UK media responses to Vigano testimony

(COMMENTARY) The flight from reporting to opinion and advocacy journalism is on full display in the first day reports from the British secular press of the Viganò affair. Like their American counterparts, leading mainstream news outlets are portraying the revelations of coverup and abuse in political left/right terms.

While none have gone farther over the edge than the New York Times’ article: “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce," the Guardian and the BBC spend more time denigrating the accuser, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, than in reporting on the content of his “testimony." Conservative and centrist papers like The Times and Daily Mail focused instead on the misconduct of Pope Francis and Vatican insiders alleged by the former papal nuncio to the United States.

The British and American media responses to the publication of Viganò’s testimony in four conservative American and Catholic religion outlets confirm the December 2016 thesis put forward by Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal. In the lede to his article entitled: “How Pope Francis became the leader of the global left," Rocca wrote: 

When Pope Francis delivers his Christmas message this weekend, he will do so not just as the head of the Catholic Church but as the improbable standard-bearer for many progressives around the world.

In 2016 Rocca argued:

With conservative and nationalist forces on the rise in many places and with figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande on their way out, many on the left—from socialists in Latin America to environmentalists in Europe—are looking to the 80-year-old pontiff for leadership. … Pope Francis has taken bold positions on a variety of issues, including migration, climate change, economic equality and the rights of indigenous peoples. 

Reading the first day reports from Britain in the BBC and the Guardian leaves one with the impression that they will stand by their man. In its coverage, the BBC ran a news report accompanied by an news analysis piece by its religion editor, Martin Bashir.

The BBC news cycle starts from the papal plane during Francis’ visit to Ireland. In crisp, single sentence paragraph terms it describes the situation.

Pope Francis has refused to respond to claims by a former Vatican diplomat who has called on him to resign. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano also accused the Pope of covering up reports of sexual abuse by a U.S. cardinal. The pontiff was asked about the accusations by reporters on his flight back to Rome after this weekend's Papal visit to Ireland.

After the who/what/where/when the BBC offers the why -- opining this is may be an orchestrated attempt to remove the pope.

The timing of the letter, released as the Pope addressed sexual abuse by priests during his visit to Ireland, has raised questions about whether Pope Francis is facing a coordinated attack from traditionalists within the Catholic hierarchy.

The accompanying piece by Bashir entitled: “A public challenge to the Pope” expounds on the coup claims.

The timing of Archbishop Vigano's letter has been described by a Vatican source as "suspicious" and may have been part of an orchestrated attack from those within senior levels of the Church who have opposed Pope Francis from the moment he was elected in 2013.
The Pope's informal leadership, baptizing a baby on the street and even marrying a couple during a flight, has concerned some traditionalists and his document about the family - Amoris Laetitia - provoked four cardinals to release a series of queries that became known as "dubia."
Archbishop Vigano is known to be an ally of the so called dubia cardinals, who have publicly challenged Pope Francis to correct his teaching on family life - and have suggested that there may be occasions when a Pope should be challenged and disobeyed.
The Pope's decision not to offer any comment about Archbishop Vigano's document is in keeping with his desire to avoid public spats with senior clerics. But his silent treatment of Archbishop Vigano's letter, on the Papal plane, told its own story.

For the BBC, the issue is not the abuse, cover up and corruption of the Vatican’s top leaders -- enabling a serial abuser and promoting his friends, but Viganò’s motives.

The Guardian follows this line as well. The lede informs the reader of what is happening:

A retired Vatican diplomat has called on Pope Francis to resign, claiming he was aware of abuse allegations against a prominent figure in the church hierarchy from 2013 but failed to take action.

But what follows are instructions on how to think. Guardian readers will quickly pick up who is the hero, who is the villain after reading: 

“The publication of the testament – which also contains a lengthy attack on homosexuality in the Catholic church – is another sign of growing rancour and divisions within the Vatican and top levels of the church over Francis’s papacy. Opponents of Francis have seized on a wave of scandals this year to step up their attacks on the pope. Some have also sought to conflate sexual abuse and homosexuality."

The article does not attempt to weigh the evidence in the Viganò testimony, but does seek to test the former papal nuncio. It closes its piece with an attack on Viganò, citing a disputed 2016 report from the National Catholic Reporter which alleges Viganò took part in a cover up of sex abuse charges against the former archbishop of St Paul-Minneapolis.

The Times divided the Viganò story into two halves -- a solid report from Rome and a groupthink story from the papal airplane enroute from Ireland. The Times story entitled “Vatican led cover-up over shamed cardinal, claims archbishop," played it straight, omitting the commentary and party politics. The lede, like the Guardian and BBC lays out the charges:

A former Vatican ambassador to the US has demanded that the Pope resign for what he says is his complicity in covering up the clerical sex abuse scandal.

But the body of the story focuses on the allegations made by Viganò. No attempt is made to shade the reporting or frame it for or against the retired nuncio or the pope. One telling point in the story, however, is the use of titles. At one time The Times followed a rigid protocol in how it referred to clerics. In this story, Archbishop Viganò is referred throughout as “archbishop” before his last name. Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick is called throughout the story “Mr. McCarrick”, not Fr or the Rev or Msgr or archbishop. A cruel cut against McCarrick -- should he be convicted of a crime, he would henceforth be described simply as McCarrick.

The Times’ papal airplane story entitled “Francis fails to answer cover-up claim” does not seek to engage in the mindreading found in the BBC or Guardian -- they presume to know what motivates Archbishop Viganò and have issued a call to arms to defend their man in the Vatican.

However, the herd instinct found in reporters covering an event, or closeted together in an airplane or bus, does peep out. The Times notes: “The timing of the letter’s release during the Pope’s visit to Ireland has raised speculation of a campaign by conservatives in the Church against the liberal pontiff.”

And, it describes Archbishop Viganò as “a conservative whose hardline anti-gay views are well known,” without offering any evidence to support this assertion -- an assertion that has been propounded by Francis allies in the media. Viganò’s previous exposure to the press came after he was appointed Secretary General of the Vatican City Governatorate by Pope Benedict XVI, making him the second ranked Vatican administrator.

The 2010 Papal “Wikileaks” scandal involved the release of letters written by Viganò complaining of corruption in Vatican finances and of collusion to prevent him from cleaning house. How this makes someone a “conservative whose hardline anti-gay views are well known” I cannot explain.

The Daily Mail story entitled “Former Vatican representative to the U.S. says Pope Francis knew about sexual abuse allegations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and calls on the pontiff to RESIGN” is the most thorough and professional of the first day reports -- but it is also the most excitable. 

The lede states: A former Vatican representative to the United States is calling on Pope Francis to resign writing in an 11-page testament that he knew of the sex abuse allegations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but covered them up.  

And then follows a thorough report on the allegations made by Viganò, without attacks on Viganò. The article does add color to the piece by adding a non sequitur -- the papal trip to Ireland allows the reporter to get this dig in …

Church attendance in Ireland has plummeted in recent years as people call on the Vatican to take action and tackle the abuse allegations. The area has also been hit with its own share of scandal after a mass grave was discovered in 1993 at secretive Catholic institutions of confinement for unmarried mothers, prostitutes and other ‘fallen’ women.
At least 796 children were found buried in the grave.    

But the piece then return to its topic and reports on corroborating evidence to support the Viganò testimony.

A priest in New York City has also spoken out saying that he repeatedly warned church officials about now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick - who was suspended last month over sex abuse allegations. …

To size up the results … if one excuses the non sequitur and excitable language, the Daily Mail report comes the closest to the ideal for professional journalism. It lays out the facts, offers corroboration and refrains from speculation and mind reading. Well done!