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Vatican Media: The Painful Reform

April 20, 2017
Vatican Radio building, in Rome.

One of the less well-known projects taken on by Pope Francis is the reform of the media. But it is the scene of an internal struggle, the pope seeking to get a stranglehold on the communication that up until now was left to the almighty power of the Holy See’s Secretary of State. Here is a study on a major issue in the present pontificate.

Regrouping and Budget Cuts

The Secretariat for Communications (SPC) was instituted by Pope Francis – in the context of the famous C9 or “Council of Nine Cardinals” – by his Apostolic Letter on June 27, 2015, in the form of a Motu Proprio. The goal of this new “dicastery” – or ministry of the Roman Curia – was to entirely reconstruct “all the organisms that have hitherto taken care of the diverse means of communication”, by reorganizing and regrouping them. The direction of the SPC was entrusted to Mgsr. Dario Vigano, who answers directly to the sovereign pontiff, which is no coincidence.

The reform involved certain budget cuts that mostly affected Vatican Radio. The origin of the “Pope’s official radio” goes way back: in 1931, Pius XI asked Guglielmo Marconi to create it and entrusted the Jesuits with directing it. But in 2017, the radio was in a crisis: with its budget on a 40% decrease in 2017, some choices had to be made, since Pope Francis expressly excluded firing any of the 350 employees.

So other budget areas had to be cut. And it was the evening cover – the one that had the smallest audience – that was sacrificed. “Budgetary conditions make it impossible for us to continue producing our magazine,” explained Jean-Charles Putzolu, head of Vatican Radio's French editorial board. “It is in order to be able to do at least the morning, noon, and evening broadcasts,” explained the editorial board, whose broadcasts are heard by an audience of at least 2 million in France. Whether or not they will continue on weekends is still up in the air, as is the 6:00 p.m. broadcast during the summer. The national Catholic radios that retransmit them may all even have to start paying for them, although Vatican Radio provided them free of charge until now.

The Discontent Grows

But Msgr. Dario Vigano claims that it is not a purely financial decision: “The criteria are not just economic; they are also apostolic. Not everything is measured in financial terms. But, in the middle of a financial crisis, can we go on losing 26 million euros a year, when we are counting on the faithful’s generosity? We have to maintain a certain balance.” According to the prelate in charge of the new dicastery, the first measures have already saved them three million euros.

At Vatican Radio, the discontent is growing, and several employees are questioning the “brutality” with which the reform is being conducted and the “disdain” showed to them. “We are accused of being slackers, no good, cheaters,” says one journalist. “And when we defend ourselves, we are told we are going against the pope.” For Msgr. Vigano, these criticisms are only coming from a “minority”.

The new secretary of the SPC explains his motives thus: “The whole model of the radio has to be changed,” he explains, because “the radio as it is today corresponds to the world before 1990. This pontificate does not function with an East-West mindset, but with a North-South mindset. What is the point of broadcasting in Slovenian today, when the new frontiers are Arabian in the Middle East or Chinese in Asia?” But Mgsr. Vigano ensures that “the broadcasts are not going to disappear: they will still be available as podcasts online."

Short-wave Sacrificed to Multimedia

According to the Roman prelate, this new logic explains the programed disappearance of the very expense short-wave in favor of the Net. “A way for us to answer the requests of the Bishops’ Conferences, that want something more modular and easy for the (national Catholic) radios to use on demand," he explains.

The question of short-wave got a rather unexpected echo from far-off Africa: the African bishops asked Vatican Radio to continue its short-wave broadcasts that were interrupted by the reform. The “Permanent Committee of the Symposium of the Bishops’ Conferences of Africa and Madagascar” that met in Accra (Ghana), expressed its “worry at the recent cessation of the short-wave radio services, that allowed millions of Africans to hear the Holy Father and take part in the interests and mission of the Church”.

To which Mgsr. Vigano responded that “The question today (is not) ‘yes’ short-wave, ‘no’ short-wave, but how I can guarantee that the Holy Father’s message gets to Africa and to the zones where there is low technological distribution."

When speaking on March 24, 2017, for the Festival of Creativity at the Pontifical University of the Lateran in Rome, the prefect of the Secretariat for Communications declared that Christians “strongly faithful to the message of the Gospel of Christ” are “creative and open to change”. In the process of reforming the Vatican's media, Msgr. Vigano warned against the “we’ve always done it this way” temptation. He also pointed out that the reform is not a “restyling” or a makeover. It is a change in perspective since they are going from a notion of silo medias – all lined up next to each other – to an idea not of many coordinated medias but of "multimedia”.

Since January 1, the Vatican Radio and Television Center have been included in the SPC. Ultimately, all of the journalists will join one single “multimedia editorial center”, that will be at the heart of an Internet portal in eight languages that was supposed to go live on Easter 2017, with audio, video, texts and pictures. The editorial boards of the foreign language weekly editions of L'Osservatore Romano will eventually join their forces.

Internal Struggle

A weighty consequence of this reform – that few commentators have seen – is that the Secretary of State is dispossessed of its hold on the Holy See’s media. After being all powerful for several decades and accused of running the show in the government of the Church, the head dicastery of the Roman Curia – formerly directed by Cardinals Jean-Marie Villot, Agostino Casaroli and Angelo Sodano, to quote only a few – is now bearing the brunt of the structural reforms undertaken by Francis and his Council of Nine.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the present Secretary of State of the Holy See and member of the C9, has tried to limit the damage: thus the Secretary of State will not lose its hold on the Italian editorial board of L’Osservatore Romano that still remains – but for how much longer? – the tool of influence that allows the Vatican diplomacy to informally relay a good number of messages.

Information or “com”?

Another reproach made to this media reform is that it is part of a “brand” mindset that wishes to “sell” the pope’s image. The very name of the “Secretariat for Communications” is doubtless a revelation of this shift from information to communication.

“It is true that we have always been an institutional media,” slips in a journalist, “but we are also attached to a certain vision of the world, in the context of the social doctrine of the Church. Like when we put forward the forgotten conflicts no one else talks about except us.” Msgr. Vigano brushes away with the back of his hand the reproach that they are aiming more for communication: Pope Francis, he declares, “is certainly not a marketer and still less a man of communication strategies”. He communicates “as we see him: so he is absolutely not a poster, he is a man who does things as if always strongly guided by the Holy Spirit” and not by “the rules of protocol”. Nonetheless, the videos made by the pope, his appearances and statements calibrated to “organize their spontaneity” lead to believe that image and communications play an important part in the government of the Holy See today.

But Msgr. Vigano’s restructuring is far from finished: the centralization is still more apparent than it is real. The medias belonging to the Holy See, including L'Osservatore Romano do not obey one single commander. Each one follows its own logic, with a more or less official character. Vatican Radio, for example, has a strong, not very official status. Its work consists in diffusing, developing and commenting. It is not even centralized on the internal level: its broadcasts in several languages do not translate one identical text for all of them. Each linguistic editorial board is independent and produces programs adapted to its audience.

There is still a lot to do for the Vatican medias to be unified under Francis’ yoke; and the chances are that the Secretariat of State – that still has its hold on diplomacy and the relations with the States – will not be much help in this undertaking, far from it. As Lucan says: “Vitrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni; the gods were for the victor, but Cato was for the vanquished” …

Sources: Fides/La Croix/ FSSPX.Actualités – 4/20/17