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Thursday, 1 October 2009

The ABC's treatment of "religion"

Paul Collins in an article in Eureka Street "ABC's Mainstream Religion, tested found wanting" scored a good few hits on the severe limitations of ABC treatment of "religion" in their mainstream news services.

The promise by Mark Scott, the ABC General Manager that the demise of the Religion Report would be covered by substantial treatment of religion in ABC's mainstream news services has proved to be a snare and a delusion.

Collins points to Scott's defense of his approach as reported in the Australian recently. According to Collins:

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.

Journalists might well interpret "religion" in a political context but contra Scott that in itself is not a problem - religion and politics cannot be easily disentangled - never have been, never could. The problem is that the reporters rarely have enough background to tease out the deeper connections and find the people who can comment on their significance.

As Collins points out by way of example:

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.

There is more to be said about the character of "religion" - a term much more problematic than it looks - but that will have to wait for another time and a consideration of William Cavanaugh's latest book The Myth of Religious Violence that I just picked up today.

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