July 2001

The Church and the media

Bishop Kieran Conry

'The Church needs the media more than the media need the Church. This is the hard lesson,' writes Kieran conry, who was for seven years Director of the Catholic Media Office before his recent appointment as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton. Here he explains why the Church has to learn this lesson.

When the pope came to Great Britain in 1982, I happened to be working with the then Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Bruno Heim, in the house on Wimbledon Common that the Pope was to make his residence for his first two nights in this country. As the papal entourage moved in, the Pope's private secretary, Mgr Stanislaus Dziwicz, came over to me and put an arm round my shoulder. After a brief preliminary exchange of courtesies, he asked me what I thought was a most odd question from a relative stranger, albeit a fellow-priest: 'What size shoes do you take?' I said that I took a size 42. The Monsignor's eyes lit up. He asked if he could borrow a pair. Still curious but happy, I gave him a choice of a couple of pairs of modest, black 42s. It turned out that on the way over to England, Mgr Dziwicz had noticed a hole in the sole of his own shoe, and became aware that some canny photographer might easily notice it as he knelt beside the Pope. It could easily then become a silly story and detract from the serious business of the papal visit.

A few things about that episode surprised me. The first was that the papal secretary was travelling so light. He is one of the few people who seem to have taken seriously the bit in the Gospel about no haversack, no purse or spare shoes. The other was that he seemed acutely aware of the presence of the media. This should not have been so surprising, given his position, but it was clearly something that exercised him. When the Pope said Mass at Westminster Cathedral, the BBC had to remove a number of its sensitive directional microphones. There was to be no eavesdropping on whispered papal asides. That sensitivity to the media does not pervade the whole Church.

The Pope comes to town

The papal visit in 1982 was undoubtedly a key moment in the history of relations between the media and the Catholic Church in these islands. Observers would say that the Church at the time was still somewhat on the margins and quite happy to be there. It seemed to be content to minister to its own little flock, confident that its churches were still fairly full. Numbers had in fact begun to decline, but there was perhaps even a sense of complacency in a Church described ambiguously as a fortress. Then a Polish pope was elected and he decided that a fundamental part of his ministry would be travelling the world. If the people could not get to Rome, Rome would come to the people.

One of the first visits was to Ireland in 1979 and people became aware of the crowd-pulling power of this new Pope and the effectiveness of a personal visit from the successor of Peter. After the National Pastoral Congress the following year, an invitation to England and Wales was delivered with the Congress report. An invitation from Scotland went at the same time. And so preparations began for something that the Church was not used to: the attention of the media. A press office was set up in Westminster which later became the Catholic Media Office; before this it had been able to function outside London as the Catholic Information Services.

The Falklands war had put the whole visit in jeopardy, and it became a pastoral visit rather than the visit of a Head of State. When the Pope set foot on English soil at Gatwick he was met by the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, rather than by the Queen (and also by the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, now the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. He says that when the Pope meets him now he says, 'Aah, the Bishop of Gatwick!').

The attention given to the Pope seemed to wake Catholics up to their own potential. One of the few religious world leaders was here in our own country, and there was his picture on the television and on the front pages, praying alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury in an Anglican cathedral, walking down the corridor with the Queen after they had had tea together, and being cheered along Hope Street in Liverpool. The Church had come in from the wings, nearer centre-stage.

The shift was most evident when Cardinal Hume died. He had become a national figure and was referred to quite naturally as one of the spiritual leaders of the country. The media reacted with genuine concern to the news of his final illness and the BBC accorded him the rare honour of a televised funeral. Few people outside the royal family are given this treatment. They were even willing to consider delaying the one o'clock news. As it happened, the funeral Mass finished almost exactly to schedule, almost as if it had been planned to precision. The broadcasters were impressed, unaware that it finished before one o'clock only because some of the prayers of commendation had been omitted by mistake.

The funeral also emphasised the quality of the relations between the Church and the media. A number of journalists have commented recently on the service they receive from the Church. We have moved a long way in the last twenty years, but the attention that the media has given the Church has not always been welcome.

