ABC's mainstream religion tested, found wanting

'Religion on ABC Radio', by Chris JohnstonI 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 skeptical, 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 Barak 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 favorite 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.

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor- religion for the ABC.

Topic tags: religion report, Mark Scott, Janet Albrechtsen, Thomas Berry, samual huntington, irving kristol, dulles



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Existing comments

I agree with every word of this.... I miss the Religion Report SO much. There is nothing to take its place in the media at the moment.

tina | 01 October 2009  

Only yesterday, I was thinking of HOW much I miss the 'Religion Report' & other significant occasional broadcasts re 'Faith'. The ABC has lost this past richness & depth in its current programming. Their loss as well as ours!

Leonie Martin | 01 October 2009  

In appointing Mark Scott to the position of ABC GM, perhaps the Religion Report was the real target of whichever bunch of evangelical fantasists appointed him?
Crittenden's critiques of Islamism as a blight on that otherwise great faith was insufficient to overcome the displeasure of ABC masters that followed Crittenden's interview with Jeff Sharlet, in which the perversion of Christianity that has lain at the heart of US political power for some decades was exposed.

Thankfully, the producers of Compass have made their program a low target.

David Arthur | 01 October 2009  

This is a serious case of the ABC misjudging the public mood. What can be done to push either restoring the Religion Report or coming up with an equivalent program? Let's keep up the public pressure.

Constant Mews | 01 October 2009  

Thanks Paul,

Couldn't agree more. I always found the religion report remarkably well-informed and up to date and interesting.

John Honner

John Honner | 01 October 2009  

Thanks Paul, for your incisive comment - as both theologian and journalist. I miss the weekly Religion Report, its awareness-raising and informed comment - for all the reasons stated - and would regard its reinstatement as indeed a public service.

vivien Williams | 01 October 2009  

It is interesting to read the comments made by Mark Scott especially in the light of the ABC's coverage of the recent death of an 'adult' movie 'star'. It highlighted her two years in Australia where she attended a Catholic all-girls school.

The person concerned arrived in W.A. at the age of 11 and went off to the USA two years later at the age of 13 - she was 31 when she died!

Furthermore, the news story was identical to the AAP story found on 'commercial' news sites.

Is this an example of the high quality, objective and question nature of ABC journalism?

nick agocs | 01 October 2009  

Absolutely, Dr Collins. Removal of 'The Religion Report' was a travesty, and it is extraordinary that Scott cannot see the political significance of 'religion' cf. 'spirituality' in our society.

Patricia | 01 October 2009  

Good on you, Paul! I couldn't agree with you more. What a shambles of a religious affairs policy, if you could call it that, for the national broadcaster to run with!

Denizens of the BBC are still shaking their heads in dismay. And to dismantle everything that you and Pat Kirkwood and others did, culminating in Stephen Crittenden's incisive and rivetting journalism (while leaving untouched the faith-based 'twittering' that has come to replace it) has, on evidence, all the hallmarks of an Ostrogoth.

Mark Scott should now be held to account for his carefully concealed but now obvious conservative quietist apolitical and ideological bias.

Michael Furtado | 01 October 2009  

Thank you, Paul. The contrast you draw between a view of belief in God as something personal and individual and a view of belief as something that is personal and political is critical. I hope that ABC Manager Mark Scott has an opportunity to read your insightful comments.

John Reilly sj | 01 October 2009  

As a counsellor I daily meet people trying to make meaning of their life in a modern world. The Religion Report provided a way for me to explore and try to understand what can so often be confronting and confusing. Paul is right. I have not found anything to replace it. I work FIFO fly in fly out and a podcast of the Religion Report was always there as part of my weekly journey to the Pilbara that place of richness and rawness and so many contradictions.

john dallimore | 01 October 2009  

If anyone asked me what's my favourite ABC program I'd say the Religion Report. To the expected reply I'd answer, 'Yes, but nothing has replaced it yet.' Our evenings seem to be dominated by the Book Show. I'm gradually moving to 'classic' and our local community station.

Gavan | 01 October 2009  

The ABC is a commentator on religion, not a presenter of religious thought, practice and teachings.

How did this evolve?

The ABC is now a law unto itself apparently.

What do the statistics show, Catholics in the census number approximately 27%, Anglicans approximately 25% etc but which religious grouping gets most time to present, the new atheists of course, still the least popular and populous.

So, by way of statistics, the ABC is presenting religious thought, practice and teachings, of the new atheism, while comentating on the religions which are the most popular and populous.


Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 01 October 2009  

I concur with this broadside! As a thoroughly protestant evangelical, I want the media to cover religion as a core part of human affairs, and do it rigorously, conversationally and without bias or triviality. A tall order, but could they not at least try to cover enough so we can all talk to each other?

Rev Dr Steve Etherington | 01 October 2009  

I utterly agree with Paul Collins and want to know is there any way we can retrieve something so fundamental to a democratic society. Writing a very clear letter to Mark Scott could be a start.

Is it possible that the ABC may be discriminating against mainstream religions?

Bernadette Introna | 01 October 2009  

As a Catholic School teacher I appreciated the opportunity to engage with a multiple number of issues within a religion context.

