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Religious media cuts undermine harmony



There has been a slow trickle of news outlets in Australia winding back their coverage of religion over recent years. Some might argue that this is a good thing in a secular democracy, and that discussion of religion creates division.

John ClearyThis however flies in the face of the overwhelming good that religious belief, and religious-based organisations, do in this country. Not to mention the fact that religion and ethics are a major part of the narrative of society, of how we live together and how we form a community.

In 2014, Fairfax was the only media provider in the country with a dedicated religion reporter in Barney Zwartz, who worked for more than 12 years at The Age in Melbourne. In a piece in ABC Religion and Ethics in August this year, Zwartz wrote of the declined coverage of religious affairs:

'I am often asked about a decline in religion journalism. When I began covering religion for The Age in 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian both had highly capable religion reporters, and the ABC a large and active religion department. By the time I finished 12 years later, both the other papers had long been without religion reporters and the ABC had begun its radical truncation of its coverage which is still ongoing.'

In 2011, another well-regarded program, Stephen Crittenden's The Religion Report, was axed from the ABC. The then General Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Fr Brian Lucas said at the time that 'the more people understand religious issues, the more we'll have a tolerant society. I think that is in touch with the way in which religion informs people's lives.'

The bosses at the ABC seemingly do not agree however. Even though The Religion Report returned a year later, rebadged as the Religion and Ethics Report, the broadcaster, which formerly boasted the most comprehensive coverage of religion, has again in recent weeks 'considerably reduced' its religious programming. Music and science programs have also been cut, to significant commentary.

The axed religion programming includes four hours of religion coverage on Sunday Nights, a program hosted for around 14 years by John Cleary (pictured).

Sunday Nights used to get around 20 per cent of available listeners. It is being replaced by a program called God Forbid, which will air on Radio National and will only get, at most, 3 per cent of available listeners. This illustrates the level of what has taken place, and should raise alarm bells about the strategic direction of the national broadcaster.


"The issue is not so much a secularisation of our public media, but the lack of commitment to diversity and fostering harmony that these changes signal."


The Conversation published a comprehensive analysis of the cuts in a piece by Siobhan McHugh, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Wollongong. She believes the ABC is going for cheaper content, more talk, and are letting go of a cultural treasure trove. 'Given how much religion has informed the geopolitical landscape since 9/11, it is extraordinary that the ABC would terminate a presenter (Cleary) who is not only manifestly expert in this sensitive area, but whose ratings are also remarkable.'

While there is plenty of evidence to show that religious practice in this country is in decline, those who are interested in religion and profess religion are not a minority in Australia, meaning it makes little sense to cut religious programming. The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data shows that over the last four decades the proportion of Australians attending church at least once per month has more than halved from 36 per cent (1972) to 15 per cent. However this is still a significant proportion of the Australian population. Indeed twice as many Australians attend church at least once per month than attend games of all football codes combined.

The ABC's religion producers include experts across a number of religious traditions including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and various Christian denominations. In recent months, they have covered evangelical Christianity and the American election;social justice issues including Anglicare's unemployment report; the Hindu Festival Diwali, and Islam's contribution to public policy.

The journalists involved in this type of programming thoroughly research and back up each of their stories to avoid common mistakes made by inexperienced reporters.

Religious reporting isn't something that can be done in a sloppy way. You have to know the intricacies of what it means to be a Muslim; how to address a Catholic Cardinal; and what the differences are between the various branches of the Anglican Communion. In this, the good also becomes evident. In reporting objectively, and understanding the complexities of faith, tolerance and understanding grows.

It's not just Christian leaders who are concerned about this move. The issue is not so much a secularisation of our public media, but the lack of commitment to diversity and fostering harmony that these changes signal. Social service organisations like Anglicare frequently see the results of lack of understanding in our work. We always say that a good education is worth its weight in gold in creating understanding and going beyond just tolerance, but towards actual kinship.

More and more, our social services (including those provided by Anglicare and other Christian inspired organisations) reflect the growing diversity in this country, and it's important that people can appreciate and understand the richness that this brings.

Presenters and ABC staff have been unable to speak on the record about the cuts, but there is growing discontent among the staff across more than just the religion and ethics producers.

'So toxic is the atmosphere at RN that none of the RN employees I spoke to for this article would be named,' wrote McHugh. 'At the time of writing, a meeting of some 60 Sydney staff had passed a unanimous motion of no confidence in RN management, complaining of a lack of consultation about the changes, an erosion of producer control over program content, an undermining of specialist content and a top-heavy management-to-producer ratio.'

Religious reporting is not the niche market it is being portrayed to be, and its educative and awareness-raising capacity have been a real gift. And, as Joni Mitchell said, we won't know what we've got until it's gone.


Kasy ChambersKasy Chambers is Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.

