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Killing Religion an own goal for ABC managers

Michael Mullins |  30 November 2014

ABC RN Encounter Home Page

During the week, ABC 730 NSW presenter and public broadcasting advocate Quentin Dempster referred to a ‘nincompoop’ in senior ABC management who was heard to comment on the need to get rid of the ‘strangle-hold of specialisation’.

Dempster did not name the manager, but last Monday the incoming Director of Radio Michael Mason told a meeting of Radio National (RN) staff that they would suffer disproportionately because the ABC had to ‘reshape the network for the digital future’. He went on to announce extensive cuts to RN’s specialist programs.

RN is the home of specialisation at the ABC, and religion has been one of its signature specialisations, because of the public broadcaster’s ‘cultural diversity’ charter obligation, and the fact that, often and increasingly, there is a deeper religious or spiritual explanation to what is happening in our world that eludes most, if not all, other mainstream media.

Yet religion is a particular target of the ‘reshaping’, with a 40 per cent staff loss compared to 10 per cent in other RN program areas. At the time of writing, the only program to remain in its current form is Andrew West's Religion and Ethics Report, though it will suffer from the 70 per cent cut to resources for religious programs. There will be less depth in Rachael Kohn's The Spirit of Things, with its air time being reduced, and the ABC’s longest running radio program Encounter will be absorbed into a new program that belongs to the features genre.

‘Genre’ is RN management’s new buzzword, but it’s hard to fathom why. That is because it does not sit well with Managing Director Mark Scott’s ‘digital future’ vision, as long as the the widely accepted ‘content is king’ meme continues to apply to digital publishing industry practice. 

Genre is associated with form, which is opposed to content. It allows for the endless repetition of single and superficial ideas, while the principle of specialisation provides multifaceted checks and balances to guard against this. Each discipline offers a different way of looking at the world, and isolating one from others allows us to reach the greater depth of understanding required by the ‘cultural diversity’ charter obligation. 

Meanwhile the curse of digital technology is that it is too easy to publish the same thought in as many forms or ‘genres’ as we like. That’s why content is indeed king and an ABC that values specialisation is perfectly positioned to shine in the digital world. It’s just a pity that the management ‘nincompoops’ don’t appear to grasp this. 

Of particular concern is news that those managers who do understand – the guardians of specialisation at the ABC – have been made redundant or had their roles reduced. Religious TV executive producer Rose Hesp – who is responsible for Compass and the purchase of the BBC’s Songs of Praise, which the ABC is cancelling – is going, and the role her RN equivalent Jane Jeffes is being diluted.   

Rupert Murdoch has been accused of manipulating the Abbott Government to ensure the emasculation of the ABC, as payback for the support that helped it win the 2013 Federal Election. It’s not the size of the cuts that are likely to deliver what Murdoch wants, but management’s decisions in implementing them.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street and worked in ABC religious radio for several years around 1990.




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Submitted comments

Thanks Michael. If I can reminisce a little - when I wrote in 2006 my book 'Walking the Camino', on a clearly religious theme, it got a very warm welcome from a number of ABC radio programs, including: Rachael Kohn's The Spirit of Things; the religious music program For the God Who Sings; an interview with Richard Fidler; and In Conversation with Margaret Throsby. I found a great openness in all these ABC programs to discussing the religious meanings I found in my walking pilgrimage to Santiago. How many of those excellent programs will survive these cuts, I now wonder?

Tony Kevin 29 November 2014

The questions you and others rightly raise are : (a) given the 5% cut to the ABC budget, how should those cuts be implemented and (b) is the future direction the ABC is moving in, spearheaded by its CEO, Mark Scott, the right one? I think (b) strongly influences (a). I think this direction is disastrous, and, similar to the introduction of "whole of language" learning, rather than phonics, in reading education, will have a disastrous effect on religious literacy (already not so good) in this country. I am extremely sorry Rose Hesp is going. "Compass" and "Songs of Praise" - I tend to watch the latter more - tend to connect us, in a very gentle, non-dogmatic and non-sectarian way with our religio-cultural roots. I think this is a thoroughly good thing. There is a general trend in Western Society to dissociate from its religio-cultural roots. I think this is a thoroughly bad thing. Even if you are an agnostic or atheist you need to know the culture from which you sprang. Otherwise you are in danger of becoming unaware of your roots and lost. So many people are.

Edward Fido 30 November 2014

Spot on.

Brian Toohey 30 November 2014

Very sad. ABC and in particular, RN have offered tha Australian public so much in the way of insightful news and cultural comment and the religious and ethical base of much of this comment gives a balanced and value-based view of the world's events. Our lives will be poorer for the cuts.

Anne Doyle 01 December 2014

A wonderfully perceptive, perfectly expressed analysis.

