An interview with Greg Burke, former Fox News correspondent, named communications advisor to the Vatican secretariat of state
Are you sorry you have left Fox News and given up your job as a correspondent?
Greg Burke: I’m very sorry because my job with Fox News was a sort of dream job. I was based in Rome, but I traveled a lot, all over the Mediterranean area. I went to Jerusalem several times, at least once a year; I was in Lebanon five or six times in 10 years. I also covered the war.
Anyway, you are going to Lebanon again with the Pope in September, aren’t you?
Burke: Actually, I don’t know yet if I will travel, we will see… You know, I turned down this job the first time I was offered it for two reasons: first, I was awfully afraid of accepting this assignment…
Many of your colleagues would do anything to be in your place…
Burke: I know, but you must realize that it is a tough assignment, something awfully serious. The second reason is that I liked my job with Fox News. I thought I would work with them for some more years and have my contract renewed. I was happy to work for Fox News. No matter what you may think about them, it was really fine for me to be a Fox News correspondent; also, it was a prestigious job and fun, too. Nine times out of ten I did the job I’d been dreaming of, even though I had to witness tragic events.
So, the change from being a correspondent to doing office work won’t be easy for you…
Burke: That’s right. Just think that I don’t remember participating in a meeting for 10 years. Now I feel that my new job will be completely different, as it will involve lots of office work and meetings.
At the beginning you said that your post here in the Vatican is similar to the post of press secretary in the White House, but actually the Vatican is not the White House. So, what’s the meaning of this?
Burke: Yes, this comparison might be misleading, as I’m not going to be a power guy, but the post in the White House is very similar to mine. In Washington everybody knows Jay Carney, the fair- haired guy who gives the briefing every day. A communications advisor is unknown to those working outside a certain milieu. He appears every now and then, but that’s not his role; his role is that of one working behind the scenes and giving instructions. A role at once difficult and attractive.
So, we will see you in the press room. Will you speak with journalists?
Burke: Only sometimes. That’s not my role. There must not be a parallel press room. Needless to say, I will be tempted to speak. Should AP television ask me to make a 30- second declaration, I will hardly resist the temptation. Anyway, it’s important for the press room and its official spokesperson to keep their role.
Burke: Yes. I met Archbishop Becciu on this occasion, and I have known Monsignor Peter Wells since before his appointment as assessor for general affairs. He always saw me doing stand-ups near Castel Sant’Angelo; he used to meet me on his way home and so we became friends.
So, let’s have a test: What did you think, for example, when the Williamson affair occurred?
Burke: The Williamson affair is perhaps the most manifest case. It could have been avoided, as the Pope himself pointed out. It’s a bit like seeing two trains about to run into each other and doing nothing to prevent it. I don’t know why nobody did anything about it. As for the Regensburg speech, a journalist told me: “I said that the Pope should have been more careful.” I don’t know if this is true. Anyway, it’s easy to speak after the fact; also, the question is too complicated to be answered with a few words.
The Regensburg speech was in fact a complex speech. A sentence is often isolated from the context and one does not read the whole text to find a sentence that may provide an effective synthesis of it…
Burke: That’s right, I think this was a more complex case. The problem is, on the one hand, the way the Pope’s speech was interpreted and, on the other hand, the context in which it was delivered. It was not addressed to a huge crowd, but I am convinced that Benedict XVI is an academic, and had his speech been addressed to a small group of intellectuals to discuss a difficult, but interesting, text, nothing would have come of it. Anyway there are many ways to express the same concept.
Let me give you another test: If you were to go to the secretary of state or the Pope and tell them: “This is a wrong choice, this is not the right communicative strategy, this is to be avoided,” would you have the courage to do it?
Burke: I hope to have this courage and to be listened to. I’m not a magician. This also happens in companies. There are communications directors who are not listened to, no matter what they say. We will see. I hope to have the courage to express my opinions, but I don’t claim to have any power.
As journalists, we will try to draw information from you and you will probably try to “avoid” us, but we might be able to give you some tips. Will you be ready to receive our advice?
Burke: I’ve already asked some friends of mine to send me a couple of pages on what is to be done and what is not to be done and what can be improved, even though I don’t think that change will take place too soon. One of these friends of mine with 20 years’ experience said to me: “Shall I send you two volumes?” Joking apart, I hope to be able to listen at the beginning; then I will see what I can and cannot do. There will be some feedback, as I won’t see things from outside anymore. Then I hope to be available. My life has changed in these days. Until one week ago my telephone rang only twice a week; now it rings all the time.
So, your work is not about creating a parallel press room, but about communication within the Vatican?
Burke: That’s right. I’m not a Vaticanist in the strict sense of the word; throughout my career I’ve been covering several subjects, the Vatican included. I discussed this with Father Lombardi, too.
My work is mainly about the preparation of news, about bringing a given message home to everyone. As for the coordination of all Vatican institutions, this is a real challenge, a tough assignment and a heart-warming feat at the same time.
But, even though my office is elsewhere we have the same superiors, so we have to cooperate, we have to prepare news accurately. We must not be on the defensive; effective communication is a bit like football: If you only play defense, the opponent team will score a goal against you. Anyway, old habits die hard.
Are you referring to the problem of coordinating the work of the various councils?
Burke: Yes, I must admit that this is the most difficult task. It will be difficult for me to say to my superiors: “If we say this, we will have this reply” or “Let’s not do these two things at the same time if our policy is to be effective.” It’s even more difficult to understand the problems of all the councils and the organization of the Holy See…
Have you already begun to study the Pontifical Yearbook?
Burke: Not yet, but I will do it soon because I must admit I’m not a Vaticanist in the strict sense of the word.
Did they choose you because you are not too much influenced by the Italian press?
Burke: Maybe. This didn’t occur to me, but you may be right. Anyway, the main reason is that I’m an English language speaker, which has a certain relevance in today’s world. In other words, the challenge is to return to the nuts and bolts of Benedict XVI’s message instead of sticking to news about scandals, writers of anonymous letters and the Institute for Works of Religion.
One thing I will certainly do is keep up to date with the press. Before receiving this offer from the Vatican, I only read one or two papers. Now I will try to get as much information as possible about events. Anyway, I’ve read lots of funny and ridiculous things.
Will you have a position with a title?
Burke: I will only have a work contract. I don’t think they will give me a specific mandate in the next yearbook. We will see.
Was the AP publication of the news of your hiring intentional or accidental?
Burke: It was accidental; the news was to come out only on Thursday, June 28. Then it came out in New York too. I don’t think it was intentional; anyway it was better for me, because there was time to digest the news.
Your last feature for Fox News, the visit to the Institute for Works of Religion, was a discovery for you. Had you ever been so deep inside the Vatican?
Burke: I was wondering about it. Maybe I saw the bank for two minutes 20 years ago, but I’d never had such an opportunity.
The director’s speaking so openly to reveal certain things was good, since the papers have said all sorts of things, so I think that was the right move.
Let’s face it: every step towards transparency is positive.