The British Press's Sharp Coverage of Benedict XVI

Interview With Bishop’s Aide Peter Jennings

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BIRMINGHAM, England, MAY 23, 2005 ( The British media’s overall reaction to the election of Benedict XVI showed its secular agenda, says a bishop’s press secretary.

Peter Jennings, press secretary to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, has covered events in the Catholic Church worldwide since the canonization of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales in October 1970.

Jennings is the author of a number of books including “The Pope in Britain,” the official record of the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Great Britain in 1982. He is now editing a book about Benedict XVI and Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Q: How did the British press react to the election of Benedict XVI?

Jennings: Predictably. The British media works out of a framework of liberal secularism and does not understand events from the perspective of faith. Hence it constantly used the term “conservative” and “liberal” to describe the cardinal-electors at the conclave.

In several “live” television interviews that I gave from Rome shortly after the election of Pope Benedict XVI the new Pope was invariably referred to as the “archconservative” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

I emphasized that the cardinals, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, had elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new Pope on only the fourth ballot.

I also explained that Cardinal Ratzinger, as the prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, had a very specific role in the Church. But now as Pope Benedict he would embrace and encourage all Catholics and Christians of different traditions, as well as people from other religious faiths and none.

I felt exhausted by the time I had completed my last national television interview at 11:45 p.m. Rome time but privileged to have presented the Catholic Church in a very positive way to the general public in Britain.

Q: Many observers detect an anti-Catholic, anti-Roman mentality in the press that dates back to the 19th century. What is the reason for this hostility?

Jennings: Attitudes towards the Catholic Church in Britain have changed considerably for the better over the past three decades. Unfortunately there is still a trace of an anti-Roman mentality combined with a general British suspicion of all things “foreign.”

In addition, hostility now is based more on an aggressive secular agenda that dominates the British media.

Q: The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury has had words of praise for John Paul II, and he went to the installation of Benedict XVI. Has the age of ecumenism softened the attitude of British journalists toward the Catholic Church?

Jennings: Not particularly! The British media is hostile to the Church of England, too. In fact, for some journalists, there is a respect for the strength and coherence of the Catholic Church.

At present the worldwide Anglican Communion is under an intense media spotlight over the ordination of practicing homosexuals as bishops, the blessing of same-sex marriages, and the ordination of women bishops.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, is doing everything he can to prevent the provinces of the Anglican Communion from going into schism. He needs our prayers and encouragement at this crucial time.

Q: What does the press reaction to the recent events in Rome tell us about British society in general?

Jennings: Don’t judge British society by the British press! The press has its own agenda.

There was very widespread and positive interest among British society, at every level, in the death and funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II, and the conclave, election and inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI.

People who had never been into a Catholic Church attended a special requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II celebrated in St. Chad’s Cathedral, situated in the center of Birmingham, on the day of the funeral Mass in Rome.

One lady told me: “I heard you talk about the special Mass at St. Chad’s Cathedral on local radio earlier today. I have never been into a Catholic Church before but I have been so moved by the television coverage of Pope John Paul II from Rome that I wanted to be part of something for him.”

Q: Does the press try other religions the same way? Why not?

Jennings: The attitude of the British press to Christianity is generally hostile.

Its attitude to Judaism and Islam is completely different because of the potential criticism that would follow hostile and negative reporting of these faiths.

Q: What advice could you give Church officials as one who has to work in a difficult environment?

Jennings: It is important that representatives of the Catholic Church try to build up personal relationships with key media figures at local, regional and national level, while always recognizing that there are
different values and agendas at work.

During the last few years professional spokespeople have been employed by the Catholic Church and their work with the British media has been vital particularly in a crisis.

There are times when the Catholic Church and the media work well together and can be a great benefit for evangelization. This is always in the back of my mind when I give a quote or a media interview.

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