In Britain, the media go mad for Fergie and Di. In Italy, they're crazy about the Pope - and the more the Pontiff's health deteriorates, the crazier they get
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"WE have a whole collection of pictures of the private Pope," said the woman from the photo agency. "Very private, you understand." She sounded excited. What could she mean? Was the Holy Father being paraded as a pin-up model? Had the Catholic Church sunk that low? I asked her to let me see some samples immediately. She stalled. "I'm sorry, the collection isn't complete yet and we haven't fixed a price. Why don't you call back in a couple of weeks?"

The pictures, as it turned out, were hardly risque. They made up a rather affectionate album of the Pope off-duty: walking around in his Superga sneakers, having dinner, or appearing in the hanging garden outside his private apartments in Vatican City. The raciest picture, of the Pope in his swimming-trunks at his summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, was temporarily unavailable because of a copyright dispute.

By the standards of the British public - hardened by years of Squidgygate, toe-sucking and Madame Vasso - such material sounds tame. In Italy, it is hot stuff. The Pope sells papers. "This has," says Carlo Verdelli, editor of Sette (the weekly colour supplement that comes out with Corriere della Sera), "been a fantastic Papacy from a journalistic point of view. It has been so rich and full of surprises. He has generated so much material."

Initially, it was the Pope himself who provided the initiative for these photo-opportunities - not just historic overseas visits, but more intimate, human shots: John Paul II in ski-ing gear, John Paul II in mountaineering outfits, John Paul II in his pyjamas ... Even quality publications like La Repubblica have run such stories. Since the Holy Father's health began to deteriorate, however, the media's interest has become less welcome. Rarely a month goes by these days without Vatican Radio or L'Osservatore Romano - the Holy See's semi-official daily newspaper - attacking the world's broadcasters and print journalists for indulging in distasteful and disrespectful speculation. But the broadcasters and journalists have been undeterred, especially in Italy. Now that the absolute head of the Universal Church can no longer walk without a stick or control the tremors in his left hand, interest in his person is nearing fever pitch: the Italian media's appetite for every detail on the state of the pontiff's body almost bears comparison to the British media's obsession with the state of the Wales's marriage.

"I'm sorry that my physical condition has turned into such a spectacle," the Pope has said. But the Vaticanisti, as the papal ratpack are known, have their orders. One photographer, Adriano Bartoloni, spent many hours hiding in the cupola of St Peter's for the sake of a quick snap at the Pope on his evening walk in his rooftop garden.

In fact, to call it a ratpack is an overstatement. Media coverage of the Pope's decline is relentless - television cameras show his frailty in merciless detail at least twice a week - but the journalists accredited to the Holy See usually maintain some degree of respect: partly because most are Catholics, but also because of the restraining influence of the Holy See, which keeps a stern eye on them. But that is precisely what is so fascinating about this phenomenon: the Vatican spin doctors are as actively involved as the journalists - and it is a moot point which has behaved least honourably. In the old days, there was a saying that a Pope never got sick until he was dead. In this new era of glasnost, matters aren't so simple. News has to be managed.

To date, the Vatican's press officers have shown themselves far from comfortable in doing this. When the Pope had a tumour removed from his colon in July 1992, they left it to the Pope himself to announce that he was about to go into hospital. Since then - as the Pope has suffered two separate fractures as a result of falls, displayed symptoms of a nervous disorder that may or may not be Parkinson's disease and, most recently, undergone further intestinal surgery, this time ostensibly to remove his appendix - they have been even less straightforward.

Most organisations are happy to manipulate information to protect their interests, but of course in the Catholic Church lying is against the house rules. This presents a dilemma. Should the Vatican be completely frank, at the risk of making mistakes and compromising the pontiff's dignity? Should it say as little as possible, at the risk of being accused of mendacity? Or should it aim for the middle ground, at the risk of satisfying nobody at all? The press office has tried all three options, and fallen into each of the possible pitfalls.

Broadly speaking, the temptation to be economical or even duplicitous with the facts - what the moral theologians call equivocation - seems to increase in proportion to the scale of the crisis. In fact, the tumour operation in 1992 was actually the smoothest episode, since it caught everyone by surprise and left little time for comment until it became clear that the operation had been a success. Nevertheless, the Vatican communiques insisted that the tumour, famously described as being the size of an orange, had been benign, when actually this wasn't quite right. The medical bulletins talked of dysplasia, which suggests a growth in the transitional stage towards malignancy. Rumours that the Pope has cancer have persisted ever since, although they have been vigorously denied at every opportunity.

The atmosphere was considerably tenser during the summer of 1994, when the Pope was recuperating from hip replacement surgery. His spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, insisted that all was well and that the Holy Father was taking long walks every day. Shortly afterwards, however, the Pope appeared on the tarmac at Zagreb airport wincing with pain, hobbling along with a stick and unable for the first time in his pontificate to bend down to kiss the earth of a new foreign country. This unexpected apparition unleashed a wave of speculation about how long John Paul had to live, and a ritual look in most of the world's newspapers at the line-up of his possible successors.

