‘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.

How a new queen courted the British press


The Queen: good at playing it long

Self-confident and assured, the Queen has negotiated the difficulties of her reign with apparent ease. Stoicism and a grim determination to keep calm and carry on are the foundations of her success. She knows monarchy is about playing a long game – and she is good at that. She is now Britain’s longest serving monarch.

Although she wouldn’t admit it, she is deft in handling the media – even neutralising a hostile press after the death of Diana Princess of Wales with a perfectly judged television address.

The media environment today is very different from the deferential world of the 1950s, but from early on the Queen – the first and only British monarch of the mass media age – was worrying about her media profile.

In 1957, her private secretary Michael Adeane opened a line of communication to the Press – the surprising route he chose was The Guardian. The extraordinary exchange is detailed in the papers of former Guardian editor Alistair Hetherington, archived at the University of Stirling.


Alastair Hetherington

Hetherington, who had become editor in 1956, not easily impressed by the trappings of majesty, but he came to quite like the Queen. In his memoir Guardian Years, he gives a remarkable insight into her reaction to the Suez crisis.

“Social invitations came occasionally from Buckingham Palace. Again I had misgivings about accepting them, but never regretted it when I went. The first was to a small lunch in 1958 and included a graphic account by the Queen about Suez as seen from inside the Palace. She said that it had been a terrible time, with the Palace torn into factions. People had been ‘clawing’ at each other – she did a vigorous clawing gesture – and would not speak to each other. She hoped that there would never be anything like it again.”

The first major attempt to woo the press began at a lunch at the Garrick Club when Eton-educated Adeane and the Guardian’s London editor Gerard Fay discussed what might be done to improve relations.

In a briefing note to Hetherington, then still based at the Guardian’s Manchester headquarters, Fay related his discussion. Adeane, he described as “a very straightforward, down to earth chap although brought up entirely in Court life”.

“I concentrated on putting over just one idea, that if the Palace is concerned about the treatment the Royal Family gets in the Press and if the Press at the same time is dis-satisfied with the facilities it gets from the Palace the only thing to do is for both parties to sit down and talk about it.”

He told Adeane he needed to build a relationship with the Fleet Street editors Buckingham Palace had come to distrust.

“I suggested that he might invite editors to meet him once or twice a year, first of all to tell them from the Palace point of view whether there were any particularly significant points in the Queen’s forthcoming engagements and then to ask the editors if they had any comments on Palace affairs from the Press point of view in the previous few months.”

Fay said Adeane had thought it a good idea, “but with an extraordinary modesty wondered whether the editors would be bothered to attend”.

“I said I thought they would!”

More to the point, Adeane was worried about leaks. Fay told Adeane “that if he put it properly to the editors they would keep his secrets just as well as they have kept many others in the past”.

Adeane was hesitant. The Hetherington papers contain a copy of the Private Secretary’s thank you letter of October 29 1957 to Fay. “My dear Fay,” he writes. “I … enjoyed hearing your ideas on our press relations here and only hope I didn’t bore you with my own.”

The suggestion of regular meetings “is one which appeals to me very much” but he was circumspect. “Like everything else it must be properly timed.”

His three and a half years in the job “had been largely spent in helping to organize the Queen’s visits both inside and outside this country”. But Adeane went on to say: “I hope gradually to get to know personally most of the Editors of the National and provincial papers because you – and they – are, I feel sure, the material allies of the individual and the institution which I serve.”

The thought of 24/7 news would then have been met with incredulity.

The sedate pace of palace life can be seen in two handwritten letters to Hetherington from Adeane – courting the editor and clearly conscious of the need to keep in with the UK’s only significant left-leaning broadsheet.

On July 24 1958, in a letter to “My dear Hetherington” (the fifties’ version of first-name terms) and marked “private and personal” Adeane revealed the Queen was going to make Prince Charles Prince of Wales.

If Hetherington was excited by the news, he didn’t show it. Adeane gets not a single mention in his Guardian Years memoir that draws heavily on his papers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is fact that Adeane took the time to hand write the missive. In the fifties, Private Secretary clearly meant what it said.

In a reference with strong echoes of the strained attempts to give privacy to princes William and Harry while they were growing up, Adeane says: “She will make it plain that his investiture will not take place until he is grown up and that it will be an Caernarfon; this is in accordance with her policy of keeping her children out of public life until their schooling is over.”

The second letter, dated February 6 1960 – also handwritten – deals with the queen’s decision to change the family surname from Windsor to Mountbatten-Windsor.

“Dear Hetherington, could you please treat the following as confidential?” he writes. “On Monday 8 Feb the Queen is going to make a declaration in Council about the Royal names.”

He reassured Hetherington “the Queen keeps her own name and title exactly as before. The House and Family of Windsor is unchanged.

“But any descendant of the Queen (and descendant includes children) who may require a surname in the future will bear the name of Mountbatten-Windsor. “

In the days when the abbreviation Ms would have outraged decent society, he helpfully adds: “Female descendants who marry won’t, of course, require a surname other than that of their husbands and Royal Princes and Princesses will not want surnames in the future any more than they do now.”

Anticipating a potential row, he tells Hetherington: “I am anxious you should be aware of the intention behind this declaration which is a thoroughly human one and I believe in accordance with what the majority of the Queen’s subjects would think right.”

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but relations with the media, issues of intrusion, attempts to manage the message – nothing really has changed.