ABC Veto of ‘Secular Voice’ a Mockery of ‘Inclusion’
Let’s be forensically clear about this -- ABC radio and television programming has a deep philosophical problem that needs to be fairly and openly discussed. ABC PR and publicity is fiercely and pretentiously strident on "diversity and inclusion"; and one assumes that should include an overt secular and A-theist perspective -- to add at least a microscopic offset to faith-overload, within the religio-political agenda.
Tragically, however, over recent years, "Aunty" has become far more "inclusive of religion" and far less "diverse" with regard to secular and "A-theist" worldviews that often challenge theistic social policy. (See footnote)
So much so, that it’s been suggested the ABC rebrand itself as the Australian Bible Corporation.
Troublingly, the evidence for this spans many years -- and incrementally so -- much like the parable (to borrow a Biblical term) of that poor frog slowly boiling in a pot of water. Either the secular and A-theist "muted voice" is mere happenstance, an obscure programming directive, or perhaps a veto for specific programs?
Central to faith-based programming is the ABC's Religion and Ethics Division (R&E), although "ethics" is invariably of the Christian variety. Now, it’s true to say that within the corporation’s charter there is a requirement to provide content for people of faith. No objection there! But that clause was included when Christianity was overwhelmingly supported!
No longer is that the case -- even though Census 2021 incorrectly showed 43.9 per cent "identifying" as Christian (explained further, shortly). So with all the latest data confirming a huge decline in Christian faith, why does the ABC run 7 religious-related program, plus one for kids? See R&E (end section) for the whole list.
There is no claim that "all seven" ABC programs are wall to wall religion, but they all cover every aspect of faith to some degree -- and at least three are focused exclusively on belief in a god. Notably, the publicity refers to religion 26 times, and to secularism (as in "Secular Ethics"), not once. And in the R&E promo blurb is this gem;
"In parallel, across our platforms, ABC news and current affairs programs shine a light on the organisations guiding and governing Australians' belief."
Most notable for the absence of panellists who are "overtly" secular or A-theist are The Drum and Q&A. Both run programs that regularly deal with socio-religious topics -- and with monotonous regularity their guests identify as religious. When was the last time you heard either of these programs question the basic tenets of Christianity?
Case in Point -- just ONE recent example. Q&A on 10th April ran the theme "Faith, Politics and Humanity". Another all-Christian panel, including the host, Stan Grant. It was non-stop sermonising and a talkfest of Christian morals -- and Islamic morals too, from ALP senator Fatima Payman. There was no voice to say ethics and morals are not exclusive to religion! Just watch the Q&A video link -- is this "balance", or religious proselytising?
Yet another opportunity lost -- where the ABC could show integrity on topics that demanded a secular voice. Like so many programs, it is glaringly obvious to rationalists and free-thinkers that ABC panels are blatantly one-sided.
And it just doesn’t wash when the ABC claims balance by inadvertently using a celebrity Australian atheist guest such as Jane Caro, Andrew Denton, or scores of others. On their rare appearances the topic is not about religion. Where are they when the issue requires a questioning voice to temper the ever-present Christian viewpoint?
So where does the problem lie?
Interestingly, while allegedly at arm’s length from operations, the ABC board has a duty of care with regard to bias. Its charter is clear on bringing "maximum benefit" and "integrity" to the public.
"The duty of the Board is to ensure that the functions of the Corporation are performed ... with maximum benefit to the people of Australia, and to maintain independence and integrity."
Where are these benefits, across the ABC network, on the hot topics where religion wields such power and influence: in politics, public schools, hospitals, health, aged care, tax breaks, taxpayer funding, abortion, private school discrimination, prayers in parliament, et al? All these are part of the long-established Secular Agenda.
The problem is more likely to rest within the "Leadership Team".
While program directors, and producers down the line, have some controls on "who gets to be heard", decisions on editorial and program policy lay with the Leadership Team. Principal among these are the Director of News and Investigations; the Managing Director David Anderson has a clear role, and a great deal of influence comes from the Editorial Director, Craig McMurtrie.
On 30th April 2019 the National Secular Lobby (NSL) met with ABC MD, David Anderson, and Editorial Director, Craig McMurtrie. NSL delivered a number of proposals based on gaining a "recognisable voice" for the secular majority. A prior independent national survey by accredited polling firm IPSOS showed 78 per cent of the public wanted religion to be separated from the business of government. Access to the ABC radio and TV network -- to openly discuss this issue, and the full secular agenda -- has been fraught with difficulty for many years.
Details of that meeting remain confidential but it's fair comment that while all NSL's proposals were rejected David Anderson did make a specific request. He asked NSL to provide a detailed list of people who were well-known and fully conversant with all issues across the whole gamut of social policy.
Indisputably, the list was to provide secular-savvy panellists for programs like The Drum, Q&A, and a host of ABC Radio programs across the nation. The request was issued personally by David Anderson but it came as no surprise that -- after numerous follow-ups with Head Office -- absolutely nothing resulted from the project.
Four years on there is still no recognisable secular "voice" to question the religious social agenda.
Numerous suggestions have called for surveys of key TV and radio programs to gauge "secular content" but that task is simply impossible. ABC content managers and producers would bar access to necessary information -- and even with data to conclusively prove religious bias, ABC management will dismiss it. As they’ve done before.
A comprehensive survey of The Drum two years ago -- by credible online publication John Menadue -- showed there was a substantial and measurable right wing bias. ABC ignored the evidence. Clear and established links between conservatism and religion are well known, and new survey data would merely confirm a religious bias.
Christian deference seems also to afflict the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Stated earlier in the article was the 2021 Census figure of 43.9 per cent nominating as Christian. That is incorrect. ABS has rejected professional advice (over many years) that asking "What is the person’s religion?" is simply a loaded question. Scores of polls show Christianity to be far lower than the ABS figure. Doubters need to read "Religiosity in Australia". All of it!
But here’s an ABC challenge. The 4th May will be National Day of Reason, which is an annual event of secular celebration for the public majority who regard themselves as humanists, atheists, secularists, and freethinkers.
A fair question for the ABC is simply this. How many programs or segments will actually identify what that day means. To explain what "reason" and "rationalism" really is -- and how markedly it differs from "religious belief"?
But having put the ABC under a critical spotlight it must be said that Australia does need a strong and vibrant public broadcaster -- to be adequately funded after years of erosion inflicted by successive Liberal governments.
However, the ABC is a long way from finding a renewed sense of secular integrity and diversity, or the courage to deal openly with the secular agenda. To finally push back against the overwhelming influence of corporate religion, on a raft of social policy. But is the ABC's arrogance and ineptitude simply a tragic myopic blind-spot -- or something worse -- a corporate culture indifferent to public opinion, where complains are ideologically ignored?
If that is the case nothing will change with the ABC's religious modus operandi -- certainly until the Christian-centric hierarchy of the corporation are gradually replaced with managers who share the contemporary secular worldview of rationalists, humanists, and non-theists.
Footnote: "A-theism" is used to simply emphasise being non-theist, rather than the religious pejorative of “satanic atheism” that lacks morality. No, there is no evidence for a supernatural deity, so we are “Good Without God”.
Additional erratum: Note that the original version of this article incorrectly listed the date of the National Day of Reason as the 18th of May 2023; the correct date is 4th May 2023.