19 September 2006

Benedict's lecture or how to shoot oneself in the foot - live on prime time

"THIS WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED WITH NAVARRO VALLS", says my friend Manuel. His remark reveals two things. First, that being from Spain, my friend hasn’t assimilated very well the change of boss at the Vatican’s ufficio stampa (press office), where a Spaniard gave place to an Italian, Fr. Federico Lombardi. The second is that he, as many other communication professionals, sees what the French speaking press calls Benedict’s gaffe as a monumental mistake born of an astonishing unawareness of how modern news media works.

Let’s recall the most successful words in terms of media impact that Benedict XVI has pronounced so far in his 17 months of Pontificate: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” It’s really strong to hear the head of the largest institutional expression of Christianity saying publicly that what the founder of the second-largest religion in the world brought was either not new or evil and inhuman.

Everyone knows what happened next. World communication media took those words and made them news. And Muslims everywhere took them as an offense, with reactions ranging from street protests to outraged statements of Muslim clerics and political leaders; eventually some churches - ironically most of them non Catholic - were attacked and - regrettably - a Catholic nun was shot dead. In short, a reaction perfectly predictable for whoever spent some time watching the news last January/February when the ‘Danish cartoons crisis’ took place.

Were the Muslims exaggerating their outrage? That’s being suggested by some western media which asks whether Muslims aren’t simply overreacting. But the question is out of place. Because if you know the consequences that your words might very likely have, the only proper question is whether you are looking for that reaction to take place, or whether you don’t care if it does. In this context, only one person seems to have been taken by surprise: the Pope Benedict XVI. “These [words] in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought”, he said a few days later. Oh, really… and so what?

Of course it doesn’t really matter that those words were not his own neither that they were a small part of a much longer speech. That’s the first thing Benedict seems to have gotten wrong. He pronounced them - live, on camera - without immediately taking distance from them, without condemning or at least relativizing them to their own context. He just quoted them - only acknowledging that there were of “startling brusqueness” - and went on. Additionally, during his speech he quoted positively several times the author of those very words. Were they neither important nor the focus of the speech? Then why were they included in it at all? The news media does not have the obligation to report the full picture, particularly if it is predictable or well known; its only obligation is to report news. By voluntarily offering that little jewel of a quote, Benedict ‘made the day’ of the journalists covering his trip. They didn’t need anything else, they had all they needed to work with: something new, sharp, different, understandable.

(One of the ironies of the story is that the Pope was not actually attacking the Muslims - at least in the first place. His lecture was about the subject of faith and reason, and while attempting “a critique of modern reason from within”, he targeted, within the religious realm: (a) the 16th century Reformation, in connection with which, he said, “dehellenization” of Christian faith first emerged; (b) the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries; and (c) contextual theologies of today, which see the “synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church [as] a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures”. But these arguments seemed perhaps too complicated and there was no need for the news media to refer to them having the ‘perfect’ quote about what Mohammed brought to the world. Inheritors of the Reformation and contextual theologians haven't been making headlines recently anyway.)

It doesn’t really matter either that the context where those words were quoted by the Pope was an elaborated academic lecture intended for a scholar public. The quote - said the newly appointed State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone - was “simply” a means to undertake certain reflections “in an academic context”, and those reflections require “a complete and attentive reading of the text”. But Pope Benedict is not anymore Professor Ratzinger, not even Cardinal Ratzinger, and the news media has understood this rightly. He doesn’t speak anymore to a particular public he can choose according to his wish - except if he talks behind a closed door. He speaks to the world, always, everywhere. And he does so only in one capacity: as head of the largest Christian church. One would expect the chief of the Vatican’s ufficio stampa to remind him of this. As well as of the fact that the more elaborated, subtle and Byzantine - perhaps the truly right adjective here - the address is, the more attractive will become simple, plain language statements that might - perhaps inadvertently - be included in it.

One can guess that Benedict might be a difficult boss to advise, what probably makes Fr. Lombardi’s job really challenging. But in this affair the lack of media savvy has reached to include what public and media relations practitioners call ‘crisis communication’. When something goes wrong and you or your organization has a part of responsibility on it, the first thing any media advisor will tell you is to apologize. But Benedict didn’t really do it. Not even with the help of the BBC and other media of the like - and their Pope has apologized headlines - would anyone buy Benedict’s mild words for an apology worth of the name. He said he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages” of his speech “which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims”. He explained - perhaps too late - that he didn’t share the opinion he quoted without further comment. His number two - Cardinal Bertone - not so subtly recommended the angry to read carefully the Pope’s speech in full, suggesting that what was wrong was their reading, not his writing. Benedict didn’t even really apologized for having failed to be clearer about his truly own thinking from the beginning - a mistake that everyone, even a Pope, can recognize without being diminished. No wonder why Muslims kept their protests alive.

If the first and so far major crisis of Benedict’s reign is due to his seemingly lack of media savvy - in stark contrast to his predecessor, some would say - it’s all too normal that the same news media will discuss a number of speculations. Did he realize the reaction he would provoke? How is the Roman Catholic Church operating under this new Pope? And particularly, to what extent are his statements and speeches - which according to vaticanists are usually written by himself - properly checked and balanced diplomatically by Vatican bureaucracy? Ian Fraser wrote in the New York Times that before the lecture was delivered “there was concern in the Vatican [...] about how the press would portray the passages related to Islam”. A concern that, if it indeed existed, lands itself to the questions whether the Vatican’s ufficio stampa is being given the proper space when it comes to advise the Pope and, if so, whether it’s fulfilling its duty adequately.

Only Fr. Lombardi can actually respond the first question, but if the response were no to either of the two, we will all notice it sooner or later. Peter Gould wrote on the BBC news website: “the Pope is now acutely aware that wherever he is speaking, his words will be heard around the world by an audience ready to analyze every nuance of meaning”. To avoid another gaffe like this, Benedict - and/or his aides - will need more media awareness than that.

This page is powered by Blogger. Free DHTML scripts provided by Dynamic Drive Encrypt email addresses on your webpage to stop spammers.