In Defence of The Religion Report

For all my criticism of Stephen Crittenden’s journalistic style (he seems to be under the misapprehension that religion is an observer sport of adversarial politics), I do regret ABC Radio National’s decision to axe The Religion Report (see this report in The Age).

Religious issues are as important as ever today in current affairs, and a well rounded radio programming schedule should reflect this. While Encounter and Spirit of Things appear to have escaped the chopping block, those programs are aimed more at religion as a private (personal or communal) experience. The ABC needs to keep the place of religion in the public square in mind.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “In Defence of The Religion Report

  1. Athanasius

    Although I think the ABC is nuts eliminating the only program addressing religion in society (especially as the ‘secularisation hypothesis’ is being abandoned), I won’t miss Stephen’s casually tendentious and one-sided approach.

    On a more positive note, this leaves a gap in the market. Good for the blogging community!

  2. Louise

    Well, David, you know what I think of the ABC.

    Let’s jusst sell the damned thing.

  3. Athanasius

    Here’s what Crittenden said about the ABC’s motivation:

    “I’ve been told that since September 11, reporting on religion has become mainstream. Everyone is doing it so it doesn’t need specialisation any more.”

    If the ABC thinks that religion is mainstream in the media, they’re more out of touch than I thought. As we saw during WYD, the only religion story the media writes is the clerical abuse story, because they don’t know about anything else.

    When WYD actually got underway, journos were wandering around with their mouths hanging open like country hicks on their first visit to the big smoke: “wow, look at that… what’s going on now?…where did all of these people come from?… what are they doing?” The quality of reporting, with a few exceptions, was moronic.

  4. Peregrinus

    They’re mad. Madder, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, than Mad Jack McMad, winner of this year’s Mr Madman competition.

    The Religion Report and the suite of “Report” programmes to which it belongs – the Media Report, the Law Report, the Sports Factor, etc – are one of the jewels in the ABC’s crown. When I came to this country five years ago I was hugely impressed at how well Radio National carries out its public service broadcasting remit. These programmes are engaging, intelligent and well-made, produced by people who are interested in and informed about the subjects they report on. I listen to them whenever I can, and I podcast them so that I can catch up with the ones I miss. I am certainly not going to do that with a flabby, shapeless magazine programme that “focus on current world trends of globalisation, communication technologies and the shifting cultural, social, political and economic responses”.

  5. Terra

    The Religion Report has been so consistently anti-catholic and so consistnetly biased in its selection of stories it had long since lost any value.

    It would be different if they had managed to get rid of Chrittenden by some other means – but all attempts, despite his continuing outrageous behaviour (not the least of which was, in a piece fo breathtaking self-iunterest, leaking the story of the programme’s demise), all attempts have failed.

    The ABC seems to be planning something more interactive/online based in the religious field, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

    Of course we want religion to be in the public mind, but programs like The Religion Report and Compass don’t serve that cause, in fact serve to undermine it.

  6. Fraser Pearce

    I find it hard to be sad about the demise of the show.

    If another show on religion is Australia emerges in which the presenter is less the focus, that’d be a great development.

  7. Peregrinus

    As far as I can see from what the ABC is saying, there isn’t going to be another show on religion, full stop. There’ll be a website on religion. The new shows, to replace those axed, will be film reviews and a magazine programme about globalisation, communication, yadda yadda yadda. What we’re being offered here is not different religious broadcasting; it’s less religious broadcasting.

  8. Tony

    Terra,

    (not the least of which was, in a piece fo breathtaking self-iunterest, leaking the story of the programme’s demise)

    I’d be interested to know how you could possibly construct this as an action of ‘self interest’.

    It seems to me that he’s probably burnt all his bridges professionally for a while, even if RR survives.

    You can’t have op-eds in newspapers or specialised programs on other media run by people pretending to not have opinions. Crittenden obviously felt passionately about his show in particular and the format of the morning speciality shows.

    He took a risk to warn listeners about what was coming. I can’t imagine any scenario where he benefits. The absolute best he could expect would be to keep his job. I’m not sure how anyone could object to him trying to do that even if it was his only motivation.

    In reality the very best way to keep his job (or something like it) would have been to shut up and not ‘make waves’ and doesn’t this society need more people like that!

  9. Athanasius

    Tony

    Perhaps not an act of ‘self-interest’. Just an act of self-indulgence.

  10. Tony

    Perhaps not an act of ‘self-interest’. Just an act of self-indulgence.

    Again, how so?

  11. Peregrinus

    People, the first issue here is not really whether we like the way in which Stephen Crittenden covers religious affairs. The first issue is whether we are to have any coverage of religious affairs at all.

