The ABC is failing Australia’s faith communities with its contempt for religious programming.
This is a particularly painful admission for me as a lifelong believer in public broadcasting and an ABC employee of more than 10 years.
Over the last three years program changes driven directly by ABC senior management have seen the national broadcaster’s religious offerings, particularly on radio, savagely pruned.
Encounter, The Rhythm Divine and John Cleary’s Sunday Nights have all gone to God.
Religion staff and budgets have been cut by more than a third.
Along the way the highly respected head of the ABC Religion Unit, Jane Jeffes, has had her editorial authority stripped, and her commissioning powers re-assigned into general programming.
This week, in yet another indignity, Ms Jeffes is being forced to re-apply for her own job, in competition with another senior manager who is not a religion specialist.
Cleary himself has described the ABC management zeitgeist in conversation with Crosslight, in short a purge of specialist programming.
For me the loss of Cleary’s program has been particularly hard to bear.
Sunday Nights was the only show on Australian radio in which religious leaders and people interested in the life of faith could have an extended public conversation live to a national audience about the issues they cared about in their communities.
Bishops, rabbis and imams, religious scholars and theologians, CEOs of faith-based agencies, advocates, dissidents and campaigners – all of these and more would find their way to John’s studio late on a Sunday night.
I worked on the show myself as a casual producer for four years and learned more about the landscape of Australian religion than I could ever hope to absorb in my day job managing media and communications at the Assembly.
Sunday Nights was also the only mainstream media platform in Australia on which many Uniting Church people could get an opportunity to talk about their work.
Young leaders from the VicTas Synod who visited Christian communities in China, leaders of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, members of our Tongan National Conference, our UnitingWorld advocates for climate justice and inclusive gender theology, Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones and her geek ministry – all the joyous breadth and depth of the UCA’s worship, witness and service found its way on to John’s show.
Alas since Sunday Nights went off air in January this year, it’s been pretty much radio silence.
Other faiths are in the same boat.
Delegations of religious leaders have protested to the ABC about the changes and voiced their concerns directly to successive ABC managing directors only to be ignored and fobbed off.
The ABC’s Religion Unit, an honest and balanced broker in the reporting of Australian religious life for 50 years, is in ruins.
The ABC’s war on religion makes no sense by any measure.
In terms of audience and ratings all the programs performed well enough in their time slots.
More than 60 per cent of Australians identify with some kind of faith or spiritual belief, around the same percentage as take part in sport or physical recreation.
Yet when it comes to coverage, to quote H.G.Nelson, too much sport is barely enough.
Despite the ABC’s ample capacity for live or recorded broadcast there is nothing on ABC Television that reflects Australian Christian worship – no Christmas or Easter service. Even reruns of Songs of Praise are gone.
Less than 40 per cent of Australians own listed shares – yet there’s seemingly endless air time devoted every day to the rise and fall of the markets.
Having an independent public broadcaster is a crucial pillar of Australian democracy, and we are lucky to have the ABC.
But audiences seeking spiritual sustenance have as much right to hear content on the airwaves as any other audiences.
When it comes to religion, the ABC is not living up to its charter responsibility to deliver comprehensive broadcasting services and programs that reflect the cultural diversity of Australia.
And I’m going to let them know.
If you feel the same way, you should too.
I’d be interested to know what Crosslight readers think.
On this week’s Friday Forum: does the ABC have a responsibility to provide a platform for religious discussions in Australia?
Matt Pulford is Senior Media Officer at the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly and a former casual producer of ABC Sunday Nights.
Image: Glen O’Brien/Twitter