Last month, Pope Benedict wrote an unusual letter to the Catholic bishops of the world, attempting to explain and remedy the damage done by disastrous Vatican communications in relation to the lifting of papal excommunications on four dissident bishops. One hopes reforms are on the way.
Without absolving the Vatican of its own responsibilities, it must be noted that a major source of misinformation on the Vatican comes from the very journalists who cover it. The Italian vaticanisti often embroider their reporting with everything from reasoned guesses to rank speculation. Sometimes this style of reporting — which is well understood inside Italy as not being the gospel truth — leaks out into the other languages and creates confusion when Mediterranean equivocation is translated into Anglo-Saxon hard news.
Within the English-language world itself however, there is a more serious problem. Very few English news outlets have full-time correspondents in Rome, and so the few that are there have magnified influence. Among these, the most prominent secular reporters are from the British press, who routinely make mistakes. Their poor reporting finds its way into print because the editors back home are quite ignorant of the Vatican beat — unlike say, cricket, where elementary mistakes would be caught before being put on the page.
This week, Richard Owen, long time Vatican reporter for the The Times of London, wrote that when the Prince of Wales comes to see Pope Benedict next week, he will be given by the Pope “a luxury facsimile of the 1530 appeal by English peers to Pope Clement VII asking for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.”
Before President Barack Obama presented Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a boxed set of DVDs, no one paid much attention to ceremonial gifts. But it would be rather odd for the Pope to give the Prince a document detailing the difficulties in regard to Henry VIII, especially given the Prince and late Princess of Wales’ status as the most famous royal adulterers since, well, Henry himself.
In any case, Owen, long known in Rome as the worst major reporter in the English-speaking Vatican press corps, got it wrong. So spectacularly wrong that the Holy See press director wrote to The Times demanding a retraction. Given the hundreds of stories in umpteen languages that the Vatican press office follows daily, it is rare in the extreme that a letter demanding clarification or retraction is sent. But Owen is an extreme case — a man for whom shoddy and false reporting is the norm, not the exception. Owen, not accustomed to being called out, wrote a follow up saying the Vatican was “distancing” the Pope from the gift idea; his clarification was of a piece with his general reporting.
Yet Richard Owen continues to write for the very influential Times, as he has done for a very long time. When I was in the Vatican press corps, we covered Pope John Paul’s trip to Fatima in May, 2000. On that trip, the pope revealed the famous “third secret of Fatima.” When the news was announced, Owen exultantly displayed a copy of that morning’s Times in the press hall, boasting that he had predicted that the pope would do just that. I asked him: “Richard, how often have you written that story? How many times have you predicted the revelation?”
“Four,” Owen replied. That’s his approach, one which he shares with many of his British colleagues. Report enough unfounded stories, and eventually, through sheer dumb luck, you might get one right.
The Times has a problem. They can hardly assign Owen to another beat where better informed editors and readers would see through him within a week. He’s a good bloke, so it would be tough to fire him. So they leave him where he is to continue what The Times must consider harmless — spreading disinformation about the Vatican.
The gift story is no big deal, though perhaps mildly embarrassing for Prince Charles, who, on this subject, has much to be embarrassed about. But it should serve as a warning to editors the world over — if you read Vatican news in The Times, you had better check it somewhere else.