‘Vatican Five’ trial and the threat to freedom of the press

Vatican trial

Journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaidi on trial at the Vatican

Freedom of the press is one of the essential attributes of a civilised society, or so we say, yet it is always open season on journalists.

Governments distrust the press, and journalists are often the targets of oppressive regimes. I have touched before on the risks faced by reporters, photographers and cameramen and women around the world. But it is not just conflict zones where they are at threat.

An alarming number of journalists are disappeared by repressive regimes; and in our own more benign democratic environment the rich and powerful flex their muscles (or get the courts to flex muscles for them) to minimise public scrutiny.

I doubt there is a single journalist who has not been the victim of intimidation and threats. Many have risked their personal safety to bring us the news.

It is unsurprising perhaps to see tin pot Latin American dictators, jumped up Russian oligarchs, and repressive regimes such as those in North Korea, China and the Middle East turn on the media.

This week, the Holy See joined the list of countries incapable of differentiating between the importance of a free press and its own narrow self-interest.

The Church has form. Silencing dissidents has been stock in trade of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since its foundations as the Inquisition. (Don’t mention Monty Python). Denunciation by the Church was a sign you had something worthwhile to say. From Galileo to the theologian Hans Kung independent thinkers have been viewed with suspicion.

The Church doesn’t burn heretics now. If it did, the current pontiff might be investing in a fire-proof cassock. He is a bit of a free thinker himself.

Although on paper he is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchs, his reign is testimony to the limitations of papal power. His opponents (and he has identified ‘enemies within’) know they just have to dig in and wait for regime change. Given Francis is approaching 80, and has himself spoken of the spectre of death, they have time on their side.

The Holy See’s decision to put on trial five people – two of them journalists – over the publication of embarrassing leaks seems out of character with the more open regime Francis has embraced. Since his election as successor to Benedict XVI (who as Cardinal Ratzinger was the Church’s Silencer-in-Chief) he has ploughed a more socially liberal furrow.

If the decision to prosecute was taken with the active approval of the pope, he was badly advised. The Vatican Five include two investigative journalists, a PR woman, a Spanish priest, and his secretary.

In their books, drawing on the leaked information, the journalists accused the Curia of financial mismanagement and waste. According to them, prelates promoting the pope’s vision of a Church of the Poor did so flying business class, spending money on lavish private apartments in Roman palaces, and splashing out on expensive furniture.

Quite what the Holy See hopes to achieve by these prosecutions is difficult to discern. Yes it has been embarrassed. But more people now know of the allegations than would have been the case if it had taken the criticism on the chin.

The Church has been made a laughing stock. Rather than rooting out corruption, and cleaning up its act, the Holy See is indulging in that popular past time – shooting the messenger.

It’s been open season on ‘messengers’ since the dawn of time. Sophocles wrote about it in Antigone, and Shakespeare too. In modern times, it is the media that carries the load: newspapers are regularly vilified for shining the light on corruption – large and small. It’s all the fault of the press.

Embarrassment is not a good basis for prosecution, and a show trial does nothing for the Vatican’s crumbling image. Next month, the Church begins its Holy Year of Mercy – there are better ways to launch it than this prosecution.

In his Lives, Plutarch tells the story of the misfortunate soldier who was murdered for bringing bad news to the general, Tigranes. In the story, Plutarch writes: “No man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

A Church relying on flattery and deaf to criticism – not matter how harsh – will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past; and will continue to lose credibility. Surely there must be someone of influence within the Vatican with the wit to see that.

Francis: the loneliest leader in Christendom


Pope Francis: praying for the spirit of change

Imagine the problem. You are the recently appointed charismatic executive chairman of a global organisation. It is creaking at the seams, and you have been brought in to sort it out.

The corporation has been humiliated by a series of scandals that have undermined its core values; its leaders are at war with one another over future strategy; it is out of touch with its customers – and they number in millions worldwide. Some have turned to other brands, but the bulk of them have stopped consuming your product.

This is the challenge facing Jorge Mario Bergoglio – head of one of the biggest corporations on the planet: the Roman Catholic Church. He is putting a brave face on his problems.

Better known now as Pope Francis, Bergoglio has been trying to effect change since his election in March 2013. Unfortunately for him, his management team is packed with appointments from the previous regime. They are mostly deeply conservative and were handpicked for their commitment to the status quo. Many regard Francis as a dangerous radical.

They have done all they can to block his path.

Last December he took the unprecedented step of publicly admonishing his senior management team. He told the College of Cardinals they had ‘hearts of stone’, were obsessed with personal power and prestige, and took too much pleasure in the failure of others. He has continued to criticise them in public and in private.

In many businesses, life gets cushier the closer you get to the top. But this pope wants a church that is more in tune with its followers – many of whom live in poverty. He has rejected many of the trappings of office, and expects his senior managers to do so too.

