Sunday, October 19, 2008

Losing our religion

The Canberra Times, October 20, 2008

The decision to axe Radio National's Religion Report came as a shock.

Twice I have worked on the program, first as its producer, and then as its presenter. It is put together by only two people, but it is able to draw on the wealth of experience and history in the ABC's religion department to create a gripping specialist current affairs program that subjects religion to the same sort of journalistic scrutiny as other programs subject other parts of life.

And there's no doubt that religion is a terribly important (if little-reported) part of life, lying behind so much of the news we regard as “political” or “diplomatic” or “social”.

Where else in prime-time radio or television have you been able to hear the people who matter quizzed about their interpretations of Judaism, Christianity or Islam and the way in which they plan to act on those interpretations?

Some of these people will be happy about the decision to axe the program. They didn't welcome its scrutiny.


But a greater number will lose something. In his outburst on air last week, that was subsequently edited out of the rebroadcast, the presenter Stephen Crittenden noted that it was only a few years ago that Radio National axed its environment program.

No radio program has a God-given right to stay on air forever. And the people who control the budgets have difficult decisions to make, but the argument being put forward by ABC management that religious issues will continue to be covered by generalist reporters in generalist programs doesn't bear serious scrutiny.

When was the last time you heard an issue connected with faith discussed with sensitivity or understanding on programs such as AM or PM or on Radio National breakfast? When was the last time that people involved with those issues felt they could trust the reporter or interviewer to understand what they were on about; to appreciate the mystery of faith.

Journalists are by nature sceptical, and they should be. It's hard for most to delve into questions of belief.

But it is needed if we're to get an insight into questions such as what drives Barak Obama and John McCain, and what drove the terrorists on trial in Bali for blowing up an Australian-frequented nightclub.

Even closer to home publicly-funded religious schools are growing quickly, no more so than in the ACT. Faith-based charities are reluctant to speak out on issues that affect the people they look after for fear of offending their government paymasters. And the tax exemptions enjoyed by religious bodies will be under scrutiny by the Henry Review.

I am not saying that it is impossible to cover these issues well in mainstream radio and television programs, but on the whole they are not being covered well. I don't believe the axing of the only prime-time program to consistently attempt to do so would improve their performance.

The changes to ABC Radio National scheduling will make way for new “interdisciplinary” shows that are “consumer focussed”.

Veteran Catholic author and commentator, Paul Collins, is right when he says that this is code for “dumbing down". “Specialist broadcasters will spend more time responding to opinionated bloggers rather than rather than making programs. God help us!”