A campaign against fake news must not be used to shut down all other news

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In his daily sermon on Thursday, which was not reported by the Vatican website, but is reported here, the Pope has reflected on governments who “sling mud” in order to discredit their adversaries. As The Tribune of Indiana tells us:

He said the damage done by the “sin of whispering” is particularly grave in politics “when a government isn’t honest and seeks to sling mud at its adversaries with whispers, defamation, calumny.

Francis didn’t single out any country, but said dictatorial governments are known for taking control of the media to “diminish anyone who represents a threat.”

The Pope has often spoken about the sin of calumny, and he has also spoken out about ‘fake news’ in no uncertain terms, so it is rather a pity that these remarks were not more specific. After all, we all know that fake news exists: what we really need to know is how to distinguish the fake from the real. Similarly, some countries do indulge in ‘black ops’ to discredit their rivals, but quite often there is truth in what governments say about their rivals. It would be perilous indeed to dismiss Turley’s current criticism of Saudi Arabia, for example. Also with calumny: we need to be well informed before we make accusations of calumny.

Fake news has been around for a long time. The most famous example is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to be the minutes of a secret Jewish meeting that never took place, but which still has many people in its thrall. And we must not forget the famous Zinoviev Letter, which was fake, but published by a leading British newspaper. Indeed, The Protocols were hardly original in their brazen lying; think of the 18th century propaganda leaflets that were published in Holland and Britain and smuggled into France and which demonised poor Queen Marie Antoinette. The only real antidote to fake news is a sharpened critical sense. People only want to believe in fake news because they want something to reinforce their prejudices. Sensible people are less easily deceived.

So, where does this leave us, and how should we interpret the Papal remarks? The Holy Father’s reference to ‘whispering’ recalls what many religious writers, including Saint Benedict, term the sin of ‘murmuring’, as well as what Pope Francis himself has memorably called ‘the terrorism of gossip’. However, let us remember that the Pope used the term in the specific context of religious life. In the religious life, there has been a historical and regrettable tendency to brand all criticism of superiors as unlawful ‘murmuring’. This has led to a culture where superiors – abbots and provincials, and by extension bishops – have become above and beyond criticism and thus unaccountable. This unaccountability is the direct fruit, it seems to me, of a misuse and over-application of the rule laid down by Saint Benedict and others.

As in religious life, so in politics: those in charge must be held to account, and they must not be able to shut down all criticism by claiming it is either calumnious or the fruit of personal discontent alone. Without the freedom to criticise by the subjects, all authority becomes corrupted. That seems a very obvious point to me, and one that explains the current collapse in religious life in many countries today, as well as the grave, and surely righteous, discontent of many Catholics, in, for example, the dioceses of Metuchen, Newark and Washington DC.

Of course, we do not have the Pope’s full sermon, and so we cannot know what else he said. But some balance is necessary. A campaign against fake news must not be used to shut down all news. And a campaign whispering must not be allowed to stifle to voices on important whistle-blowers.