The bishop leaves town

The Catholic Church in Ireland was probably the first to feel the chill wind of media on the hunt, newshounds baying and the fox in full view. And the temperature was heading for absolute zero. The Catholic Church in Ireland had been on a lofty pedestal for a long time, and from its dizzy heights it could control all it surveyed, including the media. A BBC radio journalist recounted how he received a statement from the local bishop and chose a brief section of it for a broadcast. Within minutes the bishop was on the phone. He had sent the statement to be read out, not edited. But then the pedestal fell over. Bishop Eammon Casey was found to have a son, and as if that were not a juicy enough story for the media to gloat over, it was later alleged that he might have used church funds improperly. The echoes of that case were still resounding when the first of a number of child abuse stories rocked the Church further. The Church in England and Wales was soon to go through that ordeal. Scotland, too, had its own 'naughty bishop' headlines with a story that the media could feed off for weeks. Not only had the bishop mysteriously disappeared, but he had disappeared with a woman who was not the mother of his child. In England, the question of the Church and child abuse began to receive extensive and careful scrutiny, and it became clear that the Church was not able to deal with it.

The burden of history

The Church is in the business of communicating. Jesus himself made this quite explicit at the end of Mark's Gospel in particular. Until fairly recently in its history, the Church had a fairly good grasp of the ways and means, because there were few of them. It had some fairly impressive buildings, some equally impressive liturgies within them, and a captive audience that was fairly receptive to its simple core message. But the world has changed, and the Church will not communicate very effectively if it does not at least enquire carefully about how the world has changed, and then look to see what changes might be required of the Church.

There seem to be two areas in which the Church finds itself encumbered by its past. The first is in the area of power. The Church is still an enormously powerful institution. Many otherwise sensible people still regard priests primarily as authority figures - some priests probably encourage this - and will find themselves deprived of speech in the presence of a bishop. In countries where the Church had a more official role in the public forum, that power would extend even over the media. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster will regularly get letters requiring him to prevent the broadcast of a programme that someone has decided will be offensive.

Today increasingly few people and institutions have much regard for the Church's power. The hard lesson here is that the media will decide whether the Church is of interest to its consumers today, and the Church has to decide whether and how to respond. Too often its responses have been too slow, too defensive or just unaware of what is required. When asked what students in seminary were being trained for, one priest said to camera, 'Fidelity to the pontificate.' This is in an age when many people do not even understand what 'fidelity' means. A number of articles recently have suggested that the Church 'should use the media more', without suggesting just how this is to happen. The media are not there to be used; they are not servants of the Church or any other institution. The Church is sometimes fortunate if it can get its own message into the broadcast or print media. The Church needs the media more than the media need the Church. This is the hard lesson.

The other burden the institutional Church still has is a natural tendency towards secrecy, to the extent that one Catholic newspaper suggested that the recent review of the Church's communications was actually prompted by concerns over leaks. This tendency does not cope well with a media industry that will simply accept secrecy as a challenge and a source of great interest. It was probably the Church that coined the term 'secretary' to mean someone that was privy to the secrets. Where there is a question of secrecy, there needs to be a clear and reasonable conviction that the secrecy is actually going to be beneficial.

When car manufacturers are testing a new product on the roads, they go to great lengths to disguise it. The reason seems twofold: it is partly to hide it from competitors who might wish to copy new features from it, and partly so that when it is finally revealed to the media at some carefully staged event, it will make maximum impact. When it is revealed there is a careful exercise in public relations, ensuring that the product is clearly identifiable and accessible to its target audience. These principles seem simple, but do not always guide the Church's approach to the marketing of its own product. If a document is to be presented to the world at large, it must be available beforehand so that on the day of its launch someone who has been allowed to read it can present it in a coherent and clear way. In the case of a document, the reason to try to preserve its secrecy is so that when it is launched the Church retains some degree of control over what is said about it.

Memorable leaks from the past few years include the publication of the Pope's encyclical Veritatis splendor and the appointment of the Archbishop of Westminster. In the first instance The Times was able to make its own assessment of the document or ask for comment from selected critics; the Church's press officers could only respond to criticism, not having seen the document. The Church was on the back foot straight away. 'Gay sex is evil, says Pope' was one headline.

