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'The Religion Report' looks at the big questions

By Toni Hassan - posted Friday, 31 October 2008

The decision to axe Radio National's Religion Report came as a shock.

Twice I have worked on the program, first as its producer, and then as a one-time presenter. It is a success nationally and internationally by any measure. It is put together by only two people, but it is able to draw on the wealth of experience and history in the ABC's religion department to create a gripping specialist current affairs program that subjects religion to the same sort of journalistic scrutiny as other programs subject other parts of life.

And there's no doubt that religion is a terribly important (if little-reported) part of life, lying behind so much of the news we regard as “political” or “diplomatic” or “social”.


Where else in prime-time radio or television have you been able to hear the people who matter quizzed about their interpretations of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and the way in which they plan to act on interpretations of sacred text?

Some of these people will be happy about the decision to axe the program. They didn't welcome its scrutiny.

But a greater number will lose something. In his outburst on air this month, that was subsequently edited out of the rebroadcast, the presenter Stephen Crittenden noted that it was only a few years ago that Radio National axed its environment program.

No radio program has a right to stay on air forever. And the people who control the budgets have difficult decisions to make, but the argument being put forward by ABC management that religious issues will continue to be covered by generalist reporters in generalist programs doesn't bear serious scrutiny.

When was the last time you heard an issue connected with faith discussed with sensitivity or understanding on programs such as AM or PM or on Radio National Breakfast? When was the last time that people involved with those issues felt they could trust the reporter or interviewer to understand what they were on about; to appreciate the mystery of faith.

Journalists are by nature sceptical, and they should be. It's hard for most to delve into questions of belief.


But it is needed if we're to get an insight into questions such as what drives Barack Obama and John McCain, and what drove the terrorists in Bali to blow up an Australian-frequented nightclub.

Even closer to home publicly-funded religious schools are growing quickly. Faith-based charities have been reluctant to speak out on issues that affect the people they look after for fear of offending their government paymasters. And the tax exemptions enjoyed by religious bodies will be under scrutiny by the Henry Review.

I am not saying that it is impossible to cover these issues well in mainstream radio and television programs, but on the whole they are not being covered well. I don't believe the axing of the only prime-time program to consistently attempt to do so would improve the ABC’s performance.

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About the Author

Toni has worked for ABC Radio and TV in Australia, Reuters in South Africa, the Asahi Shimbun in Japan, National Public Radio and the BBC. She is a freelance writer based in Canberra and was a media advisor to a federal MP.

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