    There are other programmes on the ABC dealing with spiritual ideas, e.g. Encounter. But I don’t see other programmes taking in-depth looks at books about Pius XII and the Holocaust, reporting on the Lambeth conference, looking at the tax treatment of churches in Australia, discussing the plight of Zimbabwean Anglicans, offering an in-depth presentation of Jewish medical ethics, looking at the funding of Islamic studies in Australian universities, looking at the plight of Christians in Iraq or the debates on the direction of Catholic education. And that’s just in 2008.

    If you think those issues are going to be covered in a magazine programme addressing “globalisation and communications”, you’re deluding yourself.

    Whatever you may think about Stephen Crittenden’s perspective, he takes religious affairs seriously, and thinks it is worthwhile to look at them in some depth and present them to the broader public.. That belief is about to disappear from Radio National programming. How can this possibly be a good thing? It must tend to trivialise and marginalise religious issues still further.

  12. Louise

    If the ABC thinks that religion is mainstream in the media, they’re more out of touch than I thought.

    I don’t call them Barbarian Central for nothing.

    As we saw during WYD, the only religion story the media writes is the clerical abuse story, because they don’t know about anything else.

    This is because they are in league with The Spirit of the Air and therefore hate Christ and His Church.

    Pere is right about the lack of some kind of Religion Report as being bad. But the ABC is bad as far as religion goes and should be sold off.

    It’s not “my” ABC and hasn’t been for many a year.

    Gimme my 8c back.

  13. Terra

    Yes it is self-interest. Crittenden has almost lost his job before, but been able to use his position on air and his liberal mates to wage a campaign that saved him from being sacked. Here he is trying to do the same thing again.

    He may well have felt he had nothing to lose – if he waited until the official announcement he was gone anyway.

    But that doesn’t make it any less inappropriate.

    Do we want programs on religion – of course. But remember these days web-based programs can include podcasts, and if they are successful, they might get loaded up into other programs on the air.

    And really, bad programs that distort the truth about what is happening are worse than nothing at all. Take a look at the Cooees Novices piece some of Crittenden’s gems of objective reporting and you will see what I mean.

    So down the track maybe we should assess whether a new program of some kind is needed, and look at lobbying for it. But first lets let the ABC deal with what’s been a festering sore for years.

  14. Tony

    So Terra, it seems to me that the worst thing you can accuse Crittenden of is trying to keep his job. If you didn’t have such contempt for him, would you think that such a crime?

    At this stage in the development of the web — especially in relation to the ABC — the success of podcasting and other web-based programing is built on the on-air media.

    Once you lose a specialist skill or a specialist program, the likelihood of getting it back is very remote. Besides having to build the skills up again, management would be publically admitting they were wrong. If this suite of specialist programs is lost, it won’t be back, especially with a management looking to move to a lame ‘lifestyle’, breadth without depth, genre.

    Once that happens you’ll miss programing that you get your teeth into, even if it was to take a bite from.

  15. Terra

    Tony, first, let’s assume Crittenden might find himself on the redundacy pile if the program is axed as planned (or, horror of horrs, according to Collins’ Crikey piece, forced to deal with opinionated bloggers and the like). Is it then proper to use your radio program to try and fend off that fate? I think not.

    Secondly, the issue is whether the program really is one that you get your teeth into. Frankly, the Religion Report is so biased that I, as a person deeply interested in what’s happening religon wise in Australia, generally don’t bother to listen to it. I usually learn that something anti-catholic was on it when one of my aggressively atheist family members (who is an avid fan of the program) rings to gloat.

    Thirdly, what is the ‘specialist expertise’ you are talking about? The ABC has all the technical expertise it needs; the only specialist expertise is the networks of contacts of the front person for the show – and this is where a lot of the problem with the Religion Report lies, in the tired old liberal hacks that Crittenden inevitably runs to in order to get the spin he wants. Starting from scratch here would be no bad thing!

    Fourthly, I don’t think you are correct about the state of development of the web any more. There have been a series of successful web-based programs in recent times that have very large audiences indeed.

    Some examples – ‘webepisodes’ of Battlestar Galactica which have then been packaged on to the DVDs of the series. There are utube videos with millions of hits, and their makers have been taken up commercially in various ways. And in the religous sphere, Fr Zulsdorf’s What does the Prayer Really Say blog has an enormous readership.

    There are good reasons why the ABC now makes many of its tv programs available online – I wouldn’t be surprised if they have nearly as many online viewers as real time tv.

  16. Schütz

    Okay, boys and girls, that was fun. But let’s take a break from Crittenden-bashing, and look at another issue.