Partly because of this embarrassment, the Vatican chose to maintain silence about the Pope's ailments for most of the past year. The increasingly violent tremor in his left hand was not mentioned, and his bouts of severe nausea - including the one that forced him to interrupt his traditional greetings from St Peter's last Christmas Day - were shrugged off as tummy upsets. Nobody believed it for a second.

Then, in September, during a Papal trip to Hungary, Navarro-Valls unexpectedly launched on a lengthy and utterly unprompted medical analysis for the benefit of the accompanying journalists. The tremor, he said, was due to an "extra-pyramidal syndrome" - a family of degenerative nervous disorders, as the journalists discovered when they got home and consulted their medical dictionaries, of which Parkinson's disease is one. As for the abdominal ailment, he added, it was due to a bacterium or series of bacteria that had yet to be identified but would probably require surgery to be treated.

This speech by Navarro-Valls, who likes to remind journalists that he is a fully qualified doctor, clearly enraged the Vatican authorities - perhaps for its indiscretion, perhaps for the inaccuracy of what he said - and he was obliged to tender his resignation a few days later. He ended up keeping his job, but not without arousing great curiosity about the precise motives for what he did. Was he offering his own, unauthorised opinion out of frustration at being left out of the circle of doctors surrounding the Holy Father? Or was he acting under orders, perhaps softening up world opinion for some really bad news?

As it turns out, his explanation of the hand tremor has been confirmed, at least indirectly, by a number of other Vatican sources. But he seems to have been somewhat offbeam about the mystery bacteria. According to the Vatican doctors, who issued a statement a week after the Hungary trip, the Pope indeed required surgery, but their diagnosis - equally improbably - was appendicitis. The credibility of the Vatican information machine promptly sank to an all-time low, and the obituary-writers once again ran through their pre-prepared pieces for a precautionary update.

The Pope's abdomen was opened up again at the beginning of this month and, despite the panicky signals emitted in the run-up to the operation, evidently gave the surgeons grounds for optimism. The information began to flow a little more easily, and one could at last draw some reasonably certain conclusions. First, that an important part of the operation, and maybe the true underlying reason for it, was the removal of scar tissue around the appendix that was causing a minor intestinal blockage. Second, that the Pope was not suffering from a dangerous recurrence of his colon tumour and did not have any secondary cancer symptoms.

What remains unclear is whether the Pope has a slow-progressing form of cancer (about which there is plenty of gossip despite the official denials), and whether he has Parkinson's disease or some other degenerative nervous disorder. When it comes to such matters, the Vatican has an aversion to calling things by their proper name. Instead of using the C-word or the P-word, it likes to hide behind medical terminology incomprehensible to the layman - terms like dysplasia and extra-pyramidal syndrome which sound less severe and give an appearance of openness while in fact acting as a form of linguistic obfuscation.

UNDOUBTEDLY, a part of the confusion surrounding the Pope's illness has been created by the sheer unreliability of the lay media, but this in turn reflects a striking taste for gossip, much of it unfounded, among Vatican insiders. An example: when the Pope was taken ill last Christmas, I was out of the country and unable to see the live television footage. My attempts to find out precisely what I had missed proved almost ludicrously frustrating. A contact in a religious institute close to the Vatican said that the Pope had been filmed being sick; a journalist at Corriere della Sera said that the Pope had merely been seen withdrawing in obvious discomfort; another Vaticanista, Orazio Petrosillo of Il Messaggero, sought to clear up the confusion by explaining that the Italian state television broadcast did not show the vomiting fit but that the Vatican station Telepace did. The Vatican press office, meanwhile, said that the Pope had suffered a conato di vomito or retching fit. In other words, he opened his mouth but nothing actually came out. The argument is grotesque, especially given the stature of the man in question; but it illustrates one salient point: if the Vatican and its press corps cannot agree on the evidence of their own eyes even in such a minor affair, what hope is there of their seeing clearly into the weightier issues of John Paul II's papacy?

The in-house Vatican media occasionally justify the secretiveness of the Holy See on the grounds that without it the papacy would risk being trivialised through gossipy over-exposure. Certainly, from a British standpoint, it is not hard to see parallels with the Royal Family and the disastrous ways in which Buckingham Palace has tried to square its natural reticence and vestigial absolutism with the exigencies of the mass-media age. Is it a mistake, to borrow Walter Bagehot's disapproving phrase about Queen Victoria, for the papacy to "let daylight in upon its magic"? Or is excessive secrecy a recipe for leaks, media manipulation and the sort of scandal that could threaten the foundations of the institution itself?

Curiously, both the Vatican and the Royal Family built up their modern image from very similar starting points. In the 1870s, both desperately needed to define a role to ensure their survival, the Vatican because the newly unified Italy had just taken away its last temporal fiefdom by annexing the papal states around Rome; the monarchy because the march of Reform was undermining its political role and because Queen Victoria had virtually disappeared from public view following the death of her beloved Albert. Both institutions found similar solutions to the crisis: plenty of pomp and ceremony, and plenty of mystical adulation of the institution itself, combined with a strict control on the flow of information.

