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Interesting as an insiders view, but tedious in its defence of the 4th Estate
on 17 April 2013
This is a book of two-halves. At its best its a fascinating insiders account of the Vatican City and its associated institutions, 'letting light in upon magic' (to quote Bagehot). We get an insight into the inner workings (and failings) of the Vatican, its personalities (great and small) and how an often disjointed and tribal institution works on the ground. Perhaps more importantly we get an unbiased appraisal of Pope Pius VII (often incorrectly described as 'Hitler's Pope' due to bad historiography) which is on the whole positive, though would work better as an extended book.
The Vatican is often viewed as an enigma hidden within a mystery - Thavis' book does much to remove some of that mystery, though it also becomes apparant that the Vatican is still one of the last absolute monarchies. It is like a series of medieval petty duchys, ruled over often by tyrants, quick to defend their feudal rights over others, even if this comes at the expense of the Pontiff. This, however, is one of the joys of the Vatican - were it a huge and well oiled machine it would not work in the same way. It is also a human institution, rather than a monolific edifice, and the presentation of its inner life provided by Thavis is less Dan Brown and much more 'Yes Minister'.
On the negative side, Thavis is (like many of his journalist colleagues) to quick to defend the rights and role of the Fourth Estate (the media) and to see failings and misreadings as coming out of poor communication, rather than the desire of the fourth estate for quick quotes, journalistic laziness and anti-intellectualism. Thus (like Rowan Williams, former Archbiship of Canterbury) Pope Benedict was often attacked by a media too quick to pass judgement without properly understanding the issues at stake, or having properly read speeches and briefs passed to them. The problem is not with poor media strategy, but with media hubris - the media often creating the stories they want to report, rather than true meaning of the text as given. Thus both Benedict and Rowan Williams both fell foul because of speeches they gave on Islam, on both occasions because the media failed to properly understand the speeches being made and too lazy to properly digest the text given to them. Thavis of course fails to recognise this, but it becomes apparent in this book that it precisely this failing of the media that is a major part of the problem.