Topic tags: Kasy Chambers, religious media, John Cleary, Stephen Crittenden



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Existing comments

Kasy, thats a good analysis. At mass on Sunday we (the congregation) were abjured to "listen" to the spirit, eg turn off the TV, radio and listen to the voice within. This edict ostensibly emanated from the Brisbane Cathedral, and literally meant "listen to the Bishops pronouncements and If there's anything you wish to know, ask me". It implies of course an attitude of dont presume to think for yourself, and above all keep your opinions on matters religious to yourself. If the atmosphere at RN is as toxic as you suggest and free speech there has failed, then I presumje to suggest that's very similar to the atmosphere at our august Cathedral. We, the so called "faithful" should keep our mouths shut, feign ignorance and not question the opinions of our religious betters. As for the way one should address a Catholic Cardinal, please listen to Tim Minchin's superb song "Come Home Cardinal Pell" if in future you are considering the correct protocol.

francis Armstrong | 05 December 2016  

White Australia, ever since its origin in 1788, when all convicts were forced to attend religious services of the Church of England has had a tendency to move towards a secular society. The Churches brought across that dreadful Catholic/Protestant split from the United Kingdom. Brian Lucas, who you mention, is not in good odour with the nation after the revelations before the current Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse as to the way officials in the Catholic Church, like him, dealt with abusive priests. Several church luminaries, like ++ Freier of Melbourne, have protested about the lack of coverage of the churches in the national media. I think, in many ways, church authorities, who most Australians see as 'the Church', are more involved with church administration than Christianity. The churches outreaches - such as the excellent work Anglicare; the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Uniting Church social welfare arm do - are often unknown or ignored which is terribly sad. I found Barney Swartz fairly unimpressive compared with the likes of the sadly missed Paul Collins or several superb religious journalists in the UK or the USA. To be noticed church leaders will need to get out of their little laagers into the real world and see what people's real, as against assumed, needs are. 'Religious journalism' in this country was often free PR.

Edward Fido | 05 December 2016  

The assertion "...the overwhelming good that religious belief, and religious-based organisations, do in this country" is a nonsense. Weighed up against the poison of scandals of child rape, anti-science idiocy and ignorance, as well as anti-women chauvinism, it is clear religion and religious belief are evils that 21st century societies can best do without. Have a nice day.

Phil | 05 December 2016  

Brilliant analysis Kasy and well expressed. I cannot believe that Sunday Night with John Cleary is being axed his knowledge and communication of culture religion and ethics has built many bridges and increased understanding within the community.

Wilma Gallet | 05 December 2016  

The ABC and especially Radio National has been a lifeline to me as a carer, in keeping me informed and entertained about the abiding issues of mind, body and spirit. A wise and constant companion. Please stop destroying my ABC through the death of a thousand cuts.

Laura Murray Cree | 06 December 2016  

There is only one way to address a Cardinal and that is politely. After all a Cardinal poops exactly the same way as everyone else does. His pseudo authority and requirement for respect come purely from superstition

Grant | 06 December 2016  

Thanks for the interesting article Kasy. It is not secularity that is a worry but the hard line ideology of secularism and its intolerance towards religion.

Peter Burger | 06 December 2016  

As a former head of religion in the ABC I'm writing to support Kasy's arguments, and to add that the situation is even worse than she suggests. This is just not war on religion; its war on any type of specialization (look at what happened to the TV program "Catalyst"). This is not so much driven by "secularism" as by "vandalism". What ABC management want is: (1) no more extended, specialist programs (they are seen as too labor intensive and thus too expensive), to be replaced by flow programing with "personality" presenters (Why? because its cheap); and (2) shorter programs (like the proposed "God Forbid") that can be easily re-packaged as podcasts for a "broader" (i.e. youth) audience. We keep being told that Radio National's audience needs to be "renewed", by which means it needs to come down-market to "attract" more listeners. What you have to understand is that the vandals are not just at the city gates; they're in the citadel. Drive them mad by writing to them complaining about what they're doing not only to RN, but to the ABC.

Paul Collins | 06 December 2016  

Thank you for this thorough analysis. I am a lifelong listener to ABC religious programs, and have seen many changes in them. Several of the programs in 'the old days' were on what is now Local Radio, formerly Radio 1, i.e. they were less 'heavy' than RN programs can be, and attracted far larger audiences. In recent years the only religious program left on Local Radio has been John Cleary's Sunday Night Talk, and he has done a great job, with others, in maintaining this as a popular yet serious program. I am not against changes to the format, or whatever, but simply to axe the program is surely retrograde for the ABC at a time when religion features in so many important world issues. Adherents may be declining, we know, but interest in religious matters is still strong among many people, I believe.

Rodney | 06 December 2016  

I'm afraid I'm with Phil. The Christian churches are polite to each other now, post Thirty Years War, post Ulster, post early 20th c Australian sectarianism, but it took a long time to learn. Meanwhile, the various brands of a different religion are killing each other in the Middle East. To say that religion is a vehicle for good in society ignores history and modern conflicts in equal measure.

