FaithWorld

Journalism Italian-style and church-state relations

giornale-aug-28-croppedCall it a case of duelling headlines.

For the past few days, a highly personal and often below-the-sash battle has been waged in Italy between two newspapers — Il Giornale, owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Bishops Conference.  The generals in the battle, which has riveted Italy and has resulted in one of the worst periods for years in relations between church and state here, are the editors-in-chief Vittorio Feltri of Il Giornale and Dino Boffo of Avvenire.

It all started on Friday, Aug. 28 when Il Giornale published a front-page, banner headline story purportedly revealing that that Boffo had accepted a plea bargain in court in 2002 after being accused of harrasing a woman. The paper said Boffo had a homosexual relationship with her husband. The headline read “The Super-Moralist Was Condemned for Molestation” (see image above). Feltri, one of Italy’s more unorthodox journalists, attacked Boffo because he had written a spate of editorials criticising Berlusconi over the prime minister’s private life. The fact that ultimately Berlusconi’s family is Feltri’s boss was not lost on Italian readers.

Another element in the background was the fact that Berlusconi has been under the spotlight for anything but government recently, including accusations of cavorting with teenagers and prostitutes. For the record, Berlusconi says there was nothing “spicy” in his relationship with an 18-year-old aspriring model and that even if  a call girl spent a night in his house, he never paid for sex in his life. What’s more, Berlusconi is also going through a messy divorce. His wife Veronica says she wanted out because she couldn’t take any more of his “lies”.

porta-a-portaHours after the first Il Giornale story came out, the Vatican announced that a long-planned dinner between Berlusconi and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had been cancelled. The dinner was to have taken place in L’Aquila during the annual “feast of forgiveness” in the city that was devastated by an earthquake last April. The official Vatican explanation was a nice try, but hard to swallow. It said the local bishop  had decided (five hours before the start of a dinner that had been planned for weeks) that the money would be better spent if donated to reconstruction efforts. (Photo: Berlusconi on Italian television, sign says “And Veronica asks for a divorce,” 5 May 2009/Remo Casilli)

Boffo called the Il Giornale attack “journalistic assassination” and rejected the accusations “absurd”.  Here’s our story about the first day of the battle.

Beware brain scientists bearing gifts (gee-whiz journalists too…)

boot-camp-shirt1Knowing what not to report is just as important for journalists as knowing what to write. We’re inundated with handouts about some pioneering new scientific research or insightful new book. Should we write about it? It’s refreshing to hear experts who can dazzle you with their work but warn against falling for any hype about it. This “let’s not overdo it” approach has been a recurrent theme in the Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Photo: The “official” boot camp T-shirt, 8 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Andrew Newberg‘s “no God spot” message to boot campers has already been noted here on FaithWorld. Other lecturers added similar reality checks to their presentations. Cognitive science has already begun to influence religion studies (as John Teehan explained here) and we’re bound to hear more in the future about what neuroscientific research has to say about faith, morals, altruism and other issues of interest to readers of this blog. Much of this will be fascinating. But before the next “gee-whiz” report comes out, here’s the advice the neuroscientists are giving us about speculative claims based on brain research.

aguirre-11 (Photo: Geoff Aguirre, 5 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

After two days of explaining fMRI brain scanning, the sexiest procedure in current neurological research, Geoff Aguirre poured cold water on some of the exaggerated conclusions that researchers or journalists draw from it. When shown brain scan images, he said, “people immediately start thinking about trying to catch terrorists and being able to screen people as they pass through metal detectors.” This is “science fiction, science fantasy,” he said, but it comes up regularly. Why? Aguirre, who is an M.D and assistant professor of neurology at Penn, listed several reasons:

Could gagged Mumbai confession do more good than harm?

hindux1A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab’s hindu-articleconfession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.

The front-page report in today’s The Hindu, which noted the judge’s gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:

Ajmal made some crucial statements on Tuesday as part of his confession. They pertained to the purpose of the attack as indicated by the perpetrators and masterminds and the message they wanted to send to the government of India. Ajmal also wanted to convey a message to his handlers. However, this part of his confession faces a court ban on publication.

from Global News Journal:

Sex education again in Malaysia, thanks to the courts

By Niluksi Koswanage

Gay Austrian fashionista Bruno will not be making an appearance on Malaysia's screens this summer for fear of corrupting this mostly-Muslim nation's youth.

But Malaysia's parents will still not have it easy as the country's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim  is again on trial for sodomy in a re-run of a 14-month case that in 1998 generated endless sexually explicit headlines and questions from curious children.

Photo: Anwar enters Kuala Lumpur courtoom with wife Wan Aziza Wasn Ismail for his sodomy trial on July 15/ Reuters (Zainal Abd Halim)

from Global News Journal:

Austrian far-right leader isolated over Israel stance

Senior figures from across Austria's political spectrum have condemned the head of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, over his party's European election campaign directed against Israel and Turkey.

