Shortly after the 2010 election, I was asked by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, if I would help to organise the visit of Emeritus Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom. This naturally brought me into regular contact with Vatican officials. I had visited the Vatican before as a Minister and European Commissioner and met both Pope St John Paul and some of his officials. But the events of 2010 ensured more regular contact and some complicated discussions. I have to say, for example, that acting as a go-between with the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, and the Vatican was far from straightforward not least at the Edinburgh side of the partnership! But in the event, the visit of His Holiness went very well, above all for two reasons. First, the Pope himself – who impressed all who met him as a holy, scholarly, gentle intellectual with a remarkable facility for expressing complex issues in simple and beautiful language. Second, there were the congregations who came to the masses and vigils during the visit, representing as they did the depth and breadth of Catholicism in England and Scotland – every age, every social class and every ethnicity.
It was perhaps my encounters with Rome then, and my subsequent three year experience as the principal regulator of the BBC, that led to an unexpected phone call in July last year. I was telephoned out of the blue by Cardinal George Pell whom I had only seen once before preaching in his cathedral in Sydney at a Christmas morning mass a few years ago. I of course know as well that he was an Oxford alumnus, with a doctorate from the university and a formidable knowledge of English history especially of the 16th century. Cardinal Pell invited me to take the chair of a committee charged with reviewing the Holy See’s media operations and proposing new structures. This was related to the overall work he was doing to reform the Vatican’s financial and administrative structures which had become subjects of growing public and private concern.
I was initially pretty hesitant about taking on this job. I was recovering from a heart by-pass operation and had been advised by doctors to avoid too much stress, especially when that stress was not enjoyable! Moreover, while as I have explained, I had in the past been involved with the life of the Church, I am by no stretch of the imagination a ‘Vaticanista’. As a lay Catholic I had kept in touch with what is happening in Rome largely through reading ‘The Tablet’ every week. I had indeed once been described by a campaigning blogger as a ‘Tabletista’ which he did not mean in a complimentary way. But I was intrigued by the challenge Cardinal Pell offered with his customary, admirable directness.
Assisting in any way, however modest, with the reform process initiated by Pope Francis seemed to me a task which should not be turned down. Like many, probably most Catholics – and many who are not Catholic at all – I was hugely excited by the pastoral message of his pontificate and particularly by his own extraordinary personality – that mixture of grace and humane authority which resonates with the words of St Matthew’s Gospel. He is a beacon of hope and guidance for the church and indeed for the world, unencumbered by a distant formality or ecclesiastical pomposity. I spoke to a number of people much closer to the reality than I was who easily convinced me that this was a very serious project. I accepted Cardinal Pell’s brief.
So the Vatican Media Committee was established in July 2014, and given a clear mandate to propose reforms. Our objectives were ‘to adapt the Holy See media to changing media consumption trends, enhance coordination and achieve, progressively and sensitively, substantial financial savings’. I was very pleased with the balance that had been found in the membership of the Committee. It was clear to me that careful thought had gone into the selection of people who were not only professionally qualified as individuals but who, cumulatively, had significant experience in the various dimensions of Church communications and with different media. I particularly liked the mixing of those who were already working within the Vatican structures, of whom there were 5, and those who came with a more global experience of the Church and media – 6 of us including myself.
Additionally, I was happy that there was a blending of lay members and clergy. As we began to work together, I was even more pleased that these differences of nationalities, professional competencies, work experiences and institutional cultures were regarded as a comprehensive asset, complementary to each other, not sources of conflict or competition. I would like to acknowledge the extra-ordinary commitment shown by my colleagues and the wonderful sense of collegiality that marked all our meeting and proceedings. I especially appreciate the full participation and engagement by those members for whom English is not their mother-tongue – it was challenging for them but their contributions were very valuable. At a personal level, I have been delighted to discover, through the members of our committee, the great richness of the Catholic Church’s global ‘network’ of communications professionals. In fact, from the beginning, it became clear to me that one of our priorities would have to be that of strengthening this network, of realising the great potential of these assets, through developing a vision of the Vatican’s communications operations as the ‘hub’ of a global network rather than as a stand-alone enterprise. I hope that those who work today for the Vatican media see things that way too.
Committee proceedings – research and determination of priorities
In accordance with its mandate, the committee set up a programme of work which aimed to examine the existing media structures of the Holy See and to review previous expert studies and reports on them. We also wanted to canvas the views and opinions of those currently involved in Vatican media, and to survey the perspectives of key external users and consumers, like Bishops Conferences, Catholic media associations and Catholic media outlets. The Committee met on a number of occasions from September 2014 to March 2015. The meetings lasted two or three days, during which time we received written and oral presentations from the management of the existing media entities of the Holy See, were provided with an extensive briefing concerning the COSEA report on the Vatican media, and the findings of the external consultants responsible for the preparation of that report, visited the media entities of the Holy See to meet management and staff, and formulated and distributed a survey for external stakeholders.