Given the way State sanctioned curriculum has the potential to narrow the questioning mind of the student, if the teacher is not on the ball, programmes such as the Religion Report were stimulus that is becoming harder to find.

Ryan McBride | 01 October 2009  

Yep, Me too. I miss the Religion Report.

ABC RN online are [were] doing a survey asking what program, with what title, with what presenter, you'd most like to see on RN: I said the Religion Report with Stephen Crittendon! And it was true. [Though I renamed it Australian Jihad for a bit of fun.]

Margaret Pestorius | 02 October 2009  

I totally agree with what Paul has said. Not only do we miss the Religion Report, but what about For The God Who Sings . . now relegated to late on Sunday night if at all!!

What about Divine Service (corny name) which could be made much more interesting in multi-faith Australia ... with ceremonies/services in Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic etc places of worship, not to mention some gutsy but different Christian services as well as the mainstream. This would be much more interesting than the over-rehearsed pious piffle which divine service (new name please) used to be.

It's like the ABC is adopting principle that "if you close your eyes, it (religion) will go away." Time for us to claw back!!!!!!!!!!

Robert Moore | 02 October 2009  

I too offered a return of the Religion Report as my 'dream program' on the RN competition, with Crittenden as presenter plus a contribution from Paul Collins. I have missed the Religion Report more than I can say. As a good friend of mine says, how now can intelligent thoughtful atheists learn about what is going on in the sphere of religion; not to scoff or automatically reject but to ponder on & think about because we hold firmly to the belief that religion is a very important part of our lives, even if we do not have 'the gift of faith' (i.e. we are atheists)

Rosemary West | 02 October 2009  

When Radio National announced it was axing its religious programs with the exception of Encounter, spirit of things and Rhythm Divine I wrote to them and received no reply. I have been very disappointed in the content of the above since. I miss many programs that they have axed but especially the religious ones.

Elizabeth | 02 October 2009  

Thank you so much for this essay. With the axing of The Religion Report, ABC RN seems eviserated...dumbed down.

How naive of Mark Scott...especially after entrusting the Massey Lectures to Cardinal Pell and Rupert Murdoch two years running. Who will they pick this year?

What must we do to creat sufficient pressure on the ABC board to reinstate Steve Crittenden and The Religon Report?

Janice Kent-Mackenzie | 02 October 2009  

Crittenden excelled because of his learning and research skills. His programs were masterpieces. He spoke easily to all of us who have some understanding of world thought and culture and the place of religion in history.

Another job for the Religion Report is to challenge the public statements being made by George Pell that the soon to be adopted changes in the New English Verson of the Mass have the full support of the Australian bishops and the national conferences of bishops in other English speaking countries. I'm afraid you have not persuaded me otherwise in your pamphleteering nor challenged George's other claim that these changes are mild compared with what was foisted onto un uncomprehending and unwilling faithful after Vatican 11.

Besides, whose Church is it anyway?

Joe | 06 October 2009  

Thanks Paul,
I support your comments 100% Now tell me how do we get it back?? Any ideas???

Gavin | 08 October 2009  

Indeed, RN and the ABC are diminished by this strange decision (which I have never understood, as it happened while I was overseas). I still turn off my radio on Wednesdays at 8.30 a.m. in pointless protest and miss my favourite program immensely. And I can no longer discuss it with my agnostic friend who never missed it and found it engaging and provocative...

Julia | 18 October 2009  

While not agreeing with Paul Collins on a number of points, I always find his comments (esp on religious matters) thought provoking. People like him and Stephen Crittenden's now "late" (as in deceased) programme and views expressed there keep not a few people thinking in ways they may not have done if there had been no radio coverage. Earlier it "For the God Who Sings" being moved closer to midnight. Will it be "Songs of Praise" from the BBC soon? Come on M/s Scott, listen to at least some of the 'vox populi' - we pay for you at the ABC and expect a reasonable share of say in what we wish to hear and be kept informed, RELIGION included, whatever faith! All (and none) have place in the media, radio TV newspapers, magazines etc

The Revd Warren L Wade | 24 October 2009  

Dear Mr Collins,
I was throwing around an idea in my head and wanted to share it with someone like you or Stephen Crittenden (not sure how to contact him). There is a huge need for a program that addresses religious issues as so much of these belief systems underpin politics and affects decisions made in the wider community. There are a couple of priests with blog sites that address some hard hitting issues, particularly the state of persecution of gays in Uganda and Nigeria and the link to right wing evangelical influences. They've extended that thinking to opinions on climate control and the politics associated with right wing evangelism. I've attached their blog sites.

One priest in particular uses satire and seems to attract a wider following as a result. He originally wrote under his own name but was forced to used a pseudonym. When he wrote under his own name he was 23rd most popular religious site - so many were reading the articles as his humour at the time had a real bite. I think his bishop told him to tone it down a little!

I just wondered if a religious program that used parody/satire would be more influential in the media in this day and age. Would it make people think more? These priests are really addressing a lot of issues but mainstream society are not aware.
It's just a thought.

There are other bloggers down the side of the Unthinking Anglican Website that are just as hard hitting

Toni Brown | 29 November 2009  

For once, I agree with Paul C. Religion / theology does still have an audience and a social / political role. Its place alongside notes on the news, background briefing, and 'today on the Markets' is important.

Endee | 04 August 2010  

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