By George Plathottam
The recent reports in the media under the headline ‘Pope a Disaster: Vatican Insiders’ has shocked the catholic community which hold the pope in great esteem. That the media chose to write such an unsubstantiated and prejudiced report on an important person like the pope who is considered as the spiritual head of more than one billion Catholics across the world, was shocking. Would any newspaper or television channel carry similar stories on the Dalai Lama or other spiritual leaders of Hinduism?
Though the story first originated in a section of the highly anti-clerical Western media, the Indian media lapped it up and gave it wide publicity. Some reports which appeared in the Indian media were based on a story put out by the Press Trust of India (PTI), a news agency considered to be respected and reputed in the country. But what was intriguing is the boldness with which a headline like ‘Pope a Disaster: Vatican Insiders’ could be flashed on the newspapers and television channels in the country and elsewhere. More so because the headline itself boldly announced a bias and the story itself is from a journalistic point of view, an unverified, unsubstantiated one at that. Any journalist or editor worth his or her salt knows that a news report should be based on a reliable source and that the identity and the credibility of the source are integral to the quality of the news that is reported. Thus the sourcing of the news as unidentified ‘Vatican insiders’ not only violates journalistic ethics but smacks of prejudice.
Journalists in the past strictly adhered to the principle that news should be differentiated from views. One of the often-repeated journalistic maxim is: ‘Facts are sacred, but comment is free.’ One of the greatest strengths of the Indian press, considered more objective in comparison to the press in many of our neighbouring South Asian countries or Middle East, was its ability to maintain that hallowed distinction between news and views. Today with television channels and internet providing news round the clock, newspapers tend to adhere less to this time-honoured tradition of separating news and opinion.
The experienced and critical readers will distinguish the difference, but the non-discerning and casual readers are likely to be misled into thinking that opinion is news and vice versa. That category of readers and viewers being numerous, it does not behove well for the media to throw to the winds the maxim of maintaining judiciously the distinction between news and views.
The shift from this distinction to today’s increasing mix of views and news has come partly due to the weakening of the figure of the editor, as well as due to increasing bias and to some extend vested interests of individual reporters and corporate bodies that own the media. No doubt, it is unhealthy for media to have journalists, media persons as well as media organisations casting their shadow on the coverage as is increasingly being seen today.
Recently I was rather disconcerted to see a widely read and much respected newspaper whose main story on the front page was about its success as the largest circulated vernacular daily. Readers who subscribe to newspapers have to not only wade through heaps of ads but also endure a lot of self-promotion materials before they can put their finger on the important events of the day. With such narcissist tendencies becoming rampant in the media today, one is reminded of what a wag said: ‘News is what is written at the back of the advertisement.’
Now coming back to the issue of the report on the pope, it became obvious to any careful reader or viewer of the news that the media chose to throw to the winds this valued maxim of keeping news and views at arms length from each other. By doing so the media has sullied the profession of journalism by letting some people’s views masquerade as news.
In any reputed media it is not easy for cub reporters to come up with a story with a vague attribution to someone who cannot be identified, or the public at large. ‘Reliable sources’ , ‘highly placed officials’, ‘party insiders’, ‘sources close to the authorities’ – thus goes the list of vague attributions which journalists frequently use. But they hold no water. They litter our daily news reports, and readers, even the unhappy ones, tend to take them on their stride. But to authenticate a story, to get substantial, convincing, identifiable sources for it are the burden of the reporter. T
he veracity of a news item filed by a reporter is normally put through rigorous tests by several persons who exercise the role of gate-keeping functions in the media system such as sub editors and editors. One wonders whether such a process was applied in the case of the report concerning the pope.
Even if that process has been adhered to, there is hardly anything on the ground to prove that Pope Benedict XVI is a ‘disaster.’ Media reports have indicated elsewhere about his successful visits to Africa, where he drew crowds to the tune of one million. He has given to the people of the African continent reeling under various natural and human-made disasters, a new lease of life and hope. Pope Benedict chose to travel across to parts of this continent to speak of peace, development and solidarity. That he was cordially received and that his message was accepted by large sections of the people of Africa, albeit falsifications regarding his reference to AIDS and condom use, were evident in much of the footage that people across the world watched. His journeys, though much less than his predecessor, John Paul II’s, have been pilgrimages to confirm the faith of the people whose spiritual head he is, and to offer them a sense of being in communion with the universal church.
Then what is behind a report that tends to tarnish the good name of the pope and challenge his moral and spiritual leadership? One cannot deny the fact that a section of people in the West have strong liberal views on issues like gay marriage, divorce, abortion, use of condom. A new wave of atheism and godlessness is now sweeping Europe and America. Anti-clericalism is gaining a new momentum in sections of the society and the media. The traditional teachings of the church rooted on respect for life, family, and sacredness of marital unions are non-negotiable and the pope cannot dilute these perennial teachings of the church to suit popular feelings and sentiments.