    One writer to The Age complained that the Religion Report had failed in its duty because it was focused only on the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic religions, and never had anything to say about Buddhism or Hinduism and the like.

    So I note the list of issues that Perry pointed to:

    “There are other programmes on the ABC dealing with spiritual ideas, e.g. Encounter. But I don’t see other programmes taking in-depth looks at books about Pius XII and the Holocaust, reporting on the Lambeth conference, looking at the tax treatment of churches in Australia, discussing the plight of Zimbabwean Anglicans, offering an in-depth presentation of Jewish medical ethics, looking at the funding of Islamic studies in Australian universities, looking at the plight of Christians in Iraq or the debates on the direction of Catholic education.”

    Exactly as the letter complained.

    But now another question:

    I think the RR was focused more on Religion in the public square than the other ABC Radio programs such as Encounter or Spirit of Things. And when it comes to religions in the public square, the three Abrahamic Religions seem to have it all wrapped up. Is this something about the nature of these religions? I mean, are the Eastern religions so much more personal and experiential rather than institutional and political?

    What think you?

  17. Tony

    Terra,

    On your first point: The question of what he did as being ‘proper’ is predicated on him doing it for self-interest. Given that he’s (predictably) been suspended I’d say that puts pay to the ‘self interest’ argument. So, your left with ‘he did it for self interest and he’s a fool’ or ‘he did it for other reasons’. The reasons, as stated by him, was a concern for the direction of RN in its suite of specialist programs.

    Now you may believe his tactics were not ‘appropriate’ or ‘proper’ or that the specialist programs are not worth fighting for, but your self interest argument is looking pretty unlikely.

    On your second point: Sorry, I don’t buy the gloating of ‘my aggressively atheist family members’ as any sort of reliable indicator of bias. I accept that you don’t agree with many of his programs, but that doesn’t make them biased to the extent that they deserve your hyperbolic condemnation. All programs are biased, all presenters are biased. But when push comes to shove and objective studies are done on the ABC, those who are convinced that the ABC is a nest of liberals and ratbags are often dissapointed.

    On your third point: Specialist expertise is where a small group is tasked with following a particular subject area exclusively. It is very rare in the media. Specialists are interested enough to be aware of the ‘back stories’ of particular events or the ‘culture’ of the group they study. They also, as you suggest, build up a group of contacts in the field. Specialists will also pursue stories that give the listener more than just a superficial appreciation of the subject area. You may not think that this applies to RR, but have you listened to any of the others?

    Again, your ‘starting from scratch’ is naive. Once its gone, its gone.

    On you forth point: I would argue that the web-based programs are still in their infancy in terms of appealing to a wider audience, your examples only confirm that view.

  18. Tony

    Terra,

    On your first point: The question of what he did as being ‘proper’ is predicated on him doing it for self-interest. Given that he’s (predictably) been suspended I’d say that puts pay to the ‘self interest’ argument. So, your left with ‘he did it for self interest and he’s a fool’ or ‘he did it for other reasons’. The reasons, as stated by him, was a concern for the direction of RN in its suite of specialist programs.

    Now you may believe his tactics were not ‘appropriate’ or ‘proper’ or that the specialist programs are not worth fighting for, but your self interest argument is looking pretty unlikely.

    On your second point: Sorry, I don’t buy the gloating of ‘my aggressively atheist family members’ as any sort of reliable indicator of bias. I accept that you don’t agree with many of his programs, but that doesn’t make them biased to the extent that they deserve your hyperbolic condemnation. All programs are biased, all presenters are biased. But when push comes to shove and objective studies are done on the ABC, those who are convinced that the ABC is a nest of liberals and ratbags are often dissapointed.

    On your third point: Specialist expertise is where a small group is tasked with following a particular subject area exclusively. It is very rare in the media. Specialists are interested enough to be aware of the ‘back stories’ of particular events or the ‘culture’ of the group they study. They also, as you suggest, build up a group of contacts in the field. Specialists will also pursue stories that give the listener more than just a superficial appreciation of the subject area. You may not think that this applies to RR, but have you listened to any of the others?

    Again, your ‘starting from scratch’ is naive. Once its gone, its gone.

    On you forth point: I would argue that the web-based programs are still in their infancy in terms of appealing to a wider audience, your examples only confirm that view.

  19. Louise

    All programs are biased, all presenters are biased. But when push comes to shove and objective studies are done on the ABC, those who are convinced that the ABC is a nest of liberals and ratbags are often dissapointed.

    Where are these studies and by whom were they conducted?

    I’d be pretty ecstatic to be “disappointed” regarding Aunty (whom I used to love).

