And I want to highlight today three debates going on that are pushing in different directions, namely:
- attempts by the Church's internal structures to come to grips with the new media, reflected in the upcoming Australian Catholic Media Congress;
- suggestions that the church should do more to ensure that the media looks beyond disgruntled ex-priests whenever it wants comments on Catholic specific news, reflected in the special debate on the UK Catholic Voices project over at the ABC Religion and Ethics website; and
- the recommendation of the Finkelstein Report that bloggers and other websites be subject to Government regulation of the media.
The Finkelstein Report was commissioned by the Government to look at whether the current regulatory regime for the media is adequate. It concludes that it isn't.
But instead of recommending a beefed up self-regulatory mechanism, it proposes setting up a 'News Media Council' to set up codes of conduct; review the state of the media and undertake an educatory function; and handle complaints or problem it identifies itself.
The proposed Council would have the power to require publication of corrections, force the withdrawal of post or article from the net, require the publication of a right of reply, and more.
There would be no appeal except by going to court, and decisions are enforceable by law.
Bloggers and the catholic media are at risk
The real issue here though is the proposed coverage. If I've understood it correctly, the concept of news seems to be defined very broadly, so would encompass pretty much every catholic newspaper, newsletter or website in the country that ever comments on 'news' in the Church or outside of it.
And even the smallest blog or website - one averaging but 40 or so hits a day - would be covered by this regime.
The potential for abuse - for those who oppose the Church's teachings on any number of subjects for example - to effectively force a blog such as this one out of business are obvious. This is dangerous stuff, and anyone interested in the new media needs to start organising now to oppose this!
I'll be saying more in future posts.
More balanced reporting in the media?
The Finkelstein Report is obvious overkill in my opinion, and yet there are reasons why there is seen to be a need for greater regulation of the media, as a number of interesting pieces over at the ABC Religion and Ethics site attest.
A guest blog points to the struggle the media have in reporting religious issues objectively. It focuses rather helpfully on the stock response of 'Islamophobia' that appears whenever someone attempts to expose Muslim extremism, and the unfair stereotypes often used to talk about a certain Christian politicians.
It also features four takes on Austen Ivereigh's book on the UK 'Catholic Voices' project, which trained up laypeople as media spokespeople for the Pope's visit.
Do we need better media faces for the Catholic cause?
The question running through them is whether an Australian 'Catholic Voices' project, a means of providing an alternative to the standard swag of dissenting ex-priests who the media normally turn to, a good idea?
On the face of it, the answer is obvious, as Tracey Rowland's's piece suggests:
"For some bizarre reason, the media in Australia has a habit of reporting statements from two types of Catholics: people who are ex-priests or priests in serious trouble with their bishops, and the grim-reapers. In other words, there is a tendency to approach people who are either disgruntled and angry or neurotic. Any initiative which could break this pattern would have to be an improvement."
The problem all four pieces wrestle with though is just who these new media spokespeople should be, what they should say, and how they should say it.
Tracey Rowland's piece focuses on the problem of the 'grim-reaper' persona. I have to admit I struggled somewhat with her 'grim-reaper' condemnation and applause for the idea that the selected speakers should be young professionals.
Maybe it is a Melbourne phenomenon, but I haven't actually seen too many Catholics speaking on tv with an 'unbearably grim demeanour' sufficient to drive "most Catholics into a state of such extreme embarrassment".
And frankly I suspect that those who "just want to bow out of cultural battles altogether and concentrate on paying off the mortgage and funding the private school fees" aren't so much embarrassed by the allegedly grim demeanour of the speaker, as by the long since rejected hard truth of what they are actually saying in this world where people now proudly proclaim themselves to be not only cafeteria, but actually delicatessen catholics!
I'd also suggest that on occasion, a grim faced warning might be entirely appropriate and the most effective approach - after all remember the original grim-reaper ads on tv on AIDS? They worked!
Moreover, while the proposed bright young idealists should certainly be in the mix, surely what we really need are people who come across as genuine experts. That is after all, how some of the current ex-priest media mafia have managed to sell themselves, and while I agree one would need to weed out the bitter, twisted and eccentric, neither should it look too contrived a phenomenon!
Ivereigh's's own piece on the subject talks about how lay Catholics have been engaged in the fight against gay marriage, something entirely part of and necessary for the New Evangelization. In principle I agree. That the bishops should find ways of empowering those laity with genuine expertise to speak quasi-officially on these issues rather than having to do it all themselves (supported by an ever expanding bureaucracy) is the best hope of getting traction for the Churches position in many cases.
Whether his claim that in articulating the Church's official position on gay marriage we are actually speaking up for the silent majority though, is a somewhat more contested proposition!
But what about 'dialogue'!
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of the Church getting out a positive and persuasive message about itself and its official positions leaves some of the guest commentators, such as the Australian Catholic University's Neil Ormerod feeling 'a bit cold'.
Both Ormerod and Jesuit Eureka Street consulting editor Fr Andrew Hamilton worry about the idea of actually getting the (official) message out. After all, aren't we supposed to be dialoguing with the world an learning from it? Ormerod asks, before citing examples of his problem with the official line such as the rejection of 'inclusive language' in the new missal, and a rare case of actual enforcement of liturgical law.
Hamilton similarly worries that the conservatives will be empowered at the expense of the 'progressive' accommodationist agenda, and Catholic politicians will actually have to vote according to catholic principles (and yes, he is talking about abortion!).
Given that a good number of our bishops would line up with these latter two opinions, it is perhaps optimistic to think that we are going to see anything like the Catholic Voices project happening in Australia any time soon. Still Scott Stephens over at the ABC Religion and Ethics website is doing us a great service by kickstarting debate on this important issue with these pieces so do go and read and comment over there (as well as here!).
New Media Catholic Congress
The last strand I wanted to mention on this topic is the ACBC sponsored Catholic Media Congress aimed at "catholic media professionals" which this year plans to focus on the New Media.
It has a pretty strong line up of speakers, including Melinda Tankard Reist and Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (though I have to say that given the poverty of the Vatican's media management and new media engagement there is a certain irony in a Vaticanista being the key note speaker for such a Congress!).
It probably is a good thing for the catholic media to learn more about the new media - most diocesan websites are still pretty old-fashioned and clunky; most diocesan newspapers still hard to access; few are making much use of twitter and facebook.
But is it really the "media professionals" we want to see colonising this area?
Frankly, the last thing I think we need is liberal 'professionals' expanding out their efforts even further!
In my view, what is really needed is the engagement of the much broader range of Catholics working in all areas sharing their experiences, knowledge and expertise.
There is, for example, (well last time I looked anyway) actually quite a strong network in Australia of 'catholic mum' blogs. Many of these are homeschooling parents sharing their knowledge, but others just deal with the challenges of trying to be a catholic family in a secular world.
The real key to the New Evangelization, it seems to me, is to replicate this kind of thing to support genuine catholic effort in particular professions, in quick answers on apologetics issues, in the challenges of daily life and more.