Paul Collins. A wake for ABC Religion.

Dec 8, 2014

Last week I attended the funeral of long time religious broadcaster and colleague, Ronald Nichols at Sydney’s Christ Church Saint Laurence. It was the day after a broad cross-section of religious leaders had written to the ABC Board and managing director Mark Scott, expressing concern about what was happening to the ABC’s specialist focus on religion.

The letter pointed out that the position of Executive Producer TV Religion was already axed and that Compass had been placed under a commissioning editor with no expertise in religion. In radio Encounter (which has been on air for 49 years) was to be dropped from the Radio National schedule. It is proposed that the religion unit will lose 43% of its staff and over 50% of its budget. Eleven staff positions will be reduced to six.

The executive producer religion will no longer have responsibility for staffing or the budget of religious documentaries and will only have limited editorial input. Essentially the management of any religion feature program (whatever its duration or place in the schedule) will be moved to RN Arts.

So you can appreciate that Ronald’s funeral seemed like a wake for ABC Religion to which he had devoted his working life. The fact is we’re witnessing the terminal phase of religion as a specialist focus in the ABC. As a core charter activity, religion has been part of ABC output since the Corporation was set-up in 1932. Ironically religion as specialist content enters its death throes under a government with a Catholic Prime Minister and a significant minority of Catholic cabinet ministers, including Malcolm Turnbull, minister for communications.

But while the Coalition government wields the funding axe, it is ABC management that is using this opportunity to kill-off religion as a specialist topic. In fact the cuts to RN generally are much deeper than those initiated by the Abbott government. A current fad among ABC managers is the need to get rid of the so-called ‘stranglehold of specialism’. Another fad is the ‘digital future’. Throughout his tenure Mark Scott has been besotted with this to attract ‘younger audiences’. But what this really amounts to is a form of dumbing down that treats intelligent audiences with contempt and certainly doesn’t fulfil ABC Charter obligations.

The real intention here is to transform the ABC from being a premier production house of quality radio and TV into a commissioning and transmission agency serving big production companies whose primary aim would not be to reflect Australian culture and society, but to produce material that they can on-sell overseas. Religion particularly will suffer in this scenario. If touched on at all, it will be reduced to puff colour pieces that avoid serious analysis. Sure, this kind of neo-rationalist nirvana might please the culture warriors of the right, but it will no longer be the ABC.

What is significant here is that what Mark Scott and his managers are doing is not what was intended by government. The cuts are being used as cover for a radical reorganization of the Corporation in which religion will be marginalised. And management is doing this at a time when, in the words of the religious leaders’ letter to Scott and the Board, “An understanding of religion plays a crucial part in grasping today’s ever more complex social and political developments, both in Australia and internationally.” For instance a key element in grasping these complex issues will be the relationship between Islam, Christianity and the West. You can’t do this without an understanding of different theologies of revelation held by the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions let alone the complex relationship between faith and reason. This is not the territory of the ‘personality presenter’ or the flow program favoured by management; it is where the professional religious broadcaster comes into her/his own.

The thing that outrages me is the sheer cheek of ABC apparatchiks who think they can impose their vision of what the ABC is about on us, the public. To Mark Scott and his managerial disciples I say: “It’s our ABC, not yours. It belongs to us because we pay for it. Other more capable managers have been able to deal with draconian budget cuts from culturally negligent governments while still maintaining the essence of the Corporation’s charter. Don’t you dare sell out on us, the public.”

This is not the first time religion has been under attack in Scott’s ABC. In late-2008 he allowed RN management to axe the Religion Report. When a representative group of religious leaders asked to meet him in early-December 2008 to discuss the future of the religion unit, he put them off until March 2009 and fobbed them off with unspecific promises about religion being covered in ‘mainstream programs’. But, as I asked then in a Eureka Street article: “When can we expect the 7.30 Report to explain the influence of [Protestant theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr on [President] Obama?” Sure the Religion Report was eventually restored, but only after public pressure was applied.

There is no doubt that the time has come to apply that public pressure again, specifically targeting Scott and his managers. The vandals are already in the city.

Broadcaster, author and historian Paul Collins is former specialist editor – religion for the ABC.

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