Michael Hirst - News editor, The Tablet

07.04.05

The Italians have a saying that roughly correlates to our expression
“Once in a blue moon”: “Ogni morte di papa”, or “Every death of a
Pope”. Pope John Paul II died on 2 April after a long illness, having
been at the helm of the Catholic Church for 26 years. And for The
Tablet, this was THE news.

Things at the office haven’t been the same since.

Yesterday
was press day, and I arrived in the office this morning to find a
glossy 50-page Pope John Paul II Obituary Issue sitting on my desk.

Our
editorial team in London had been on high alert since the late Pope was
taken to hospital in February with breathing problems. We’d been
getting ready to turn around the obit edition on short notice in the
event of a sudden death.

When John Paul II’s health took a
drastic turn for the worse, we knew his decision not to go back to
hospital meant the end was near – he wanted to die at home, surrounded
by his closest friends.

I’d already given the heads-up to our
correspondents that we’d be looking for global reaction in the event of
the Pope’s death. We had also flown one of our columnists, Margaret
Hebblethwaite, out to Rome to help Robert Mickens, our chief Vatican
correspondent.

The obit issue featured articles by veteran
Vatican reporter Marco Politi and papal biographer George Weigel, as
well as an authoritative 15,000-word obituary. It also carried the
voice of a 23-year-old Catholic, contemplating what sort of Pope young
people want next. Robert Mickens came up trumps with his “Letter from
Rome” column – a colour piece that gives the reader an insight into
what makes the Vatican tick.

Our foreign correspondents were
quick off the mark, providing analysis from Manila to Moscow, Buenos
Aires to Bombay. And our UK reporters had been working flat out since
Saturday night, getting the domestic perspective.

For our weekly
debrief on the paper, our editorial team decamped to the Polish
Cultural Centre in Hammersmith to toast the Polish Pope’s legacy.

08.04.05

For the past few weeks the phones in the office have been ringing
constantly with broadcasters looking for The Tablet’s opinions on the
latest in Rome. Today, for me, it was an early morning slot with LBC, a
London radio station wanting a commentary on the Pope’s funeral. By
this stage, with stints on CNN, Sky and ITV under my belt, I was
feeling more au fait with cameras and microphones.

The highlight of my brief foray into broadcasting had been a baptism
of fire: spending an hour on the sofa with ITV’s Alistair Stewart as a
‘presenter’s friend’ rattled my nerves but proved to be a great
learning curve. And I could certainly get used to the door-to-door taxi
service the stations provide to and from their studios. Especially as I
usually arrive at the office a bit ‘hot under the collar’ from a
40-minute cycle commute down the Thames towpath.

En route to the
LBC studio, I was on the phone to one of our reporters in St Peter’s
Square, getting a picture of the spectacle that was unfolding. I was
thankful for the detail.

There’s only so much you can say about
the flurry of colour in the square, the sea of humanity on Rome’s
streets, the protocol nightmare of seating Robert Mugabe near the
Prince of Wales, and the glory of Renaissance colonnades gleaming in
the Italian sunshine…

Back at the desk, it was back to the
reality of setting up next week’s paper. Tributes for John Paul II are
pouring in – articles, letters, ‘when I met the Pope’ anecdotes and
even a couple of poems.

I spent the afternoon steering
correspondents to write about the forthcoming papal election rather
than dwelling on John Paul II’s legacy, and fielding calls from other
print journalists who wanted background info on the conclave.

Ended
the day at about 10pm after a brief Bush House interview for Newshour,
a BBC world service programme. I’ve been blown away by the breadth of
the Beeb’s coverage of the Pope story. In the space of 15 minutes
during an earlier Newshour show I took part in, they had successive
live phone interviews with church leaders in India, the Philippines and
Ireland.

11.04.05

There is so much going on in Rome that it’s tough to put together a
newslist that isn’t entirely Vatican-based. Elena Curti, our executive
editor and a fluent Italian speaker, flew to Italy this morning to help
co-ordinate our coverage and shore up our reporting for the interregnum
– the time between the funeral and the conclave when Rome is awash with
masses, meetings, dinners and rumours.

Cardinals are not allowed to campaign before the topsecret conclave
begins to elect a new pope. But, thankfully, the Vatican leaks like a
sieve, and our Rome team is pulling together some great material on
petitions to make John Paul II a saint and political machinations by
the front-runners to succeed him.

12.04.05

Copy is flooding in from correspondents, setting up a strong piece
on the future of the Church in the world. From Rome, there is a good
mix of straight pieces, facts and figures, items on the Pope’s funeral
and lighter colour stories.

Tuesday is always our longest day, so we break to watch a few
minutes at the end of the Champions League clash between Chelsea and
Bayern Munich before wrapping up at about 10pm.

13.04.05

Press day is dominated by cutting copy on screen, rewriting
headlines and choosing pics. With the focus of debate in this week’s
issue being where the Church should go from here, there are comment
pieces by Clifford Longley on declining Christianity in Europe, John
Cornwell on Vatican/Islamic relations, and the editor on the role of
women in the Church.

There’s also an overview of the leading papabile – the likely contenders to be pope.

Voting
in the conclave starts on 18 April. This time around, cardinals have
the comfort of a three-star residence to go back to at the end of a
hard day’s balloting, so there are rumours that it might take longer
than the two or three days that were the norm when they had to sleep in
cots in the offices around the Sistine Chapel. We shall wait and see.

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