For many of us in this country, the BBC’s Panorama programme has been a beacon of why it is worth paying a licence tax to support a public broadcasting organisation; it, and Radios 3 and 4 have long been, for some of us, the only real justifications: after Monday night only the radio remains. On Monday night the programme descended into a gutter of slime, innuendo and suggestio falsi in connection with St Pope John Paul II. To what ought to be his eternal shame, a formerly well-respected, Catholic educated journalist, Ed Stourton, put together a programme of such poor quality that I shall be using it with my graduate students to show them how one should not use evidence.
One imagines there must have been some excitement when the BBC programme makers heard that Ed had access to ‘intimate’ (their words) letters written by Pope John Paul II to a woman. There was, of course, ‘no suggestion’ he had ‘broken his vow of celibacy’, but, and here comes the innuendo which inevitably follows such a disclaimer – they were ‘intense’, and the two went on ‘camping trips’ and she was an ‘attractive woman’, and it was ‘an intense relationship’, and she ‘seems to have had intense feelings’ and he ‘struggled to make sense of their relationship in Christian terms’. Setting aside the cheap sexism (if she had been ‘unattractive’ would that somehow have made a difference?) and the guessing (from what was revealed, it seems St John Paul had no difficulty at all), we get the steady drip, drip of innuendo – an impression of much smoke, encouraging the belief that there must be some fire somewhere. A decent historian, faced with the clear fact that the letters are not in the slightest bit salacious and contain not a whiff of scandal, might have pointed to the fact they are not the only letters the Pope wrote to close women friends, and written a proper documentary around the intellectual companionship and support such correspondence provided – but where are the viewing figures in that? Of course, the BBC, as a public broadcaster, uses that fact to claim it does not need to chase the ratings, but give it a chance to, and it dives to the bottom of the gutter like a rat down a drain.
The programme managed an impressive line-up of liberal ‘Catholics’, some, like the former seminarian, John Cornwell, already well-versed in making money from misrepresenting the history of the Church (he is the author of a bad book on Pius XII and the holocaust). There was a former Polish Jesuit who might, to be fair, as well have still been a Jesuit, as he managed to say all sorts of critical stuff about John Paul – not that he actually knew anything, but he was Polish. It was a particular sadness to see an historian I much respect, Eamon Duffy, with this sad crew of the discontented. I did not know whether to laugh of cry when he said that had the existence of the letters have been known, it might have had an effect on the canonisation process – before going on to say that it might only have slowed it down a bit, which might be no bad things given the haste; not, of course, a word about St John XXIII.
What do we know know that we did not know? Not much. It has been clear for sometime that the BBC is bent on squandering whatever might be left of its reputation as a leading broadcaster, so we should not be surprised at this piece of slime. It has also long been clear that the BBC is religiously illiterate enough to suppose that Ed Stourton and his liberal chums speak for the Catholic Church. We should, I suspect, be surprised that the ‘Today programme’ on Radio 4 gave the excellent Fr Alex Lucie-Smith and Caroline Farrow all of five minutes to comment on what nonsense the programme had been – but then 8.55 on radio and peak time TV for half an hour hardly constitutes balance.
Oh yes, and we learnt something else we already knew. St John Paul II was one of the most remarkable figures of the late twentieth century and a man whose moral stature the BBC is signally unfit to judge.