patten is a trustee of the Tablet, a Chancellor of Oxford University and seemingly much trusted by the Bishops Conference in England and Wales, as a safe pair of hands.
Still, who are we to judge? He’s an experienced media operator, businessman and politician. For those understandably cautious about his orthodoxy, (he isn’t going to be responsible for formulating or promulgating the message, only the medium by which it is transmitted), let’s pray and wish him and the Vatican media operation, well.
It looks as though Lord Patten will be leading an extremely senior and experienced international team, according to the Vatican Press Release, which includes the very highly regarded Monsigner Paul Tighe, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Relations and Gregory Earlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, so the Media Committee set up to consider reforms is not a mere quango and neither is Patten’s appointment some sort of English Catholic establishment political coup d’etat as might be claimed. Chris Patten is not acting as a Mandelson-style personal advisor or spin doctor, as reported in the Mail and his role is a voluntary, unpaid one.
The dry nature and visual format of the press release and the fact that the FT has so far been the only outlet to pick up the news, neatly proves the point about the need for reform.