  20. Terra

    Tony – On self-interest, I don’t think he expected to be suspended. But he may well have taken the view that he had nothing to loose and everything to gain by speaking up.

    And my point about the proprietaries is that no one has the right to use their employers’ resources to criticize their employer to the customers and leak confidential information.

    There has always been a problem with a mafia of ABC staff thinking they know better than management, and they, and not anyone else own the organization. This is a classic manifestation of that mentality.

    As for ABC bias, I’m with Louise. It may of course be that you agree with Mr Crittenden that the will of Vatican II was ‘thwarted by conservative reactionaries’, and that ‘John Paul II and his henchmen purged the leading theologians of the Council and
    subverted its intentions over 26 years’ (I’m quoting from the man). I don’t however, and I suspect I’m in the majority.

    And it is a shame because on some issues, such as Islam, Mr Crittenden is right on the money.

    On expertise, we are not exactly talking about huge resources here. Its generally just Crittenden and one producer. I’m sure there are a few people around Australia (other than Paul Collins!) who might know something about religion….

  21. Tony

    Louise,

    An example:

    http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1110154.htm is a Media Watch treatment of bias in 2004. OK, it’s Media Watch, but counter their claims.

    I wouldn’t disagree that many programs of a political or cultural nature are biased towards a more ‘liberal’ viewpoint, just as I’d say commercial stations reflect the bias of their proprietors towards cultural anaesthesia and consumerism. However, by and large, the ABC provides a good service and while I have no problem about their bias being independently monitored, scrapping programs is not the answer to bias (nor is it intended to be). Scrapping programs, to the extent that we can work out the motive, is about ‘breath not depth’ and that, IMO, is a retrograde step.

    Notwithstand all of the above, where are the independent studies that provide evidence of substantial bias?

    Terra,

    On self-interest, I don’t think he expected to be suspended.

    I very much doubt that, he’d have to eithe be very dumb or very inexperienced to think he could get away with an impromptu critique of a management decision not yet publically known.

    But he may well have taken the view that he had nothing to loose and everything to gain by speaking up.

    You’re now ratcheting down the tone of your critique from ‘piece of breathtaking self-interest’ to ‘he may well have …’. I still think you’re wrong.

    And my point about the proprietaries is that no one has the right to use their employers’ resources to criticize their employer to the customers and leak confidential information.

    I actually agree with this, in principal. It doesn’t mean that people who challenge this principal are doing it out of self-interest though.

    There has always been a problem with a mafia of ABC staff thinking they know better than management, and they, and not anyone else own the organization. This is a classic manifestation of that mentality.

    As for ABC bias, I’m with Louise.

    Terra giveth and Terra taketh away! On the one hand those on the staff who have critical opinions about the direction of the ABC are ‘mafia’ who don’t ‘know better than mangement’ and consumers, like you and Louise, who have critical opinions about the the direction of the ABC … well I guess you know better than either the ‘mafia’ or management!

    It may of course be that you agree with Mr Crittenden that … and I suspect I’m in the majority.

    Really? On what basis?

  22. Louise

    Notwithstand all of the above, where are the independent studies that provide evidence of substantial bias?

    Well I only have my experience to go by, really, but that doesn’t mean the ABC is not biased. After all I don’t need a study to inform me of all my observations of the world. I’m inclined to trust my own observations, even allowing for my own biases. However, if I try to persuade others of my opinions it’s only fair that I may need to bring more to the party than just my own observations.

    At any rate, given that I have no independent studies of ABC biaas to draw from, I will merely offer this little observation: why is/was Tim Blair’s (radio?) show called “Counterpoint”?

    I am thoroughly disgusted with the the ABC and wish we’d just sell it. Or at least that I could get my 8c back.

    Finally, what is the ABC’s stance on the following (typically): abortion, contraception,divorce, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, “gay marriage,” Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, ancient pagan societies, the Iraq War, Industrial relations, Economics, Politics… etc.

    I think we’ll find that the ABC has pretty much *one* view of each of these topics, but by all means show me I’m wrong.

    I do know that Kay McLennan is personally pro-life.

  23. Louise

    And that appearance at least (if not fact) of the *one* view Aunty has of all those topics is why Terra and I are rather appalled by it and where, presumably, the use of such words as “mafia” come into it.

    I personally have no idea whether there is discord between the staff and management of the ABC, so I’d prefer you and Terra keep me out of your own little stoush, thanks!

    But I certainly agree with Terra that there is a clear bias and if I cared enough, I’d organise for an independent study to be done. However, I’m just too busy right now sitting around being appalled by Victoria’s draconian abortion laws.