Lord Patten of Barnes is often spoken of in combative terms. He is a person who suffers for a cause, the man “in the firing line”, one who not only “drinks from a poisoned chalice” but who is passed a chalice “more dripping with poison than he or most reasonable observers could have possibly guessed”, if Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail is to be believed when assessing his three years as chairman of the BBC Trust. In any case, the suggestion of ever-present danger in the life of the mild and intelligent peer makes him sound almost like a political Indiana Jones.
If only he had Indiana’s luck: at the BBC, the former governor of Hong Kong had been expected to “knock heads together, and take charge of a bloated and self-satisfied organisation”, according to Glover; but in the end “must be judged to have failed” because he was unable to wrestle with its deep-seated cultural problems, as well as being “wrong-footed” by the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Given this verdict on his last appointment, it was little wonder that Lord Patten, now 71, was “initially hesitant” to accept the job of leading a committee set up by Cardinal George Pell to reform the media operations of the Vatican. But as a conscientious Catholic, he found himself attracted by the prospect of a “serious project” on behalf of the Church.
Six months on, Lord Patten has perhaps now accomplished the remarkable feat of being both surprising and predictable.
Giving the CCN World Communications Day lecture in London last week, he broke his silence about his work in Rome to describe for the first time what the Vatican media committee had recommended to the Council of Cardinals, the group of nine advisers appointed by Pope Francis. He was scathing in his assessment of the status quo, speaking with tangible frustration about his chances of effecting change even though it would be “beyond bizarre” to fail.
The evolution of a dozen or more Vatican media services into “a collection of silos” had resulted in a “lack of coordination”, he said, which at times caused “the multiplication of certain core activities”.
“These duplications are wasteful and they make it difficult for external media to know how to engage the Holy See,” he said. “A phrase often used in the world outside is that of ‘one-stop shops’ – there is not much of a chance of sighting one in Rome.” Furthermore, Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, gobbled up 85 per cent of the annual media budget of 70 million euros, leaving crucial services such as television and the growth area of social media, where “most Catholics get their news”, drastically under-resourced, Lord Patten complained.
The solution, he said, was not for job cuts among the 600 media professionals working in the Vatican but for a reallocation of resources and the retraining of staff under a coordinated media hub. This would control everything from the press office to broadcasting Masses into lands where Christians are persecuted, without compromising quality. The new structure would be answerable to a new dicastery, or commission, under the leadership of a senior cardinal.
“A department, part of which gathered the news and the rest disseminated it, is a statement of the blindingly obvious,” he told me ahead of the lecture. “To take an example, if you are thinking about the next papal encyclical on the environment you need to prepare the material for that, you need to prepare the audio-visual material, you need to get the story ready….
“You need to collect all that at the centre and then you have all sorts of channels you use to distribute the story. You have got the press office dealing with press conferences, day-to-day inquiries, you have got radio and television putting out the news, you have got the newspaper online and in printed version doing the same … it is a very logical way actually to make the thing operate effectively.
“We should be applying technology as effectively as the outside world,” he added. “Nobody is suggesting that the Vatican should operate like Murdoch or Trinity Mirror, but the technology they use is available to the Vatican today.”
Lord Patten and his team of 11 experts submitted their final report two months ago to the Council of Cardinals and it would be easy to imagine that having completed their task, it was time to relax.
On the contrary, there is a deep sense of anxiety, born perhaps of the suspicion that this important work might be thwarted amid “foreseeable opposition and resistance” within the Vatican, and exacerbated by the establishment by the Pope of a committee to study the “feasibility” of the plan.
The report has become so “surrounded by rumour and mystique”, said Lord Patten, that he had to go public, adding that he wanted “to show that what we were proposing wasn’t particularly terrifying. It was very demanding, but it represented a perfectly feasible set of ideas.”
He hopes for the success of a root-and-branch reform but is haunted by the possibility of the failure to break up the entrenched culture of yet another media organisation crying out for change but deeply resistant to it.
“I think it is fair to say – and I don’t think this is a calumny – that [the Vatican’s media operation] is both under-managed and over-managed,” he said. “But it’s not the only organisation like that. It was true of the BBC.”
Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).