Panorama failed to portray Francis accurately, and it’s no surprise

"The Pope's Revolution" aired last night on BBC1

In anticipation of the Queen’s visit to the Vatican today, the BBC’s programme treated us to “The Pope’s Revolution” last night. The programme’s presenter, Jane Corbin, made an effort to steer clear of the deliberate sensationalism of Channel 4’s effort last week, which was dramatically titled “The Secrets of the Vatican.” That said, it is obviously hard for any television channel, faced with a potent mixture of an ancient world religion, a magnificent palace, a lot of colourful extras like Swiss Guards (whose uniforms are said to have been designed by Michelangelo), the whiff of corruption and the personality of the current leader of the Catholic world, the genial figure of Pope Francis, not to get sucked into the irresistible glamour of the subject.

Despite flashes of this, Corbin tried to stick to her sober theme: that the Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia,is secretive, unwieldy and corrupt and that Pope Francis is determined to have a “revolution” in the way the papacy is run. One got the impression that she, and by extension the BBC, generally approves of the new Pope. After all, from their point of view there are similarities: like the BBC he appears to have socialist tendencies and like the BBC he wants to clean up the corrupt practices of a vast and creaking administration. Thus we got many remarks about Pope Francis’s new emphasis of serving the poor in a poorer Church and how he has never forgotten his own humble origins in a poor quarter of Buenos Aires.

Our own new cardinal, Vincent Nichols, was interviewed briefly and emphasised this new style of simplicity and the Pope’s determination that the hierarchy should reflect this as they “live and work alongside the poor.” Yet Corbin’s question, “Is he on the Right or the Left?” began to fall apart as she interviewed several people close to Pope Francis, such as Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai (“The Church is there to help people”) who made it clear that he cannot be so easily put into a particular political box.

To my mind, the best of the interviewees was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of Pope Francis when he was the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. In the face of Corbin’s leading questions, suggesting that the Pope will be overwhelmed by the problems he faces and that, like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he might eventually resign, Skorka was clear that that Church is in the hands of a strong and natural leader, committed to dialogue, a man “who knows exactly what the problems are” and who is also “a very stubborn person…a fighter who will not resign.”

Again, when Corbin travelled to Buenos Aires as part of her “investigation” into the Pope’s past record during the so-called “Dirty War” of the Argentinian junta, Skorka defended Bergoglio’s behaviour. “He did what he could”. He added, “When you are in the middle of a drama, you just do what you can.” He was supported by a feisty lady called Alicia Oliveira who echoed his words. The Pope, at great risk to his own safety, had protected her from the junta’s vigilantes: “I am very grateful to him.” So Corbin was not able to discover skeletons rattling in this particular cupboard. To be fair to her, she did not seem to be trying very hard to find them.

Clearly the BBC is intrigued and fascinated by this new figure on the world’s stage, “the moral voice of the world”, as the programme described Pope Francis. Inevitably, given its brevity and Corbin’s determination to make much of the struggle between the Pope and the Curia, her programme over-simplified a complex man and a complex Church. Apart from the constant theme of his preferential option for the poor and his wish to reform the Curia, viewers would have learnt nothing of Francis’s regular and informal catechesis: his insistence on regular confession, for priests as well as laity; his emphasis on prayer and holiness of life (for rich as well as poor people); his references to sin and to the presence of the diabolic in human affairs; above all, his determination to make the Gospel come alive in people’s lives. This would have been too much for a 45-minute programme. Again, Corbin reflected the misplaced expectations of those outside the Church (and a few within it) that somehow the forthcoming Synod on the family might change Church teaching on “abortion, birth control and the rights of divorcees to receive the Sacraments” as her list had it.

So did Panorama read the Holy Father accurately? No – but how could it? After all, a visual media is as much about entertainment as information: slums, vast crowds, the ominous citadel of the Vatican Bank, shots of the Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel – these will be the subliminal pictures left in the mind of the average viewer along with Corbin’s final words: “The battle is far from over.” The two (amusing) memories I take away are the Pope’s sister, Maria Elena, being interviewed with a cigarette between her fingers: doesn’t she know smoking is bad for your health? And also Cherie Blair, warmly embracing Cardinal Nichols just as he was talking about the Church and poverty.

Will her Majesty have watched Panorama? I doubt it. But although this will be her first visit to meet Pope Francis, she has made several formal visits to the Vatican during her long reign. This meeting, according to Vatican Insider, will be very informal, in a small study next to the Paul VI Hall and not in the papal apartments where audiences are usually held, in keeping with the Pope’s preferred style. The Queen’s personal frugality amidst the pomp of her court is well-known, as is her own deeply-held Christian faith. She and Pope Francis, shown by Panorama in my favourite photo of him, sitting quietly on a public bus in Buenos Aires, may have more in common than one would think; a natural sympathy as well as mutual respect.