What is the role of the Catholic media? What is the role of the Catholic commentator? These questions are prompted by an address given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at a conference in Kilkenny last week.
I suppose the same kind of questions can be answered to a certain extent by asking what is the role of a left-wing/liberal/feminist media or commentator?
When you pick up say, The Guardian in Britain, what do you expect to find? The Guardian is a newspaper of the left. The first thing you will expect is to find a newspaper that supports the cause of equality. It will emphasise stories that seem to promote equality as well as stories that threaten equality (so as to alert its readers of impending dangers).
You will expect it to support abortion, gay marriage, and insofar as it covers religion, it will either be hostile or else supportive of tendencies within religion that suit it.
Its commentators will generally operate from the same ideology as the newspaper, although there might be one or two ‘dissidents’ so as to acquaint the readers with how the ‘other side’ thinks.
The Guardian will also be broadly sympathetic to the Labour party and hostile to the Tories.
What I have described above pretty much describes The Irish Times in this country as well.
The Daily Telegraph on the other hand is a conservative paper. It supports the Conservative party. It supports limited government as distinct from a big state. It believes other values apart from equality are important, such as freedom and if there is a clash between freedom and equality it will probably come down on the side of freedom.
It is more sympathetic to religion, critical of liberal abortion laws and broadly supportive of marriage as distinct from other family forms.
Its commentators will reflect the broad outlook of The Daily Telegraph.
While The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph will represent distinct points of view, they must nonetheless strive to be fair, accurate and objective in their reporting and commentary. That is, a story should report the facts as fairly, accurately and objectively as possible.
What about a Catholic newspaper? Well, many of the same observations made about other kinds of newspapers will apply here also. A Catholic newspaper will represent a point of view; the Catholic point of view. Between one Catholic newspaper and another there will be differences of emphasis and tone. There will also be areas of intense disagreement both between and within Catholic newspapers.
For example, there might be strong differences over the rule of celibacy, liturgy, the future of religious life, the exact role of the laity, the proper relationship between Church and State and with the other religions, and their opinion about this or that bishop, or Archbishop of Dublin for that matter.
As with the secular newspapers, all Catholic newspapers should strive to be fair, accurate and objective in their reporting. ‘Objective’ here does not mean not having a point of view. It simply means that you try to detach your opinion from the facts and report the facts as objectively as possible.
Newspapers will not always be accurate. When they make a mistake they should acknowledge it with due prominence. When The Irish Times recently reported an ‘abortion’ in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street it got the story wrong from top to bottom.
Even though the story had been the front-page headline, the correction was printed in a very small box on an inside page. This mistake far exceeds any mistake I can remember a Catholic newspaper making.
On a fairly regular basis all newspapers will run speculative pieces. One newspaper might run a report about a possible cabinet reshuffle and the possible winners and losers. Another might run a story about tense relations between senior party members, for example, between Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton. Mr Gilmore has several times denied any such tensions exist but the papers persist in reporting them.
Catholic (and secular) newspapers will often run pieces about what priest or priests is favourite to succeed an outgoing bishop in a given diocese.
Prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Dublin, many newspapers predicted Diarmuid Martin was in line to succeed Cardinal Desmond Connell. They were right this time. In other cases they have been wrong.
Recently this newspaper ran a piece about the growing talk that Archbishop Martin will be offered a job back in Rome. The report plainly annoyed Archbishop Martin but the Editor had a judgement call to make.
He could ignore the speculation and not print anything. But then the reports might turn out to be true and The Irish Catholic would have missed the chance to get ahead of the story as it were, to accurately predict what is going to happen.
Sometimes newspapers will get this kind of thing wrong. A newspaper will hope to get it right more often than it gets it wrong. Time will tell whether the speculation is correct in this case. But to run stories of this kind is standard practice. The Irish Independent recently ran a story about the possibility that Enda Kenny could take over from Herman Van Rompuy as President of European Council.
At this stage, Archbishop Martin has criticised Catholic media and commentators on a number of occasions. That is his prerogative, just as it is a politician’s prerogative (or anyone else’s for that matter) to criticise the secular media.
But perhaps it might be an idea for him to meet with the editors of the various Catholic newspapers, and Catholic commentators as well, to discuss what’s on his mind? He could do it one-on-one or collectively.
This kind of thing isn’t uncommon in the broader media and it’s usually better than what can be seen as a sort of megaphone diplomacy. Politicians will from time to time meet editors of national newspapers to talk things over. How about it?