‘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.