Cassandra 01 December 2014

Thanks Michael - I too hear the word 'genre' from ABC management with dismay. Merging Encounter with other feature programs will mean the end of this long-running specialist program (with a pretty broad area of specialization we must note). One can just hear the mantra from the managers: 'not too much religion please' in the new program. Most of the specialist programs such as Poetica are being reduced and merged - in the end, they will be invisible or rather inaudible.

Rodney Wetherell 01 December 2014

The ABC’s religious programming has always been dreadful and is getting worse daily. While it is kept subservient to the humanist, atheist, secular(as long as it promotes decadence) thinking it will always be near useless. Until the ABC can air some of the excellent programming that intelligently covers the issues such as the existence and pre-eminence of God, the huge failings of atheism and the total hypocrisy of modern secular though it will continue to be worse than a waste of money and air time – as is almost all the ABC’s programming. The ABC only serves to promote wrong thinking and propaganda - a dreadful and corrupt organization that needs a huge cleanout – starting with Tony Jones.

Michael Weeks 01 December 2014

I am so disappointed to hear this bad news. Compass, Songs of Praise and The Spirit of Things are all gems. What a sad day!

clara butt 01 December 2014

Before I heard of this, I was just commenting to a colleague last week that RN has been more important to me than my formal education. I can't begin to say how grateful I am for this institution that I have grown up with. I rarely miss Encounter - it's been one of my favourites over the years. Each cut, cuts to the heart. What can we do?

Paul Russell 01 December 2014

If the community is not to lose important areas of programming and if the ABC is to remain a public broadcaster worth maintaining, people will need to let others know what is happening. They will need to protest strongly and loudly to Government politicians about the funding cuts and to the ABC about their implementation.
People who personally value or appreciate the broader importance of program areas like religion and ethics should rightfully oppose it being cut. However, it is equally important that anyone expressing opposition to cuts in a particular area do it in a manner that also recognises the ABC’s responsibility to cater for the diverse interests in the community.
If we don’t, each time any government seeks to make further cuts to the ABC there will be fewer audience members left with an interest to fight for its survival. We will all lose in the end if we allow the Government to erode the ABC.
Check www.abcfriends.org.au for information on what is happening and some ideas on what you may do.

Glenys Stradijot – ABC Friends 01 December 2014

Great synopsis of the situation. Songs of Praise was the highlight of my week. They shot 'em selves in the foot!

rob 01 December 2014

We appear to be deliberately destroying the diversity of our culture. Where else do I find intelligent reasonably unbiased explanations of what people who have beliefs different from mine hold dear.

Margaret McDonald 01 December 2014

Well, religious types can't have everything - not so long ago they got government funded chaplains in state schools, now they expect religion to be exempt from government cuts to the ABC! This watering down of specialisation has gone on for decades - remember when RN had a specialist environment program? Remember when Alan Saunders' excellent program was merged into a general 'magazine format' Saturday morning with Geraldine Doogue. That one was partially re-instated due to public pressure, but eventually halved in time and hosted by people with not half Alan's knowledge. The same has been true of libraries - remember when the National Library announced it would stop collecting in all sorts of areas? The State Libraries have done the same thing. Once again, that little book Amusing Ourselves to Death, is a key text to read about this. How are young people not to be drowned in a flood of superficiality?

Russell 01 December 2014

I agree with Edward Fido - this is a disastrous direction. (Though his 'whole language' analogy doesn't please me so much - whole language includes phonics. If it's failing, it's because it isn't being taught well). I also wonder whether this is just another step away from a society with strong philosophical underpinnings. We don't do philosophy, ethics, theology, logic, rational argument any more. We don't need them. We have memes instead.

Joan Seymour 01 December 2014

M.M:"It’s not the size of the cuts that are likely to deliver what Murdoch wants, but management’s decisions in implementing them."..... Can we speculate on precisely what Murdock wants to eliminate? Is it ethical disapproval of his push for power and money? Or does he want something else?

Robert Liddy 01 December 2014

This diluting of the rigor of thoughts, ideas and innovative thinking has and continues to deny listeners of an opportunity to explore challenging and confronting concepts, values and philosophies. When the rest of the World is content to settle for the lowest common denominator RN offers a real opportunity for in depth analysis and broad ranging themes.

Gill van der ende 01 December 2014

Thanks Michael for an excellent article. The directions you outline are most disturbing. We have lived in rural and remote areas for the since 1984 and RN and its presenters have been our constant companions and major sources of entertainment, informed comment and connection to the wider world - across a range of programs not just the excellent religious ones already mentioned. We can ill afford to lose specialized programming which so often provides entree to further exploration and research. and for genre - read musac!

