Thursday, 16 September 2010

Reuters on Catholic Voices: 'one of the big innovations of this papal tour'

From Tom Heneghan's FaithWorld blog:

Catholic Voices, the speakers’ bureau that’s been putting up sparring partners for the Church’s critics, must already rank as one of the big innovations of this papal tour.  Popes are no strangers to protests when they visit foreign countries, but the Vatican and the local Church hierarchy usually ignore the critics or give cautious responses. Under Pope Benedict, Vatican public relations has been so badly organised that both he and his aides have often provided even more fuel for criticism. Given the strong and mostly critical interest the media would show in the pope’s visit, these speakers – journalists, lawyers, students and a few clergy – decided the Church needed  a more professional operation if it was to get its message across.

Catholic Voices coordinator Austen Ivereigh a former deputy editor of The Tablet and spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, gave me his thoughts about the project and how it’s been doing:

“We thought that our model of a ‘media-friendly, studio-ready, ego-free’ speakers would work well for both the Church and the 24-hours news media, but we’ve been amazed at its success. A big part of the success, we think, is that we making ourselves available to talk about absolutely anything –authoritatively, but in straightforward human language. I think the media have been really impressed that ‘ordinary’ Catholics have been standing up and rebutting these critiques – rather than polemicists or professional talking heads (or indeed bishops). We haven’t replaced those, of course, but have offered another kind of “voice” – deliberately non-expert, but very well briefed – alongside the usual commentators and spokespeople.

“It’s the fruit of six months of intensive briefings on hot topics, and media skills training. It’s been enormously satisfying to see a group of 20-odd ‘ordinary’ Catholics – not leaders of Church organisations, but people with jobs, generally in their 20s and 30s – appear in studios and carry off an effective 3-minute live broadcast interview. I think we’ve presented a much more ‘real’ face of the Church than the media are used to.

“The ferocity of the criticism directed at the Pope and the state nature of the visit – a lot of it deeply irrational, and clumsy in its allegations – has kept us in demand; journalists have been looking for responses that are straightforward and human, and which reflect attitudes in the Catholic community.”

Catholic Voices also runs a Media Monitor blog, tracking the debate in the media and talking back to its critics. There are plenty of links there to video clips showing their appearances on British television or articles in print. One interesting post that shows it’s drawn some blood recounts how a leading critic, the prominent lawyer Sir Geoffrey Robertson, pulled out of a Sky TV interview with Ivereigh and refused to debate him on Al Jazeera. Robertson argued in a new book “The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse” that the Vatican did not deserve a state visit because it was not really a state – despite the fact the Holy See is recognised as a sovereign state in international law, as Ivereigh has been telling anyone ready to listen.