Cleary wrapped up a 30-year career producing and presenting religious programs for ABC radio and television last December with the axing of Sunday Nights, the four-hour nationally networked radio show that presented in-depth discussion and talkback around spiritual matters.
Although Cleary, a Salvation Army member, officially finished employment at the ABC in January his farewell function was held only last month.
“I look back on a career and think ‘I’ve been there done that’,” he said.
“For myself I am quite comfortable. What I am disturbed about is that at the ABC there are major changes happening that do not go to what the ABC was constituted to be.”
Cleary argues that the public broadcaster was created to fill a gap left by the commercial stations.
“The ABC was created in recognition that the commercial stations, operating on a ratings-driven model, were not producing material which reflected culture at its broadest,” he said
“The commercial model is where you reduce everybody to a sort of lowest common denominator for different age-bands.
“The ABC was constructed to reflect communities of interest. It recognised that some kids could be interested in science from cradle-to-grave or religion from cradle to grave.”
He said the ABC had lost sight of this mission.
“Over the last 10 years there has been a push for the ABC to move more and more to a model that downplays all those specialist strands in Australian culture, or in any culture, and base its approach to audience on the same ratings-driven models that commercial stations use,” Mr Cleary said.
“All of the specialist units across radio and television have been axed basically. They’ve lost their funds and staff.”
Two areas that have especially been gutted are science and religion, which Cleary said showed a short-sightedness.
“What’s dominating every day in the newspapers? You are getting major stories about religion whether they go from institutional abuse or ISIS and terrorism through to the politics of the way religion has impacted,” Cleary said.
“How do you explain the Trump phenomenon without alluding to the conservative evangelicals? How do you explain Putin in Russia without alluding to the links to the Orthodox Church?
“Religion as a fundamental cultural driver has been more important in the last 10 years than it has been in the last 60 years.
“Yet they are dismantling editorial structures. The ABC is the only organisation in the country that still retains professional religious journalists and producers. Yet they’re being shafted, speaking colloquially.”
He said Sunday Nights had served an important role in promoting religious discussion and understanding, and it found a dedicated audience.
“Sunday Nights was deliberately designed to bring people into a civil conversation across those gulfs that exist and it rated well right up until its last program,” Cleary said.
“Its ratings were always up to about one or two points below the equivalent generalist program.
“Sunday Nights as a specialist program proved that you could follow the old ABC model and make it work. That is you could take specialist material and make it available and assessable to the general audience and win with the ratings.”
Cleary said the ABC’s abandonment of serious in-depth specialist coverage was happening at a time of collapse of the mainstream commercial model in broadcast and print media.
“What you see is the audience is fragmenting into smaller groups and being picked up by YouTube, where everybody has their own stream of content,” he said.
“So rather than having everybody open to all sorts of information what you are getting is an increasingly fragmented narrowcasting, which completely undermines what broadcasting was about which about bringing things to everyone. Narrowcasting is about gaining audience by talking exclusively to closed groups.”
Cleary believed that the creating of silos or echo chambers of communication was to the detriment of broader society.
“Our civil literacy is being lost that’s because we are no longer accessing everything we are just being fed by our narrow interests so you get the rise of the Hansonite stuff, the groups where people have sort of lost the fundamental civil literacy that they have,” he said.
Cleary said it was ironic the ABC was moving in the opposite direction from its founding principles, when in the era of fake news and confirmation bias the public broadcaster could be enjoying a greater relevance than ever.
“I think the ABC is missing the great opportunity it has as mainstream media collapses to actually use its editorial authority and trust and integrity to be what most people want,” he said.
“What’s been lost in mainstream media is the capacity to run those in-depth articles and material.
“People looking at this are now saying what is desperately needed in the journalistic area is accuracy and editorial integrity so that people in this sloshing around in all sorts of sludge in journalism can find those few areas that have accuracy, integrity and editorial authority that the public can rely on.
“At the very time that is most needed the ABC is dismantling the very structures, the editorial structures that gave it that authority.”