There’s nothing poor managers loathe more than a new boss who expects them to lead by example; and it’s a bit embarrassing if you are seen driving round in a Lexus while the boss turns up in a Fiat 500.

It doesn’t help that Francis’s immediate predecessor Benedict XVI – who took early retirement – is living in a company apartment in the monarchical style to which he had become accustomed.

In addition to refuseniks from the pontificates of Benedict and John Paul II, Francis has another difficult division to deal with. How do you sustain a common brand across international boundaries?

Many multinationals face similar problems. In the case of the Catholic Church there is growing tension between the ‘liberal’ west and the Church in Africa – one a mature and the other a growing market. The African church is completely out of sympathy with Francis’s apparent willingness to take a more sympathetic approach to people who are homosexual.

Now approaching 80, Francis knows he does not have time on his side. His critics know that too.

He has few tools at his disposal. He may be the head of state of the world’s smallest absolute monarchy, but the power he wields is to some degree illusory. “The pope! How many divisions does he have?” asked Josef Stalin. How many indeed?

Moral authority is the only real weapon he has and, as the untidy conclusion of the recent Synod on the Family revealed, opponents of change within the church are not afraid to stand up to him.

One of the attractions of the Catholic Church’s brand has been its apparent unwillingness to change for the sake of it. But a longer view suggests flexibility is one of the ways it has survived (this is a common trait of many successful corporations). But it is a flexibility that, in the past, has been exercised slowly and deliberately.

Francis knows we now live in a more complex world, and one that is changing rapidly. Scientific advance is deepening our understanding of the world around us; mass communication is opening new sources of information and provoking debate; and technology has transformed the way we receive information and assimilate it.

As change becomes more rapid, the response needs to be timely too. The Church needs to speed up.

Business knows that survival often necessitates senior managers rethinking their strategy and their tactics. Fortune favours the brave, and leaders with vision can transform organisations.

But they need their senior managers, middle managers and the workforce to be united in a common cause. Non-believers need to be weeded out. Francis is more in tune with those on the shop floor than many leaders, and that is a strength. He also has some good managers, but he does not have strength there in breadth and depth.

He is in loneliest place of all. He is a leader who knows his organisation is failing, who has a vision for its future, but who does not have the capacity to make the changes needed. His frustration is showing.

In the past the Church has relied on the guiding hand of the ‘Holy Spirit’. As it faces an uncertain future, it had better hope the Holy Spirit has spent some time at the Harvard Business School.


The story behind the F-word and its Guardian debut


Alastair Hetherington: decision made against advice of lawyers and his senior team

It is still taboo in most newspapers, yet common in a playground. And if you want to say it on the BBC you have to get top brass approval. But the Guardian has just reached the anniversary of a ground-breaking event.

Fifty-five years ago, it became the first national newspaper to use the F-word deliberately – a full 550 years after its debut in court papers about a case involving a man referred to as “Roger Fuckbythenavele”.

“Sexual intercourse began in 1963,” wrote Philip Larkin, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.”

That was certainly true for the Guardian. It had its first “fuck” at the end of the Lady Chatterley trial – after much agonising and a last-minute attempt by senior journalists to dissuade editor Alastair Hetherington from allowing it.

More than half a century later, the F-word is no longer uncommon in the Guardian. Its style guide says: “We are more liberal than many other newspapers, using language that most of our competitors would not.”

Even so, the style guide entry on using the word advises writers: “Use only when relevant, typically when quoting someone.”

Hetherington, who was an expert witness at the trial in October 1960, had not allowed any four-letter words to be reported from the Old Bailey where Penguin Books was accused of obscenity. Later he wrote: “Nor did we use dashes or asterisks, except in the evidence of Richard Hoggart, where direct quotation was unavoidable.”

This policy, which “seemed the most expedient course” according to Hetherington, caused problems when reporting prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s opening speech.

As Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote in the Guardian in 2010: Griffith-Jones played the offending words as if they were “trump cards” telling the jury: “The word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ appears no less than 30 times … ‘Cunt’ 14 times; ‘balls’ 13 times; ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ six times apiece; ‘cock’ four times; ‘piss’ three times.”

Griffith-Jones’s mishandling of the prosecution helped Penguin win the case. One of the key moments of the trial was when he asked the jury whether the novel was something “you would even wish your wife or servants to read”.

The Guardian’s policy on what language it would and wouldn’t use was tested after the verdict when columnist Wayland Young (the Labour peer Lord Kennet), quoting Richard Hoggart’s evidence directly, used the F-word.

As reported in his Guardian obituary in 2009, Young was proud to be the first to use the word “fuck” in a national paper. The only previously known example was a typo in the Times in the 1880s, perpetrator unknown.

Hetherington’s columnists were given a free hand “to write on any topic of their choice, regardless of conflict with the paper’s view, provided they refrained from libel or obscenity, kept within the specified length, and delivered their copy on time”.

