Mightier than a sword? Pens inspected at butler’s trial

VATICAN CITY — Was it “The Case of the Suspicious Pens?” No, it was the opening day of Paolo Gabriele’s trial on a charge of aggravated theft for his alleged part in the “VatiLeaks” scandal.

The eight journalists who formed the pool for our coverage of Gabriele’s trial walked away Saturday with bright orange pens bearing the logo of SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops’ conference. The free pens were sitting on chairs inside the Vatican courtroom and were placed there by Vatican police in case they were needed after the security check.

Although Vatican television filmed the first few minutes of the formal opening of the trial and the Vatican newspaper photographer took a few still shots at the same time, no other photos or recordings were allowed.

The reporters were not allowed to take their computers or cellphones into the courtroom. And Vatican security checked each reporter’s pen to make sure it had no integrated digital tape recorder.

More than 400 journalists are permanently accredited to the Holy See Press Office and had a theoretical right to attend the trial. The only problem was, the tiny courtroom only has 16 chairs in its “public” gallery. One went to Vatican Radio and one to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman was there, as was Greg Burke, the U.S. reporter recently hired as a communications adviser to the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The Vatican designated eight places for a pool of accredited journalists. The task of organizing the pool was handled by the International Association of Journalists Accredited to the Vatican (known by its Italian acronym AIGAV). Through a hotly contested vote, members decided that four permanent pool places would go to colleagues from news agencies. The other four places would rotate among journalists for each day of the trial.

The four rotating places were divided: one for other news agencies; one for Italian media; one for non-Italian media; and one for Catholic media.

The numbered slips used to choose the pool. (CNS photo)

Numbers, corresponding to a journalist’s name, were drawn from a bag to determine who would get each of the four places.

I can’t tell you who won. Pool rules say the chosen journalists represent all their colleagues and may not write first-person stories or give interviews saying, “I was there,” or “I personally witnessed this or that.”

In fact, if you can’t get the glory of being able to tell your readers you were there, it’s actually a tough job. The trial is in Italian. The first day, especially, was filled with references to technical legal matters.

Other than Father Lombardi’s announcement that the trial had gotten under way, all other information from the courtroom was embargoed until 15 minutes after the pool’s briefing concluded. The 15 minutes gave pool reporters a chance to start typing and gave TV and radio journalists a chance for a super-quick recap by Father Lombardi.

The embargo covers every form of distributing information, including by Twitter.

The pool must recount everything in Italian for the entire press corps. And members of the pool cannot write anything in their stories that they didn’t share with everyone during the briefing.

But they did get shiny new orange pens.