How Not to Report a Papal Conclave

Australian Media Hits a New Low

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The reporting of Vatican journalists in the lead-up to the papal conclave makes tabloid journalism look good, commented Basilian Father Thomas Rosica on March 5 for CNN’s Belief Blog.

Fr. Rosica is the head of Salt and Light Media in Canada and was called to Rome to help out in the Vatican press office during this period. If he was astonished by the lack of journalistic objectivity in the Italian media, one wonders what he would make of some recent media reports from Australia.

The weekend before television station 7’s Weekend Sunrise show was astonishing for the number of errors. The report, which in the title purports to be a «complete guide to the papal election process,» said the cardinals are «locked in the Vatican and given only bread and water to encourage them to make a speedy decision.»

While the residence of the cardinals at the House of Saint Martha might not be five-star, their meals there are certainly not limited to bread and water.

The report goes on to say the cardinals are only accompanied by a doctor and a cook. Again, completely wrong, there are staff for their needs at their residence and also priests who are available for confessions.

When it comes to the voting the report says the ballot papers are burnt after each vote. Well, no, they are burnt after the two votes of the morning and the two votes of the afternoon. Twice a day, not four times, unless in the first vote of the morning or afternoon a pope is elected.

This comedy of errors pales, however, before the astounding lack of journalistic standards in some recent reports by Australia’s Fairfax Media, which is the publisher of some major daily newspapers.

On Saturday they published an article by Peter Munro, based on an encounter with Melbourne priest, Father Bob Maguire. The former parish priest of Saints Peter and Paul is well known for his criticism of Church authorities.

Meat on Friday

»I don’t give a rat’s arse,» he says. What happens then when we die? » the story opened, after he had come from a funeral. The article then went on to present him as a rebellious hero because he ordered a lunch with meat in it on Friday in Lent, completely ignoring the fact that the Australian bishops have allowed the consumption of meat on Fridays in Lent.

Regarding the next pope he said: »What the hell, I don’t care who gets the job. They should draw straws,» Father Bob says. »It won’t make any bloody difference.»

The article goes on for some time, but in the same vein. This is not in the opinion or Op-Ed section of the newspapers of Fairfax, but purports to be a news article.

Just two days later, on Monday, the Fairfax press published another «news» article on the lead-up to the conclave, this time regarding Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.

According to reporter Barney Zwartz, Cardinal Pell has no chance of being elected pope because he is tainted by «sex abuse scandals.»

Zwartz referred to a 2002 inquiry held after accusations were made against Cardinal Pell regarding a supposed case of sexual abuse by him in 1961. Cardinal Pell was completely exonerated by the independent judicial inquiry, but this did not deter Zwartz from raking up these disproved charges.

Interestingly he chose for his only cited source of expert information Paul Collins, a former priest. «The judge never cleared Pell,» Collins declared.

Zwartz did not provide any other opinion and did not say he had attempted to speak to Cardinal Pell or any of his media staff, in spite of the serious accusations made by Collins.

Interestingly, Zwartz also seemed to forget what he had written not so long ago, on 14 June 2010, that «Cardinal Pell stood down as Archbishop of Sydney in 2002 after he was accused of abusing a teenager at a church camp in the 1960s, but an independent investigation by a retired non-Catholic judge cleared him.»

Zwartz also chose as his only source a former priest who decided to leave the priesthood while under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding serious errors in a book titled «Papal Power.»

A 2001 article by Vatican reporter John Allen said that Collins was under investigation for questioning such matters as the possibility of women priests, that there is a true and binding revelation and papal infallibility.

Yet, this is the only source for a «news» article by the Fairfax Press.

The Vatican, Saudi Arabia and North Korea

Unfortunately Zwartz is not alone in his jaundiced take on events. The Australian organization Church Resources, which according to their own description was founded by Fr Michael Kelly SJ, at the initiation of the Australian Catholic Bishops Council, has a daily e-mail news bulletin on Church news.

This news service, which in their own words is meant, «to build strong communication channels for the Church community,» chose not only to highlight the article by Zwartz, but also to republish an article by its founder, Fr. Kelly, in which he likened the Vatican to Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

«The problems of the Church have their uncanny parallel in China and Vietnam,» he went on to say. 

«Both are countries at the end of the revolutionary cycle, started by the great figures that gave birth to their contemporary condition – Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. It’s a tell-tale sign of exhaustion when current leaders invoke the maxims of leaders who formed their thought and action to meet challenges created in the 19th century.»

It’s not clear if he thinks Benedict XVI was some kind of parallel to Mao and Ho Chi Minh, or if he is thinking the founder of the Church, Jesus Christ.

Many of these commentaries and supposed news reports in these days reveal more about the preconceived ideas of those writing them than what is actually going on.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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