These meetings, the presentations, the visits and the findings of the survey provided much useful information which shaped the extensive discussions and deliberation of our Committee. From the outset, there was a view within the Committee that we should aim to outline a communications and media structure for the Holy See that would aim at excellence. We were always conscious that Pope Francis is an extraordinary communicator himself and it made us realise how much the rest of us have to do – to use a sporting phrase – to up our game. We wanted to propose a communications structure that would be worthy of him.
In aiming for improved media structures and a more coherent communications strategy, our thinking was shaped by a number of considerations. Although we had a mandate to achieve savings in a budget of nearly 70 million euro, the Committee quickly realised that major savings would only be possible through cut-backs in the staff of over 600 – an approach that we judged not to be ethically appropriate. Instead, we aimed to offer better value for money by ensuring greater efficiencies internally and by increasing the public impact and the reach of the Holy See’s media activities. We aimed to spend the money better not necessarily to spend less.
There seemed to me to be two important issues to confront. First, while in terms of theology and pastoral care there is obviously an important discussion about how the church’s teaching should reflect, challenge or seek to change the modern world – a discussion clearly way above my spiritual spirit-level – there is surely no real argument at all about how the way the church organises itself should encompass the best of modern technology and the best of accepted and acceptable practices. That for example is why the Church has cleaned up and cleared up the way it manages its finances, putting an appropriate emphasis on modern accountancy and auditing, including transparency. It would be bizarre if the Vatican was to run its media with its eyes closed to the way every other media organisation is managed in the second decade of the 21st century. It would be beyond bizarre to deny the Vatican the sort of modern media operation that others – including existing national church organisations – take for granted.
Second, while those who work for the media organisation are its most important resource – far more important with all their professional skills than the finances that sustain them – they cannot expect (and they should not want) the job assurances they enjoy to become guarantees to do exactly the same jobs in the same way forever. Nor can they expect to escape sensitive but effective and coherent professional management of the way they operate. I did not sense during the months of our work that the Vatican media was over-managed, or that it was managed, trained and remunerated in an excessively centralised way. Hence some of the duplication that wastes time, resources and personnel. I will return to this point. In drafting these sentences, I have not exaggerated and could indeed be accused of pulling my punches.
In order to increase the reach of the Vatican media, it was obvious that we would have to deal with the fact that we are now living in a digital world. Like all media operators, the Holy See would have to rethink its activities. Without pretending to offer all the details of our reflection on this issue, I want to highlight a number of insights concerning ‘digital culture’ that shaped our approach.
Given the speed with which news now travels and the immediate global dissemination of news and opinion, we felt that the Holy See needed to strengthen its media relations operations in order to respond rapidly to a constant news cycle and in different languages. We noted that the wide availability of internet connectivity globally meant that the Vatican’s media content was theoretically more directly available to a wider public than previously. This requires a rethinking of the means of broadcasting – Vatican Radio has already begun to move away from short wave and move towards internet platforms, and the Osservatore Romano has developed an on-line version. Even more urgently, we need a critical evaluation of the type of content being produced. What is needed now is more visual, multi-media content, especially if one wishes to reach younger people. To be present effectively in social media, you have to develop an interactive approach where information is not merely ‘broadcast’ to a passive public but where there is a capacity to have a dialogue with the public, responding to questions and criticism, inviting people to deeper engagement. All of this requires greater convergence among the existing media operators.
As Pope Benedict had said to CTV in 2008: ‘The Internet requires an ever increasing integration of written, audial and visual communication, and thus is a challenge to broaden and intensify the forms of collaboration between the media which are at the service of the Holy See.’
It was also clear to us that our media operations would need to be attentive to the requirements and expectations of at least three different audiences. First, we wanted to be able to offer a good experience for those who want to access the Holy See directly for news and information through engagement with our sites, applications and social media. Second, we wished to be attentive to those who reach us indirectly through Catholic media globally. We were impressed by the role played by local Catholic media in bringing the news concerning the Church, in general, and the Pope, in particular, to their own audiences and we want to ensure that they find in accessible formats the kind of content they need. Finally, we recognised that most people, including many Catholics, depend on the ‘mainstream’ or secular media for news about the Church and that their perceptions and views are heavily influenced by these media. We need to be more responsive to these media if we wish to engage the wider public and to be faithful to the church’s missionary call.
