INSIDE the ABC staff call it “the killing season” – when next year’s TV and radio schedules are formulated and announcements made about what shows are to be axed.
There was disquiet from Christian leaders when news leaked out that religion and ethics program Sunday Nights with John Clearly was headed for the chopping block.
For 15 years the show has broadcast nationally on ABC Local Radio – a fair lifetime for any show – but Sunday Nights provides a unique forum to discuss topical issues to do with religion, ethics, spirituality, values and social issues.
What appeared as a cut to the ABC’s specialist religious coverage raised immediate concerns from the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier who described the cut as inconsistent with the national broadcaster’s charter that requires it to broadly reflect Australian society.
The cut also prompted some of the country’s most influential Christian leaders to seek a meeting with ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie.
The meeting was held on November 10 with a delegation including Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, Baptist minister and World Vision chief executive Tim Costello (pictured), and Uniting Church national director Reverend Elenie Poulos.
After the meeting, Archbishop Coleridge said he believed the ABC had listened to the church leaders’ concerns, and that the corporation’s management was interested to talk with a significant group of people with interests in religious broadcasting.
He said the group was reassured there would be no budget cuts and the intention was to strengthen and improve religious broadcasting rather than to undermine it.
“The proof will be in the pudding. We have to see what actually happens,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“No one is wanting to mount the barricades in defence of the status quo, I certainly don’t, but I would like to see religious broadcasting that’s less elitist, less prone to secular ideologies.”
ABC management is understood to have committed to ongoing assessment and dialogue with church leaders. But despite the high-level meeting and the assurances, does the ABC decision to axe Sunday Night represent a shift in the importance of religious content and how it is delivered?
Uniting Church pastor David Busch, a former journalist, developed the show Sunday Night and presented it for five years.
He said dropping the show from Local Radio was a significant moment for engaging big audiences with religion.
“Local Radio is the platform for engagement, for interactivity – it takes talkback, it invites interaction with an audience in a way that Radio National isn’t geared for,” he said.
“And that’s where I think religious conversation has a place.
“To quarantine all your religious spoken-word content on one network is to assume that only one kind of audience is interested in it. And I think that is unfair on the audience and unfair on the other audiences that miss out.”
A few years ago, Mr Busch was executive producer of ABC Religious Radio when cuts were made to the flagship religion program Encounter, and at the time there was a dwindling of journalist and producer jobs dedicated to reporting religion. He acknowledged the need for every program to stay fresh and compelling and the need to “constantly reinvent”, but he said, in his view, understanding religion was becoming more important for audiences, not less.
“Religion has become such a key aspect of so many geo-political movements around the world and national issues in Australia,” he said.
“A specialist knowledge is needed to sift through the sort of memes and assumptions that are pervasive in media and society, about Muslims or about religion and violence or about conservative Christians and same-sex marriage etc.
“And if the ABC is to make an enduring and intelligent contribution it needs people who bring that degree of intellectual depth and understanding, so it requires, yes, a contemporaneous understanding of networks and a finger on the pulse of current developments and a good contact book, and a facility of ideas that are in the zeitgeist of the moment.”
The half-hour Religious and Ethics Report, presented by Andrew West on Radio National, is expected to return in 2017.
The religious TV program Compass is also expected to survive next year.
By Mark Bowling