August 17, 2017

Religion faces an uncertain future at the ABC with recent restructuring move

A Muslim woman prays outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City. PHOTO: CNS

The latest announcement of changes to religion coverage at the ABC has some wondering whether there are elements within ABC management with a strong cultural antipathy towards religion.

Changes at the ABC over the past three years have witnessed major cut backs in coverage of religion at the national broadcaster.

Last Friday an email to religious leaders from Judith Whelan, the recently appointed head of Spoken Word in ABC radio, announced that the position of Content Director Religion Radio currently occupied by Jane Jeffes is to be replaced with a new position.

It describes the new position as “giving religion its own editor” and “elevating the status and gravitas of Religion across the ABC”. The Catholic Weekly understands, however, that the ‘new’ role is much the same as the present one, but for one significant change – the editorial head of religion is no longer required to be a religion specialist.

This can be seen in the process by which the new post is to be filled.

In the case of the ABC Science Unit, the current occupant of the Content Director position is to be directly translated into the equivalent new position in that Unit.

The ABC does not appear to be extending the same courtesy to Religion. They are proposing that Ms Jeffes compete for her own job, not with an externally advertised field of candidates with appropriate qualifications, but against a candidate selected by radio management – a widely respected broadcaster, but one with no specialist religion qualifications.

Sources at the ABC said they are concerned that the process is contrived, a belief strengthened by an understanding that the selection process may not be an open one, but based on a private assessment carried out by the two managers most responsible for implementation of the new structure.

The past three years have seen cut backs to Religion staff and budgets of almost 40% and the loss of programs as diverse as the Encounter documentary series on Radio National, and most recently the axing of the long running and popular,Sunday Nights with John Cleary on Local Radio.

Such has been the level of concern that two separate delegations representing over 30 religious leaders from across all traditions, have sought meetings with the ABC. The recent change may suggest that those delegations have been ignored.

Ms Jeffes, a Catholic, is well regarded for her outreach into Australia’s religious communities and has championed the importance of religious and cultural literacy at a time when there has never been a greater need for it.

Her work across faith traditions, in particular with the Islamic community is widely admired.

According to an email from Ms Whelan the announcement of the occupant of the new position may take place as soon as this coming Friday.

Sources told The Weekly: “We trust staff fears are unjustified, and that Ms Jeffes will be translated into her new title in the Religion Unit with the same grace as has been accorded the equivalent position in the Science Unit.”

“It will be a greater loss to the nation if the ABC continues down the path of devaluing the vital contribution of its specialist units to the national conversation.

“At a time of collapsing mainstream media, the role of qualified content specialists in areas as diverse as Religion and Science; from terrorism to climate change, has never been greater.”

The Catholic Weekly tried to reach Ms Jeffes for comment but she did not return calls.

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