Rome as a hub
Another consideration was of a more theological, or what I have learnt to call ecclesiological, nature. The Church is a global community and Rome has a privileged place as a centre of unity and governance. But the Church is also the local communities that exist in very different political, cultural and geographic contexts. Communication from Rome to these local communities is not just about giving information but about strengthening the bonds of unity and the sense of belonging, especially for isolated or threatened communities. Rome also needs to serve as a ‘hub’ to ensure that news concerning these communities is brought to the attention of the global Church so that we can grow in solidarity and unity. Subsidiarity requires that the church does in Rome what can only be done there but that the Vatican also helps build up the communications capacity of local Churches. In reality, this demands that we strengthen the links between the Vatican’s media operations and the communications offices of Bishops Conferences and dioceses.
The Budget reflects history
Given that resources are finite, it is difficult to address these issues without changes within a unified budget. At present budgeting reflects history. We do this or that on the whole (though there are exceptions) because we have been doing it for years or since time immemorial. This makes it near-impossible to give new help to beleaguered or just distant Catholic communities. We provide a wonderful service on a shoe string for Chinese catholics, with a weekly mass in Mandarin on Short Wave for example. We should be doing more for this audience and for those in the Arab world, in western Asia, the Sahel and northern Nigeria who are persecuted for their faith. They need greater support and with some reallocation of resources that is what the Vatican media should have the flexibility to provide.
Evaluation of fragmented services
For more than a century the Holy See has invested in the best contemporary means of communication, and has been a pioneer in many sectors. As I have already said the Holy See has in its employment a large number of communications professionals and associated support staff. This is an important asset and the Committee was satisfied that the staff is skilled and committed to the mission of the Holy See; they sustain many important communications activities. In addition to the obvious work involved in the production of radio programmes, television images and a newspaper, printing and publishing, the different media entities are involved in providing translation services, formation and training, media relations for Catholic and secular media, digital and social media platforms, and support for the Church’s global communications effort. But as I have just argued the fundamental weakness is the lack of co-ordination and integration of the Holy See’s media assets.
The Committee noted that the strong compartmentalization of the activities of the various media entities, and the institutional autonomy of these entities, work against the possibility of developing a unified communications policy and reduce the effectiveness of the overall operation. The lack of co-ordination has resulted in the duplication and, at times, the multiplication of certain core activities such as translation services, accreditation, rights management, media relations, technological innovation and social/digital media engagement. These duplications and multiplications are wasteful and they make it difficult for external media to know how to engage the Holy See. A phrase often used in the world outside is that of ‘one stop shops’; there is not much chance of sighting one in Rome.
Furthermore, the absence of cohesive management challenges the ability of the Holy See to maintain a consistent editorial approach across its different media outlets. The fragmentation of media operations has also made it unnecessarily difficult for the Holy See to produce the type of multi-media content involving the convergence of print, voice and images that, as I have said, is necessary for an effective digital presence and to engage contemporary audiences. Finally, the existence of different and independent management centres for each media operation means that there is little possibility of developing a policy to determine the best use of financial and human resources. Currently, as I have noted, the budgets and the staffing levels of the media entities seem to be largely determined by past historical rather than present strategic considerations with a consequent allocation of approximately 85% of the net cost of the Holy See’s spending on communications to financing the newspaper and, predominantly, the radio. But how do most people these days get their information? The television and social media services of the Vatican are very professionally run but also very under-resourced.
The Committee argued that improvements in the Holy See’s communications operations can best be achieved by the merger of all of them within a unified structure of governance and management. This body would be responsible to promote the communications mission of the Church in general and to manage the Holy See’s media operations in particular. It would be accountable for the exercise of these responsibilities to an external board involving representatives of the Secretariats of State and of the Economy, Episcopal Conferences, Catholic media organizations and individual media experts. This Dicastery would oversee the work of a number of departments.
First, there should be a pastoral department that would be responsible for the support of the Church’s general mission of communications. This department would take on many of the tasks currently performed by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications involving the promotion of communications through engagement with continental, regional and national Bishops’ Conferences, the support of formation and training in communications, theological and sociological reflection, developing networks of Catholic communicators, and representation of the Holy See at different international organizations and forums.
Second, there would be an administrative department that would integrate functions currently replicated in the different media entities and offer a unified management of budgets and finances, of human resources, of training and retraining, of professional and legal services, and of external procurement and outsourcing.
Third, a commercial department would be responsible for the substantial development of the Vatican’s media operations through partnerships and sponsorships, management and sale of rights and archival materials, publishing, and promotion and marketing of all Vatican productions and content. The activities of this department would have the capacity to make some of the media activities self-financing and this would address the need for savings.
Fourth, a technology department, bringing together the expertise currently deployed by different media entities, would support the sourcing, development and maintenance of suitable technological platforms and programmes. It would be responsible for internet security and data management, supporting management and staff development, the provision of technical support to Vatican events and ceremonies, printing and audio visual operations.
Fifth, a media operations department would lead the restructuring of the Holy See’s core media activities, taking responsibility for media relations, content production and dissemination. Let me spell out these crucial tasks in more detail.