Pope Benedict has simply reiterated the cardinal teachings of the church. He has frequently spoken against ethical relativism, moral laxity and godlessness. He has challenged the conscience of the world to rise above a narrow view of life steeped in consumerism and economic self sufficiency, to reach out to the people who reel under poverty and suffering. He has frequently called for responding to the many global challenges the world today faces by expressing greater solidarity and concern for the less fortunate. He has called for ending arms race, wars and conflicts in different parts of the world. It is not an understatement to say that the pope’s voice has been listened to by hundreds and thousands of people wherever he has spoken. In the St. Peter’s Square in Vatican, huge crowds come to listen to his teachings. Events like the World Youth Day in Sydney last year have shown the kind of esteem and love he enjoys among the young people.
Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II was a great globetrotter and crowd puller. He enjoyed great popular support and wide media coverage. He became the Time magazine’s Man of the Year twice during his pontificate spanning a quarter of a century, during which he led the church. John Paul II went down in history as the most photographed person and one who had the single largest live audience in human history. Soon after such a successful pontificate of John Paul II there were widespread doubts that the next pope would not enjoy that kind of acceptance and popularity. But history has shown that within a short period of time Benedict XVI has been listened to by millions of people across the world, and that his writings, his teachings and speeches have received raving reviews. Some commentators who compared the papacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI say that thousands came to see John Paul II, but today thousands come to hear Pope Benedict.
Pope Benedict continues to be a voice that is listened to. And his is a voice that reassures to the one billion Catholics all over the world as well as to millions of others the need to live a life rooted in God. His voice is a call to adhere to the perennial values of respect for life, option for the poor, charity towards the less privileged. If the pope calls the world to give up ethical relativism and moral laxity in their personal and social life, he is simply being the voice of Christ’s gospel. After all, another name by which the pope is known is ‘the Vicar of Christ.’
No doubt such a message can be uncomfortable for people who seek to live their lives on their own terms in the name of freedom. It is a teaching that is hard to follow, and so, it maybe considered convenient to forsake it, throw it to the winds, and blame the one who continuously harps on the need to live a life rooted in ethical, moral values. Those who are disconcerted and disturbed by that message would find it easy to throw the baby with the bathe water, to paint the pope as a disaster because his teachings and writings disturb the conscience of the world, because it is too hard a teaching to follow.
Reactions against the report that tried to diminish the moral stature of the pope by calling him a disaster has been coming from different parts of the world. Catholics as well as many religious and political leaders have reaffirmed their faith and confidence in the leadership of Pope Benedict. Last May, I had the privilege of being in the Vatican and listening to him during an audience he gave to the representatives of Catholic media faculties from across the world. His warmth and cordiality, the timelines and relevance of his message, his conviction that came through his speech, were clear indications that Pope Benedict has a vision for the world in our times. The learned professors and scholars from more than 50 universities did not find anything that could suggest signs of disaster in him. They had no hesitation in discerning the voice of a man who knows well the church he leads and the needs of the world today.
When confronted by moral and ethical relativism, the teaching office of the pope, called the Magisterium, has been a sure source of anchor for many people. Often the pope, like other renowned world leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, have been considered the moral conscience keepers of the world, urging world leaders and the masses to look beyond what is immediate, to seek the things that can bring about lasting peace and harmony in the world. Their voices are being listened to even to liberate the world from issues like poverty and war and even the current financial crisis that is plaguing the world.
A Norwegian friend of mine, a great scholar with a doctorate in linguistics and a person with a well-grounded knowledge of the Bible, a Lutheran by faith, chose to embrace the Catholic faith. He has been reading and studying much on the Catholic church and it took two years of preparation before he finally embraced Catholic faith and was formally admitted into it. When asked what drew him to the Catholic faith, he told me that he was deeply impressed by the teaching authority of the church in the Magisterium of the Catholic church headed by the pope. He admitted that he was quite uncomfortable with the idea of interpreting the teachings of the Bible by oneself, but felt assured that there is a consistent, continuous and authoritative teaching authority in the Catholic church.
Today more and more people are tending to look for a sure voice that they can rely on, a firm, convincing moral and ethical guide that can show the way. For the one billion Catholics in almost every part of the world as well as a much wider populace, the voice of the pope is a sane, sure, reliable voice one can trust. Macaulay, the renowned historian, in a review on Ranke’s Ecclesiastical and political History of the Popes published in 1840 wrote these memorable words on the enduring nature of the Church and the papacy:
“There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic church. The history of that church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre.
The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour.
The Catholic church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching.
She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.”
George Plathottam is a writer based in India who writes on media matters. This article is adapted from Indian Currents.