The second leak appeared at a most difficult moment, late on a Saturday night in the Sunday first edition. It was clear that, as in the first instance, the leak had actually occurred in Rome (ironically) and all that happened here was that the Archbishop-elect (as it turned out) had a rather embarrassing week and the Church was made to look inefficient and possibly dishonest - was he the new Archbishop? Did he know? Why can't you tell us?

In a situation like that, a press office can only do its job if it is properly informed - the (putative) Archbishop-elect did tell the duty officer as much as he knew, but others are not always so helpful, understanding or trustful. It is the old story of being sent into fight with one hand tied behind your back.

The Catholic Media Office was sometimes unprepared for the launch of a particular Vatican document: the case was quoted in The Tablet recently. It was the one where the Catholic Media Office actually received the text of the document from the BBC. Where the media give you not only information about your institution but information from it, then something is wrong.

And of course the Church acts slowly. It tends to favour a carefully considered response to a question, rather than instant wisdom. But with the proliferation of broadcast media, that luxury is denied us. If we delay our response to a question from the media, the news bulletins have changed completely and we have lost another opportunity.

We need to improve in all of these areas. We need to learn the language that people are listening to, to respond to demands that are made of us, to be open and honest in that response, and to do it now, not when we feel like it. It might all sound as though we are allowing the tail to wag the dog, but the wagging tail is the bit that catches the eye.

Planning for the future

The bishops of England and Wales announced at the end of last year that they were carrying out a review of the Church's communications. The fact that this is happening at all can only be good news. It indicates first of all that they are taking the whole matter seriously - like the Nolan review into child protection, this review is being done independently by two experts in the field: James Moir, head of BBC Radio 2, and Angela Salt, until recently director of communications at the Millennium Commission.

What the review may not have the scope to do is consult among what we might call 'users' to see what is happening with the Church's message. When the Church speaks, to whom is it speaking, and how does it get the message across? One very basic premise of communications is the need to know your audience. If you are not saying things that they want to hear or saying them in a way they can grasp, then the whole exercise is futile.

When I was asked what was the 'high point' of my seven years in the Catholic Media Office, I couldn't really answer - the question was too vague. Did it mean the most exciting times, the most satisfying or the most memorable? There would probably be three different answers. But the two things that I remember most vividly were very personal and rather insignificant in the great scale of things. One was a call from 'a member of the public' who didn't identify himself. He had heard me on Radio 3 the previous day, talking about something that was not particularly religious or spiritual. He had been thinking of becoming a Catholic and now wanted to know what to do. Since he happened to live in south London, I sent him along to the Southwark Adult Education Centre in Tooting. That was apparently the end of that. Then, more than a year later, I happened to meet the director of the centre, Fr Nick Hudson. He asked me if I remembered the man I had sent along. I remembered the incident, but no more. He told me that the man had been received into the Church at Easter. The second memory was similar, but less happy in some ways. The topic of child abuse was in the news again, and I was asked on radio what the Church was doing. One of the things I said was that it was encouraging victims to come forward, that their stories would be listened to. The next day another man rang and asked what to do: he too had been a victim but nobody had told him that he could talk about it. I directed him to the police or social services, and to the local bishop, in case he wanted to tell him as well. In two cases, it is possible that people's lives were changed. That seems more important than reputations or image.

The question of who hears what, and how, is crucial to the whole enterprise. The latest pieces of news I heard regarding the wider Church were via the old-fashioned oral tradition, the phone - the appointment of a new bishop - and via the daily newspaper - the Pope's interest in the cinema.

So if people actually learn about the Church through their ordinary news sources, that is where the Church has to be. And most of those news sources are local, local radio and local newspapers. These are community services, usually hungry for news and comment from local sources, and if the local parish never features on the radio or in the newspaper, then an opportunity is missed. How otherwise are people outside the Church going to know anything about what we do? The Catholic Media Office will always give help and advice regarding contact with local media sources. This sort of ministry ought to be as important as the ministry of welcome or the other things that make the Church accessible and friendly.

Whatever conclusions the review reaches, there will be some degree of necessity for the bishops to act - why commission the review otherwise? Communications have been improving over the years, but there is still need for a fundamental change of attitude. The media are not the enemy. They can be very useful allies in the real fight against apathy.

More by Bishop Kieran Conry
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