No journalist was accredited to the Holy See until the 1920s, and no channel of direct communication with the press was established until the 1960s. Newspaper and radio correspondents had to rely on L'Osservatore Romano and on their occasional, usually unquotable, independent sources within the Vatican. The Pope, like many of the modern British monarchs, was a remote figure who never spoke off the cuff and spent lengthy periods of time entirely concealed from public view.

The first sea-change came with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which did away with much of the ceremony surrounding the papacy, including the triple tiara crown, gestatorial seat and large, colourfully robed official retinue that used to accompany him into mass in St Peter's. At the same time, a press office was established and official communiques began to be published on a regular basis.

Despite these changes, deplored by traditionalists in much the same terms as Bagehot, the Vatican remained secretive. Its spokesman was invariably a cleric under the control of the Pope's Secretary of State, and the pontiff himself stuck to the strict protocol that forbade the head of the Universal Church to answer journalists' questions or chat in public. Until, that is, the election of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978.

The new Pope stunned the Vatican press corps on his very first foreign trip, to Mexico, when he actually answered a question put to him by a journalist. He also made a point of walking to the back of the Papal plane, not just to shake the journalists' hands as Paul VI had done (and as the Queen still does), but to offer his views and laugh and joke with them. His style, especially in his dealings with his native Poland, was to show himself as open and visible, in stark contrast to the Communist regime of his homeland.

More taboos were broken after the assassination attempt in St Peter's Square in 1981. Unavoidably, he became the first Pope ever to be admitted to hospital. He inaugurated a system of regular medical bulletins to let the world know of his progress, and he even allowed his official photographer, Gianni Giansanti, to take pictures of him in his pyjamas with an intravenous drip feeding into his arm, in contravention of Vatican protocol that forbade photographs of the Pope in anything other than his full regalia. The gamble paid off, giving Catholics an unprecedented sense of contact with their spiritual father and arousing spontaneous outpourings of sympathy.

In 1984 the Pope appointed a layman, the Spanish journalist Joaquin Navarro- Valls, as his personal spokesman. This was a more controversial decision - from the Vatican's point of view because Navarro-Valls was answerable to nobody but the Holy Father, and from the journalists' point of view because he was a member of the shady right-wing religious organisation Opus Dei. None the less, the new system paid off. The Vatican press corps may have become more critical, but there were no public relations disasters to compare even remotely with the Queen's annus horribilis. When Adriano Bartoloni ambushed him with his camera in his garden, John Paul simply smiled and waved.

But now the symbiotic relationship has begun to sour, just as it did for the Royal Family. The journalists are losing faith in official pronouncements; the officials have lost the ability to secure the kind of coverage they want.

The Vaticanisti insist that they are free to write whatever they like. But they are respectful by instinct, if nothing else. "As a believer I have a great affection and respect for the Holy Father," says Orazio Petrosillo of Il Messaggero. "But that does not mean I conceal the truth to protect him. My paper needs me to get scoops and print them fast. Sometimes the information compromises the Vatican."

The Vaticanisti certainly seem to pride themselves on their restraint. Spanish daily Diario 16 ran an unsourced story in 1994 announcing that John Paul had Parkinson's disease, and another barely sourced one a few months later that he had cancer. The author of pieces, a Jesuit called Pedro Lamet, failed to provide any documentary evidence, and the regular Vaticanisti were openly contemptuous. "He could only do what he did because he works out of Spain. If he had been accredited here, he would have been thrown out in no time," says Luigi Accattoli of Corriere della Sera.

Marco Politi, the correspondent for La Repubblica who has also spent time working out of Moscow, likes to compare the secrecy and authoritarianism of the Vatican to the Soviet-era Kremlin, and it is easy to see what he means. Soon after Navarro-Valls's appointment, the veteran Vaticanista, Domenico Del Rio, was crossed off the accreditation list for a papal trip as a result of a series of critical articles he had written - although even the Vatican now regards this sanction as having been a mistake. Again, in November 1993, when the Pope fell and broke his shoulder during an audience with members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Vatican officials panicked and confiscated a film shot by a freelance photographer. Official television footage of the ceremony was expurgated, with the improbable excuse that the camera had not been focussed on the Pope at the crucial moment.

Navarro-Valls, too, has proved a controversial figure, not only for his background but also for his habit of telling stories that occasionally deviate from the Party Line - as in his remarks in September about extra- pyramidal syndrome and mystery bacteria. He has also been known to lie. In February this year, during a papal stop-over in Guatemala, he gave details to journalists of a meeting between the Pope and the Nobel Prize- winning indigenous rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu that in fact had never taken place. Interestingly, he does not seem to have got into trouble for this: it was only when he gave out too much information that his superiors reacted.

The Vatican's approach to the media can hardly be described as admirable, but at least it has borne the curiosity of the modern world with less resentment and, often, less clumsiness than our Royal Family. Now that the Pope is so ill, however, the stakes have grown higher, and the need for the Vatican's PR team to smarten up its act has grown more acute. Somewhere down the road is the prospect of a papal death, a moment that has proved hard enough to handle in the past. The Vatican has been known to describe previous Popes as having a common cold or an attack of hiccups when in fact they were hours away from dying. Such a fate would be an undignified and wholly unnecessary end for this most media-conscious of pontiffs. !