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Lord Patten urges Vatican to accept sweeping changes to its media operation

Chris Patten (PA)

The British peer charged with the reform of the Vatican’s media operation has urged the Holy See to radically overhaul its communications.

Lord Patten of Barnes offered a scathing critique of the Vatican’s current media structures, saying they were unfit for the digital age.

Giving the English and Welsh bishops’ World Communications Day Lecture in London, he said that, while “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”, communications had not received adequate attention.

He said: “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.”

He explained that Cardinal George Pell, one the Pope’s nine closest cardinal advisers, has asked him to lead the committee on Vatican media reform.

He said he was initially hesitant as he was recovering from a heart bypass operation and “had been advised by doctors to avoid too much stress – especially when that stress was not enjoyable”.

But he decided to take the role, inspired by Pope Francis, who he described as “a beacon of hope and guidance for the Church and indeed for the world, unencumbered by a distant formality or ecclesiastical pomposity”.

The media reform committee met in Rome several times from September 2014 to March 2015, then produced a report recommending major changes.

In his speech Lord Patten said that, while the committee did not recommend making communications staff redundant, working practices needed to change.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

While offering a forceful critique of the Vatican’s media failings, he said: “In drafting these sentences, I have not exaggerated and could indeed be accused of pulling my punches.”

He explained that Vatican needed to take a new approach in order to meet the challenges of the internet age.

He said: “We need a critical evaluation of the type of content being produced. What is needed now is more visual, multimedia 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.”

He explained that a “fundamental weakness” of the media operation is the “lack of co-ordination and integration of the Holy See’s media assets”.

He said: “The committee noted that the strong compartmentalisation 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 multimedia 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.”

He said the Holy See should merge all the various communications bodies under a united management, with new departments covering pastoral, administrative, commercial and technological matters, and another in charge of media operations.

He explained that committee members “were of the view that if ever reform were to be feasible, it would be now under the guidance of Pope Francis”, adding: “In short, if not now, when?”

For the full text of Lord Patten’s speech go here.