Disarming the media

2008-02-05 00:00

“Journalists need to remember that not every debate or disagreement is a ‘damaging split.’” So says Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s erstwhile spokesman, commenting on the British media in a recent lecture. His address has sparked a discussion on who is to blame for the breakdown of trust between the media and politicians.

The media has struck back, accusing Campbell and his caste of political spin doctors of being to blame thanks to their own bad, manipulative behaviour.

If politicians think they have problems with the press they might spare a thought for leaders in the church. For example, the newly elected Jesuit Superior General, the Spaniard Father Adolfo Nicolás, has been something of a victim of the clichés into which journalists seem to sleepwalk when dealing with matters ecclesiastical.

Take the cliché about the Jesuit General being the “black Pope”. This is explained in some papers with sartorial super-ficiality as being because the Pope wears white and the Jesuit General black. Deep analysis.

The tag’s origins actually refer to the fact that both men are elected for life. And the point of the “black Pope’s” lifelong term is not to imitate the “white Pope”. It is about the need that the Jesuit founder, St Ignatius of Loyola, felt for continuity of government and the avoidance of frequent meetings to elect new superiors.

Both the Pope and the Jesuit General are highly influential in the life of the church, but there is no comparison between the two. Benedict XVI is the universal pastor of the Catholic Church and its millions of members; Nicolás is the Superior General of a religious order of some 20 000 religious men.

Nicolás’s election has already been spun by some reporters in terms of tensions between the Jesuits and the Vatican. This is mostly on the grounds of his being associated with the last but one General, Pedro Arrupe, who led the Jesuit order through the turbulent times after the Second Vatican Council and steered it in the direction of a commitment to faith and justice and the “option for the poor” and for refugees. For this Arrupe was labelled a liberal and because Nicolás also worked in Japan under Arrupe, he gets similarly labelled. Nicolás’s disarming response in a statement to the press has been a delight to read, so unlike the vacuous communiqués that rightly antagonise the inner dog of the journalist. It is refreshingly candid, laced with light touches of self-deprecating humour.

I quote him on himself: “Some journalists say that I am like Arrupe, or like Kolvenbach [the outgoing General], half and half, up to 50%; it would not be a surprise if someone said I am 10% Elvis Presley. All of this is false. I am not Arrupe. I love Arrupe, I admire him, he has influenced me … but I am not Arrupe. So, who am I? If you ask I will say that I have been created for the reality in which I find myself, I am in process, until I become what God wants of me, as with all of us.”

Nicolás explains that the reason he is not taking questions from the press for the time being is that he is in the middle of the Jesuit General congregation, of which he is the servant, not the master, and hence he cannot say much about the direction of the order until after the congregation has spoken. However, if his first foray into the media is anything to go by, future question and answer sessions should be enlightening and entertaining.

Public figures wanting hints on how to write a press statement will find Nicolás’s text instructive. Journalists might also learn something about the Catholic Church.

• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa (Jisa).

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