Media relations would involve the strengthening of the Press Office, so that it would be the central point of contact for all external media and would be involved in the distribution of official statements, the organization of press conferences, the accreditation of media and the evaluation of media projects, the planning of the management of major media events and the training of authorized and specialized spokespeople. The Press Office would need to be able to offer its service in an adequate range of languages and operate in accordance with international news cycles. I emphasise again the Press Office would also seek to strengthen its relationships with the Church’s institutional press and communications offices globally. The press office today is under-staffed and under huge pressure and it should operate in more languages in a way that accommodates a 24 hour news cycle.
The department of content production would create a central content hub overseeing the shared production of general news and media content using the skills and expertise of some of those currently associated primarily with radio, television and print media. This content should be multi-media in its conception and elaboration in the sense that it will require the convergence of operations currently conducted separately. The content should be available in a range of languages that will be facilitated by the development of a unified translation service which will also service the needs of the Press Office.
The primary point of distribution of this content will be through the Holy See’s own media outlets or channels. These existing channels (Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano, CTV,vatican.va, news.va) and an integrated social media channel will customize the content in accordance with the particular needs (for example, linguistic) of their media and their audiences. The channels, while working as part of the overall media structure, will of course need to maintain their editorial integrity.
The Committee recognised that the process of bringing together the different entities would require time in order to ensure the full engagement of those involved, and that it should be elaborated in terms of a gradual and progressive realization of its objectives. The final objective of the process, however, would have to be clear from the beginning and this would require, as a first step, the creation of a single management team committed to the implementation of the project. This management team should be given immediate responsibility for an integrated communications budget. This would serve to underline its authority to bring about the necessary changes, and provide it with the means to determine a more strategic allocation of finances and personnel, for example, between radio and television. The complete implementation would require the new management team to conduct a comprehensive review of existing human resources, to bring together gradually the common functions currently divided between different entities, the choice of core languages, the creation of shared workspaces and offices, and the restructuring of the news operations.
The Committee included with its final Report a detailed implementation plan. The elaboration of this plan was undertaken in order to satisfy the Committee itself of the practicality and viability of the process it was proposing, and to guide those who might eventually be tasked with the implementation. The core insight remained clear: meaningful improvements in the Holy See’s media operations would not be possible without a complete integration of the existing media entities and the creation of a single structure with overall responsibility for management, technology and finances. The key first steps would have to be the selection and appointment of a suitable management team and the empowering of this team with the support and authority to execute the plan in the light of the foreseeable opposition and resistance.
At an early stage in our proceedings I posed two questions to the Committee. Did the members believe that reform of the Vatican media operations was desirable? Did they believe that reform was feasible? There was a spontaneous and unanimous consensus that reform was desirable. The answers to the second question were more nuanced. In summary, everyone recognised the difficulty of achieving the desired changes. It was felt that no matter how logical and reasonable the proposals, there would be challenges in implementing them. The current managers of institutions and offices that have enjoyed effective autonomy for many years would find themselves being held accountable for their budgetary decisions and employment practises. Individuals would be asked to change long established work practises and to adapt to new institutional settings. One member of our committee introduced us to the saying that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch!’ Plainly it often eats very large meals. However, despite their recognition of the difficulties, the members were of the view that if ever reform were to be feasible, it would be now under the guidance of Pope Francis. In short, if not now, when?
As a result, the Committee sought to outline a best possible configuration that built on the existing assets and that aimed over time to achieve the gains that closer integration and co-operation could make possible. The aim was to realign all the parts of the existing reality so that the ‘whole would be more than the sum of the parts’. We decided not to offer a Plan B or a second best option that might be more politically acceptable to all the internal stakeholders but that would fall short of the level of unification we judged necessary for true improvements to happen. In my experience, if you choose second best, you’re lucky to get third!
Our Report received a positive response when presented to the Council of Cardinals and the core recommendations were accepted by them. I am aware of this from my conversations with a number of the Cardinals and from the press briefing of Father Lombardi on the 15th of April. I wanted to outline the Report this evening in order to support the work of the new Commission which has been asked to study our final report and to suggest feasible approaches to its implementation. I wish them every success with their work and I encourage them to aim high in their determination of what is feasible. I have racked my brain to try to think of something in our report that might not be feasible let alone desirable in 2015.
It would be great to see the Holy See lead the way in communications again, just as it did in 1931 when it took the initiative with the then ‘new and untested’ technology of radio. Fidelity to those who went before requires that we are no less innovative and bold today. Over the last few months, I have been very privileged to meet many remarkably talented communications professionals who are doing great work, I would love to see the emergence of structures that would allow them to use their strengths to the full and as I said earlier to ‘raise the game’ of the Holy See’s media. We know the power, importance and modern relevance of our message. There is surely an obligation on us to ensure that it is proclaimed in the most effective and professional way.