Frank | 06 December 2016  

Frank. Religion that becomes fanatical about human matters is a lot different from religion that genuinely believes in a creator God and the importance of every human being he has created. The latter belief is the major contributor to the sick, poor and disadvantaged peoples of this world both financially and in personal voluntary labour. Surely that is a good thing, not an evil? Our world has become very cynical. Sadly, cynicism breeds blindness or alternatively sees only what it chooses. The good done by religions is a fact. So too is the evil. Both deserve to be recognised and dealt with deservingly. Religion itself, however, is not the culprit. Humanity is the culprit and curiously, from time immemorial, has always adhered to belief in a supreme being and paid homage in ritual to that being. Current global surveys indicate that the incidence of Atheism is 2.5%, Those who don't know make up 16% and those who think there is a god constitute 80%. I don't know whether the percentages mean anything except to say that not everyone in the 80% is an idiot, and not everyone in the remainder is a towering intellect. We takes our pick!

john frawley | 06 December 2016  

Thank you for this indictment of a distressing trend in b'casting. One might almost suggest the barbarians are at the gates! I wrote and produced some seventy radio features (I still have some 45 of the scripts) on religious, social, ethical, socio-poitical themes, biographies, liberation theology (Camillo Torres, Helder Camara et alii) - they were extremely popular national radio programs. In those days we had no trouble programming 30 minute national TV interviews with people of interest: great Catholic social-activist, Dorothy Day, theologian Hans Kung, two Archbishops of Canterbury (Fisher & Ramsey), actor (Academy Award winner) and story teller David Kossoff were among those I had the privilege to interview. The features of course require knowledge, demand research, expertise in radio production, imagination - no time for any of that in this day of - enlightenment? I don't think so.

John Nicholson | 06 December 2016  

one thing the Media often fail to understand is to distinguish between Churches who belong to the ecumenical movement who follow main stream biblical scholarship and theology, and various forms of Fundamentalism which include American "sects" and "Cults" with narrow views and form such associations as the "Christian Lobby" who claim to represent all Christians in their propaganda

john ozanne | 06 December 2016  

‘Religion’ is really a response by each individual to God’s Personal Spiritual, Constant and Universal Call to embark on an exciting adventure, to rise above concern for material things and embrace a fulfilling spiritual life, putting us in tune with the Spirit of God. Religions, by contrast, are human interpretations of that Call, limited and distorted by the degree of development of the community within which the religion originated. Each religion is then passed down as tradition, usually further affected by the situations of the intermediaries through which it passes. Many religious leaders are afraid to abandon the tired old man-made traditions that old conservatives find comforting, but which young people find irrelevant, unable to distinguish the treasures from the trappings. “ Where there is no Vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), and so they turn to various forms of escapism, often with tragic results.

Robert Liddy | 06 December 2016  

Unfortunately it would appear the ultimate intent of our political masters, and thus of the people they appoint to ABC management, is to destroy the public broadcaster. At the moment - although not to the extent as in previous years - the ABC broadcasts content the commercial broadcasters will not broadcast. By doing away with areas of content - quality music, religion, science (think Catalyst) - there will come a time when a case can be made that the ABC does nothing the commercial operators are not doing, and in any case no one watches/listens to it any more anyway. And then it will be closed. And we will have lost a National Treasure.

Vin Victory | 06 December 2016  

Twice as many Australians may attend church as attend football matches, but it is unlikely that the churches would be offered any where near the sums that football is offered for broadcasting rights. If religion deserves some slots on public radio it is not because it has broad appeal, but rather because it has intrinsic value.

Ginger Meggs | 06 December 2016  

I used to enjoy Paul Collins and Stephen Crittenden's programs, but I couldn't stand Paul Cleary and never listened. I hope RN doesn't cancel Rachael Cohn's 'Spirit of Things' which is excellent. Paul Collins is right - expertise is expensive and is thus disappearing from RN, which has been dumbing down for the past 30 years.

Russell | 06 December 2016  

The Religion Report was axed at the end of 2008.

Stephen Crittenden | 06 December 2016  

Sadly the decline in religion reporting in the mainstream media is being mirrored by a reduction in resourcing for the church-based media. So many church papers have been closed down in recent times. This has an impact not only on the jobs of journalists but freedom of dialogue within the churches which discourages fundamentalism and encourages openness and moderation. Fortunately organisations such as ARPA http://www.arpa.news/ are keeping the flame alive. Innovation and independence within the religious media will be crucial as the mainstream media turns its back on an essential area of journalistic enquiry.

Paul Osborne | 08 December 2016  

Thanks for the article Kasy. My wife and I are both deeply disappointed with the direction that the ABC is moving with regard to Science and Religion programs. We have been avid, life-long ABC listeners and find the Sunday night offerings challenging and engaging. I would take up Paul Collins' suggestion to write to the ABC, but it seems they would not be capable of understanding the importance of these programs if it is not already self-evident to them. We need some kind of reality TV presenter to take over and 'make the ABC great again!' I'd vote for Waleed Aly!

James Depiazzi | 09 December 2016  

I have a great deal to say, but John Frawley has already said it. So - thanks John, I agree! One addition - 'good' religion always involves a strong connection between head and heart. The major Christian denominations value scholarship, rational thinking and logical argument to support the Word that is written on our hearts. The ABC is turning away from this. Perhaps that's because our culture in general is increasingly governed by 'feeling' and rational thought is increasingly undervalued.

Joan Seymour | 20 March 2017