In an advertisement in the newspaper Kronen Zeitung, Freedom opposes the accession of Turkey and Israel to the European Union. Although Turkey is in EU accession talks, Israel is not.

Heinz-Christian Strache prepares for a TV discussion in Vienna, Sept. 17, 2008. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader (AUSTRIA)

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Peace and love between all men – except journalists and security, of course

pope-blessing

Pope Benedict has left the Holy Land bequeathing a message of peace, tolerance and love between all religions and peoples.

We hope that message also filters through to the eternally fractious relationship between journalists and security men - which gets even more strained when a high-profile visitor like the Pope is in town.

Months of elaborate preparation went in to ensuring the Pope's visit was safe and successful and also to ensure journalists got controlled access to major events to tell the stories their readers and viewers want to see.

Who wrote the pope’s speeches for this trip?

pope-wall-speechWho wrote Pope Benedict’s speeches for this trip? Why do his speeches to Muslims hit the spot and those to Jews seem to fall short? Does he have two teams of speechwriters, one more attuned to the audience than the other?

We don’t know the answers (yet) but a pattern suggesting that has certainly emerged. Look at what he had to say today in Bethlehem to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim:

    To Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers…” To Palestinian Catholics at Mass: “In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure.” At Aida refugee camp: “I know that many of your families are divided – through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement – and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. My heart goes out to all who suffer in this way.” On the Israeli-built wall: “In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected… How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!”
(Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, 13 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

These comments stand in strong contrast to his speech at Yad Vashem, which was so abstract that his Jewish audience — and commentators in the media — were openly disappointed by it. They called it lukewarm, said he avoided speaking clearly about the Holocaust and said nothing about the fact he himself is German. He skirted the contentious issues that strain Catholic-Jewish relations, such as the possible beatification of the late Pope Pius XII or the recent lifting of the excommunication of an arch-conservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

Vatican tangled in the Web

jpii-and-laptopOne passage in Pope Benedict’s letter today about the Williamson affair particularly stood out — the part where he confessed to almost complete ignorance of the Internet. There can’t be many other world leaders who could write  the following lines without blushing: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.” This made it look as if the world’s largest church was ignorant of the world’s liveliest communications network.

That’s not the case, of course. The Vatican runs a very full website of its own, www.vatican.va, as do Vatican Radio (in 38 languages), Catholic bishops conferences, dioceses and parishes as well as Catholic publications all around the world.

icann-logoIn fact, somebody in the Vatican seems to be following the Internet far more closely that the mainstream media (including ourselves), which missed an interesting little nugget now popping up on tech blogs and some Catholic sites mostly in Europe. The Holy See’s representative to the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently warned against the tensions that could be caused if ICANN created new top-level domain names (so-called gTLDs) for religions.

Italy’s atheists to launch their own “no God” bus ads

The members of Italy’s atheist association probably would not fill one of the side chapels of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But that’s not stopping the group from launching an unprecedented ad campaign on buses in Italian cities, much like the one recently started in Britain. (Photo: Planned Italian bus ads/UAAR)

The Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR) will run the ads on four buses in the northern city of Genoa next month. The ads, which will cover the entire bus painted a soothing sky blue, read: “The bad news is that God doesn’t exist. The good news is that you don’t need him.”

The Padua-based group is launching the campaign in Genoa because advertising is much more expensive in other large cities such as Milan and Rome. But Genoa is also home to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of  the Italian Bishops Conference. According to some Italian reports, one of the buses will pass near his residence.

Cardinal Martino does it again

Cardinal Renato Martino, the papal aide who angered Israel and Jews by comparing Gaza to a “big concentration camp” is no novice at being outspoken or controversial. The southern Italian cardinal speaks his mind, loves to talk and sometimes has had to pay the price. Martino, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (effectively its justice minister), has a laundry list of people and governments with whom he has clashed. But that hasn’t stopped him. (Photo: Cardinal Martino at the Vatican, 12 April 2005/Tony Gentile)

Perhaps his most famous remark came in December, 2003 when, shortly after U.S. troops captured former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Martino told a news conference at the Vatican that U.S. military were wrong to show video footage of Saddam. “I felt pity to see this man destroyed, (the military) looking at his teeth as if he were a cow. They could have spared us these pictures,” he said at the time.

The “treated like a cow” remark was heard around the world and, needless to say, was not very appreciated in the White House. The Vatican had opposed the U.S.-invasion of Iraq in March of that year. In fact, a certain chill developed between Martino and then U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, a Vietnam veteran who later went on to become Bush’s Secretary for Veteran Affairs.