Denis Quinn 01 December 2014

As Federal leaders like PM Abbott subscribe to a "rule book" type of religion, they can be free to "attend" to their church rules by being present at their Sunday morning services at their local church, while following their true secular "religion" for the rest of the week. So our Australian leaders see their actions as very just and moral when our RAF planes drop bomb on towns occupied by ISIS soldiers causing many civilian casualities, just as those evil ISIS leaders in Syria & Iraq would also see things when beheading soldiers & civilians alike. At the very same time, PM Abbott is accusing Mr Putin of responsibility for the MH 17 deaths in the Ukraine (which is a true accusation). So it is easy to see why PM Abbott & his like-minded Cabinet colleagues like Mr Hockey, Mr Morrison & Mr Pine don't give any real priority to maintaining any social and religious justice programming on the ABC. If you select the "right" ABC management or apply political pressure to others in ABC management, guess what happens with even a small budget cut ! No messy true reporting to upset voters. John Cronin, Toowoomba Q

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q 01 December 2014

I agree Michael, a very sad day for the specialization that is supposed to be the cornerstone of the ABC Charter . I certainly can not see the commercial Stations doing any. We are the poorer.

Gavin 01 December 2014

At this time, when religious issues must be discussed openly and fairly, the ABC is cutting down on this debate. Lack of information leads to ignorance which in turn produces bigotry. I s this what the general population want?

Nick Agocs 01 December 2014

Cutting programs categorized as 'Religion' on the ABC is really only the last stage of a process that has been going on for decades. Religion programs are the last to cover, in some detail, aspects of Civil Society in Australia and elsewhere. Remember when we had a radio program devoted to the environmental movement? and another one to the women's movement? Things people do voluntarily and in their spare time, like participation in faith comunities. Now only community radio will adequately portry Civil Society and not very comprehensively due to being narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. Murdoch knows this is the way to demobilize people, take away their curiosity, dumb down a sense of solidarity and justice. Michael you didn't say what is hppening to one of the most importnt religion programs which is actually on Local Radio, Sunday night talk by John Cleary, Noel Debien and various West Australians, a most valuable program where people get their say and learn about what the issues are. I hope it will survive, I can still hear it on Radio Australia here in Dili which is great

Helen Hill 03 December 2014

I am so sad that my favourite RN programs are being damaged so brutally by the current regime.

Bernadette Touhy 03 December 2014

What did you really expect when you elected a pugilist as PM?

Ginger Meggs 03 December 2014

The 'dumbing down' of the ABC continues because the majority of Australian people are intellectual and spiritual morons and cultural philistines. These people are only interested in their level of income and their ability to acquire material possessions such as a flash house, flash car, flash clothes and flash electronic gadgets. They have no interest in their spiritual wellbeing. The current policy of the ABC is for all radio and TV stations to have content which is either trivial or celebrity nonsense such as the Melbourne radio station 774.

Mark Doyle 03 December 2014

This is an excellent analysis. I hope that strong protest will continue, following the example of almost 30 religious leaders including the Anglican Primate and the Grand Mufti. Of course, those who have disliked the ABC's open, intelligent, and broad coverage of religion and ethics are not concerned, and may indeed be pleased with the cuts. This probably explains why some church leaders did not sign.

The Revd Dr John Bunyan 05 December 2014

My family of adults - all rely on ABC specialty radio programs for analyses of issues and in depth information. Some of us are finished with newspapers, have little time to read, think TV is useless, and rely heavily on radio. We will be diminished by the loss of these long standing, excellent programs. Fine article Michael.

Judith Maher 07 December 2014

Viva cuts wIth ABC anti-catholic bias!

Father John George 07 December 2014

Wow! scarey stuff. Lucky I just donated to Eureka St! but imperative that it doesnt get hide bound by religion either. I like the specialist articles that are sometimes outsourced without political/religious bias.

sue Lambert 07 December 2014

This excellent lively correspondence shows ES readers at their best. I hope Michael's essay and thse letters will be read and reflected on by ABC management. It's really important that we show how we value thoughtful programs on ABC, whether from a religious or secular perspective. Religious music is also a very important taste. 'For the God who sings' on ABC Classic FM on Sunday nights late, is also a brilliant program that presents the finest classical music on religious themes. The program last night was beautifully constructed and presented around the scriptural readings for the day, 2nd Sunday in Advent. To me, it's as important a broadcast as 'Songs of Praise'. While I am on this subject - i commend to ES readers my essay just up on John Menadue's blog Pearls and Irritations, defending ABC Classic FM against savage cuts of 50% in broadcasting of live music events from around Australia. These cuts will play havoc with the performance economics and audience reach of live music events all round Australia - including religious choral events like the Bach B Minor Mass sung by The Song Company and broadcast nationally a few weeks ago. It's questionable whether that beautiful concert would have been selected for broadcast under the cuts. We will all be the losers.

Tony Kevin 08 December 2014

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