Just like Rupert Murdoch outlining his demands to a new editor of the Times, Benedict had a list of things he wanted to see in the revamped paper: “The pope asked me for more international coverage, more attention to the Christian East, and more space for women.”
“Yes, get more women writing and devote more attention to women’s issues.”
So, like any editor keen to keep the proprietor happy, Vian hired L’Osservatore’s first-ever female staffer. The daily and its various offshoots have a tiny complement of only 25 journalists, and a total staff of less than 100.
Not the least interesting aspect of the changes that have swept through this tiny media outcrop is that they offer a quite different view of a pope generally regarded as ultra-conservative and a bit other-worldly. Vian insists this is a caricature and that, insofar as the media is concerned, Benedict has a firm grasp of the processes involved. “When the deputy editor and I were invited to see the pope to talk a bit about the paper three weeks after we were appointed, he gave us to understand that he’d like to see a few more pictures in it.”
Vian made it a rule to use colour photographs every day on the front and back as part of a redesign that he says has turned L’Osservatore into “one of the most elegant of European newspapers”. But the really important difference is the content. The paper’s international coverage is still closely monitored by the Vatican’s secretariat of state (though Vian says its desk officers “do not go through every line”), but the cryptic asterisks have disappeared.
The new editor has freed his contributors to write about a much wider range of topics, and allowed them to express views that are not necessarily those of the Vatican, let alone Benedict XVI, but which catch the attention of outsiders all the same. (When Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, suggested to Vian that the prime minister might write a piece for the paper ahead of his visit to see the pope, he leapt at the idea, even though nothing like it had been done since L’Osservatore was founded in 1861.)
Much as the editor welcomes the publicity, however, he says that a lot of it is generated by a fundamental misunderstanding. “This is not an official newspaper.” Referring to another recent article that made waves, he explains: “When we publish an article on Michael Jackson and say that he was an important phenomenon, that does not mean the pope is giving him his blessing.”
Some readers, though, would argue it does – or, at least, that it should. In its former, dryer guise, if L’Osservatore liked or hated or took something into consideration, then it was a fair bet his holiness did too. And now? Vian is almost impossible to pin down. The paper may not be “official”, but he concedes that it “represents an authoritative point of view”. L’Osservatore is a “newspaper of its environment that is conditioned by that environment”.
One theory among those who monitor the Vatican is that this ambiguity is actually quite useful to the pope and his advisers, because it can say things they may not believe but do not mind being said. Vian says that the most heated controversy of his editorship so far arose over an editorial that he published ahead of President Obama’s visit to see Benedict earlier this month. Conservative Catholics in the US and elsewhere were appalled to see that, despite the new president’s moves on abortion and stem-cell research, the Vatican’s daily took a positive view of his first 100 days. There were calls for Vian to resign. One Italian commentator branded him a pro-abortionist, and some in the US concluded he was a maverick liberal whose views ought not to be taken seriously.
In fact, Vian’s approach may have been closer to the pope’s than they thought. The Vatican’s agenda stretches far beyond the pro-life/pro-choice battle and in many other areas, such as social justice, disarmament, the Middle East and Cuba, the US’s new Democratic administration is more in tune with its thinking than the previous Republican one. Certainly, the editorial cleared the way for a cordial visit and what one insider described as the most substantive recent conversations held between a pope and a US president.
Clearly, Vian is still taken aback by the ferocity of that row, but reasons that “It’s a sign of interest. It shows that we count.” And, he says, while the controversies that have surrounded his editorship have not increased L’Osservatore’s circulation, “I consider that to be a success in the context of an Italian press which is suffering a truly dreadful crisis.”
In any case, as he quipped in an interview with the conservative US magazine National Review, “It’s my publisher, the owner, who is infallible, not me” .