From BBC to right hand of Pope: Patten to advise Vatican on media strategy

Lord Patten has been recruited by the Vatican to sit, if not at the right hand of God then not so very far away, as chair of a high-level committee to advise Pope Francis on media strategy.

The former Conservative party and BBC Trust chairman will head a committee to advise the pope on how to revamp and modernise media handling, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

Patten, whose CV also includes being a cabinet minister, European commissioner, and governor of Hong Kong, will preside over an 11-strong body made up of six lay experts and five Vatican officials. Its job will be to find ways of bringing the Vatican digital media strategy up to date, sort out overlapping responsibilities and, where possible, make savings.

Cardinal George Pell said Patten was "a man with wide and senior experience in public life. He has had a wide variety of responsibilities, from his ministerial posts in government to his role at the BBC and as the last British governor in Hong Kong".

The appointment is sure to cause surprise since Patten stood down as BBC chairman scarcely two months ago, after heart surgery, saying he needed to reduce the range of roles he held.

Pell acknowledged that Patten was unwell, adding: "His first priority is to regather his strength". But he said: "Soon after the end of the summer, he'll be very much involved and we've discussed informally the amount of time that might be required initially and he has accepted." He said Patten had been "very pleased to accept".

The former Tory chairman endured three stormy years as chairman of the BBC as the corporation lurched from one controversy to the next. He was criticised over high levels of executive pay and the corporation's diamond jubilee coverage. Patten was also left having to explain why the BBC had written off £100m of licence-payers' money on an eventually abandoned IT project that was launched before he took over as head of the Trust board.

What is particularly striking about his latest job is that it should come so soon after his departure from an institution that has come under withering fire for its failure to deal openly and thoroughly with accusations of sex abuse. The Jimmy Savile scandal, which erupted in 2012, the year after Patten became chair, will ring plenty of bells in the Vatican.

Patten appointed George Entwistle as the BBC's director general, only to see him step down 54 days later because of his handling of the early stages of the affair. The trigger for Entwistle's departure was a Newsnight report that falsely implicated Lord McAlpine in a separate scandal.

By then Entwistle was steeped in controversy over his performance before a Commons committee that was looking into why the same programme had failed to televise an inquiry into the allegations against Savile after he died in 2011.

The Vatican's only current external adviser on the media is Greg Burke, an American recruited by the Vatican secretariat of state two years ago. Burke, a former Fox News correspondent, belongs to the conservative Opus Dei organisation. Patten, 70, a lifelong Catholic educated at a London public school run by Benedictine monks, belongs to the opposite, liberal end of the Catholic spectrum.

Four years ago, when Benedict was pontiff, Patten told an interviewer: "I don't agree with everything that the Vatican says." He added that he admired the conservative German pope "intellectually".

At the time, he had been called in by the government to sort out the arrangements for Benedict's visit to Britain, which were descending into chaos. That experience of dealing with the Vatican will stand him in good stead in a job where he will be called upon to tread on many an insider's toes.

Pell said one of the aims of the Patten committee would be to boost the number of the faithful reached by Vatican media, currently estimated at 10% of the global Catholic population. He said he expected the Patten committee to "recognise that the world of the media has changed radically and is changing".

Vatican Radio has been broadcasting since 1931, he said. But "no longer in most parts of the world do people listen very frequently to the radio". The cardinal said that "patterns of expenditure within the Vatican in no way correlate to the number of people who are reached".

Pell said he hoped the Patten committee would show the Vatican how it could build on its digital presence, including the Pope's Twitter account, @Pontifex, which has 4.2 million followers.

But Patten, who is also chancellor of Oxford University, is more closely identified with traditional media. The BBC 5 Live presenter Nicky Campbell recently criticised him on the grounds that "he only listens to Radio 4 and 3".

Career in brief

Chris Patten began his political career as Tory MP for Bath. He was elected in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

In 1990 John Major, then prime minister, made him party chairman and Patten organised the Conservatives' unexpected fourth consecutive electoral victory in 1992 but lost his own seat. He then became the last British governor of Hong Kong and oversaw its handover to China in 1997.

From 1999 to 2004 he was one of the two UK members of the European commission. He became chancellor of Oxford University in 2003 and was made a life peer in 2005.

He chaired the BBC Trust, the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation until his resignation on grounds of ill health on 6 May 2014.