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ABC's mainstream religion tested, found wanting

By Paul Collins - posted Tuesday, 6 October 2009

I was bemused when I read ABC General Manager Mark Scott's recent comments on the role of religion in the media. Scott allowed Radio National management to axe The Religion Report, remove Stephen Crittenden from the religion unit, and declined from December to March to meet a representative group of religious leaders. When he finally met them he made unspecific promises about religion being covered in “mainstream programs”.

The Australian reported that Scott told a prayer breakfast in Adelaide that the media has trouble covering issues of faith, often framing religion in a political context rather than as personal belief.

He said: “We train our journalists to be sceptical, to seek out answers, look for documentation and to not accept things on face value ... And part of the challenge about faith is that some of the things we hold to be true ... are not visible, cannot be proven.”


This suggests that Scott defines faith in terms of personal conversion and belief, rather than engagement with the broader community context where faith encounters culture, society, ethics and political reality.

This is a troubling view for the ABC GM to take. Of course belief can't be “proven”, but it certainly can and should be examined. That is what theology is about, faith seeking understanding as Saint Anselm said in the 11th century. But it seems Scott is not conversant with mainstream theology, and this provides a clue as to why he axed The Religion Report.

The speech reveals other aspects of Scott's perspective. It reflects an explicitly evangelical Protestant approach which sees media in terms of propaganda rather than analysis. This is the antithesis of the role laid down for the ABC in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983. The Corporation's mandate unequivocally demands that a strong critical, journalistic approach be applied to religion, just as it is to everything else.

And if Christians are seen by media as “judgmental, simplistic, passionless or narrow-minded”, as Scott claims, perhaps it's their own fault because that is how they present themselves.

Prayer breakfasts are not just about consuming food; they're intrinsically political. Evangelicals are not necessarily gentle, naive souls. They can be aggressively political when it comes to pushing their agenda. It didn't take the Australian Christian Lobby, a political pressure group if ever there was one, long to get on to Scott's speech. Perhaps unknowingly, he is playing into their hands.

Scott says a Christian in the workplace needs to be “someone who can be trusted”. Well, I'm afraid I'm losing trust in Scott's ability to maintain religion as a viable reality on the ABC. In light of his promise to the religious leaders to “mainstream” religious issues, let's look at the stories mainstream news/current affairs missed that The Religion Report would have covered.


Starting with deaths: there was nothing on the deaths of Thomas Berry (world famous Catholic cosmologist - yes, there is a piece on the religion webpage), Samuel Huntington (clash of cultures historian involving Christianity versus Islam), Irving Kristol (the Jewish-American godfather of neo-conservatism), Cardinal Avery Dulles (son of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and important Catholic theologian), and Richard John Neuhaus (convert to Catholicism and leading neo-conservative theologian). It seemed like the entire US religious right died and the “mainstream” ABC appeared to miss it completely.

Then there was Benedict XVI's encyclical letter Charity in Truth, which was covered by Sunday Nights with John Cleary but was missed in the mainstream. And when will we get an analysis by the mainstream ABC of Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Kevin Rudd's very public church going?

Can we expect the 7:30 Report to explain the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Obama (“one of my favourite philosophers”) and Rudd and Brown's strong Christian socialist backgrounds? Back in April in London both Rudd and Brown spoke in St Paul's Cathedral decrying the “false god” of “unfettered free markets”. ABC Board member Janet Albrechtsen was apoplectic in The Australian, but there was no explanation anywhere else on the ABC.

And that's not even taking into account the red-faced US Catholic bishops' support for the Republicans against Obama only to find 65 per cent of US lay Catholics voting for him, or shrill episcopal opposition to Obama speaking at a Catholic university, or the bishops' attack on his health care policy when the Vatican supports him.

The Religion Report would not have missed a single one of these issues, but these are understandably too specialist for most editors to spot, let alone cover. I don't blame the ABC mainstream or news/current affairs. I blame the managers who, under Mark Scott's leadership, took The Religion Report off air.

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First published in on October 1, 2009.

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About the Author

Paul Collins is an historian and broadcaster. He is a former specialist editor - religion for the ABC. His most recent book is Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (2006) an update of which will be released in October 2009..

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