Young delivered his copy, with the F-word nestling in a quote like a small ticking bomb.

This is what he wrote. “The hero among the witnesses was Richard Hoggart. I think he made history. In his own evidence, using the word in its correct and proper sense, he said the point Lawrence made was: ‘Simply, this is what one does – one fucks’.

“He also gave a model account of the history of puritanism, dealing most intelligently and profoundly with our moral and literary heritage; the prosecution asked if he was serious, and the judge looked amazed. The jury, on the other hand, heard him.”

Hetherington was still editing the Guardian from Manchester. Young’s article arrived by teleprinter mid-afternoon and he asked London editor Gerard Fay to consult the lawyers.

John Notcutt, of Lovell, White and King, thought the risk of being charged under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act – the same one used against Penguin Books – was 50-50. In a day when lawyers dealt in odds, he suggested the chance of being found guilty was six to four against.

But Notcutt warned: “It is wrong to think that the Chatterley finding ‘takes the brake off’, and that anybody can in future get away with anything.”

On printing the offending word, he believed “the Guardian could ‘get away with it’ whereas the Mirror or the Sketch could not”.

But on balance, “speaking as a reader rather than as a legal adviser”, he wondered whether anything was to be gained by printing the passage. Fay agreed. Hetherington deliberated, but the deadline for first edition was upon him.

“While I had no intention of letting such words become commonplace in the paper, this seemed to me the occasion to allow a single usage,” Hetherington wrote in his memoir. Anticipating a fuss, he penned a short editorial entitled Vulgar or not?

The London office had a final go at changing his mind, but Hetherington “doubted whether a ‘better occasion’ would come.” The dam had been broken.

Two days later, critic Kenneth Tynan (later the first to say ‘fuck’ on national television) used the word in an Observer article.

Hetherington dryly observed: “There was not a single complaint from our readers about Wayland’s passage.”

But there was a sting in the tail. Three months later, he found out from the Press Association that the Guardian, Observer and Spectator had been censured by the Press Council for publishing four-letter words used at the trial.

The censure had been issued with no due process, and at a Press Council meeting attended by only six of its 20 members. “There had been no communication of any kind from the council,“ Hetherington wrote later “and therefore no opportunity to put our own view before its members”.

The Guardian printed the judgment on its front page, but it criticised the council’s action to the approval of most readers, print union Natsopa “and a Balliol college don”.

“But,” Hetherington wrote, “a reader in Aberdeen thanked the council for delivering ‘a well-aimed and well-deserved cut across the backside”.

The Aberdonian’s language was on the coy side. As Lady Chatterley’s Lover reveals, Lawrence would have preferred the word “arse”.

  • This story appeared in The Guardian on Saturday November 7 2015.

26 Postcodes: SA33 4SD

26 Postcodes pairs writers with postcodes from across the UK, and asks them to make a response to the place and its significance. SA33 4SD is the postcode for the Boathouse in Laugharne – the last home of the poet Dylan Thomas. You can read my sestude (it’s a piece of writing exactly 62 words long) below. You can also read its creation story and click the link to the 26 Postcodes site to explore some of the other pieces. I hope you enjoy it.

Dylan Thomas Boathouse and Taf estuary Laugharne Carmarthenshire South Houses Hoistoric Sites

The Boathouse, Laugharne – home of Dylan Thomas. Crown Copyright, Visit Wales

On another birthday
For Ethna

There are no boats
Bobbing on the sea
Of yellow cabs.

The estuary is 222 West 23rd,
Not Taf. The Chelsea Hotel,
New York, is not south west Wales.

Its zip 10011, binary,
Makes SA33 4SD
Luxuriant and lush.

Alliteration is his thing:
Bible-black, blithe birds,
Birthday bell.

‘Come and be killed,’
The city says. And death
Lures him from his shed.






Dylan Thomas

Creation Story

The sestude was written as the Perseids threw themselves to their deaths in the August sky. It was my birthday. I’d spent the day at the bedside of my mother who died a few days after the completion of the sestude. I understand the true meaning of the word rage in Dylan Thomas’s lament for his dead father. She did not go gentle, and I dedicate the sestude to her.

I had not expected her to die, but death, and loss and tragedy were in my mind the moment I discovered the postcode I had been given. A visit to Wales was not an option. I visited Laugharne through Thomas’s verse – an Everyman Paperback from my student days whose glue threatens to crack every time I open it. The internet was little use to me. Google Street View ends maddeningly at the beginning of Dylan’s Walk. He’d hav

liked that though. My other reference point was a vintage BBC documentary on the Chelsea Hotel, New York. It was there Thomas went into the coma he never emerged from. The sestude quotes a number of poems written in the Laugharne Boathouse and shed, and the title draws its inspiration from Thomas’s Poem on His Birthday.

  • To see the 26Postcodes project as it unfolds, visit the website. A new sestude is posted every week.