ABC set to remove punch from religious programs

The Australian newspaper is always looking for an excuse to attack the ABC. But it is on more solid ground than usual this week, with articles yesterday and today criticising moves by management to replace the specialist editor for religion and ethics Jane Jeffes with a non-specialist.

Specialisation is what gives public service broadcasters their punch. It distinguishes their output from the infotainment programming of their rivals, at least by degree.

ABC Religion cuts from The Australian

Specialists are equipped to go beneath the surface and give the public an understanding of issues they would not otherwise get. For instance how to distinguish Muslim fundamentalists from those who are simply trying to live their faith in the Australian community and maintain their heritage.

ABC management has been trying to kill its religion specialisation for at least three decades. I remember battles from my own time there, when I worked in ABC religious radio for four years from 1988. There was a familiar pattern in which religious programs were threatened, church and other religious leaders would vent their outrage, and there was subsequently a reduction in the scale of planned cuts.

Can that happen again this time? Probably not.

With the sexual abuse scandals and the recent Census statistics charting a significant rise in the number of non-religious Australians, church and other religious leaders don't have the authority they once had.

However ABC management would be doing Australians a disservice if it exploited this as an opportunity to kill specialist religious programs. For the religious unit services non-religious 'searching' Australians as much as it does those who are formally religious.

It is been doing this for years. In 1987, the visionary head of the religion Dr David Millikan commissioned Caroline Jones to present the radio program The Search for Meaning.

It was a departure from traditional religious programming that had a wider impact. After it ended in 1994, Caroline was invited back to ABC TV to help foster a reflective, values-based approach to news and current affairs programming in the long-running Australian Story.

This more inclusive style was also evident some time ago in the coupling of religion and ethics in the brief, and formal designation, of the 'religious' programming genre.

While the article in The Australian seems to suggest that this represents a weakening of the religious programming strand, I believe the opposite is true. Indeed the study of philosophy and ethics was an integral part of my Jesuit religious training, as it is in other Catholic and some Anglican traditions.

The idea is that it helps to remove religion from the religious ghetto. The participation and leadership of specialists ensures that there is an informed conversation between religious and non-religious Australians. That is why the ABC needs a specialist to oversee its programs in this area.


Link: yesterday today

Subverting celebrity worship

One of my family's treasures that has been passed through the generations is a set of two watercolour miniatures of my progenitors. They were painted by an itinerant artist on the Victorian goldfields soon after their arrival in Australia from Ireland in the 1850s.

I was reminded of these miniatures on Saturday when I visited the Dempsey's People exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Little John the Colchester lunatic c 1823

The mostly watercolour images of British street people were painted by itinerant artist John Dempsey during the first half of the 19th century. It was the era before photography put itinerant artists out of business.

As the exhibition notes put it, they were 'the real-life models of the proletarian grotesques in Charles Dickens' novels... the kind of people who came to Australia as convicts and as free settlers during the early colonial period'.

The Ayrshire hermit

It is rare and refreshing to see portraits of people from the 18th and 19th centuries who were not the wealthy and influential celebrities of their day. It seems that it was almost an act of subversion to paint street people in a style that made them look as dignified as the nobles and rich merchants that dominate the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In particular I appreciated the paintings of the Ayrshire hermit, the Durham beggar, 'Little John' the Colchester lunatic, the maniac, and the old soldier from Salisbury. Each of them was painted in a way that made them stand tall, not reflecting the crushed demeanour and self-image that you would expect from their lowly circumstance and class. The stigma of the descriptors, lacking modern day political correctness, was turned on its head.

The old soldier from Salisbury

I was interested to read about 'old soldiers' in the notes about the exhibition. After the final defeat of Napoleon, the troops flooded home to an undeservedly less than rapturous welcome. The Duke of Wellington described them as the 'scum of the earth'. There was little work and few prospects for them in the towns and villages, where the derelict Old Soldier become a familiar figure.

This came home to me yesterday when I was talking to an incapacitated former Australian soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan. It seems that the scant regard for 'old soldiers' is still a reality in our time. I think this applies generally to the way marginalised and dispossessed people in our community are stigmatised and represented adversely in the portraits painted by our celebrity dominated media, and - consequently - in our own attitudes.


Link: Dempsey's People

Cardinal Pell's preference for spin doctors over truth tellers

Cardinal George Pell told the media in his short but candid statement yesterday that he was returning to Australia to 'clear my name'. He repeated that phrase, 'clear my name'.

That came after his double barrelled opening reference to the media's 'relentless character assassination - relentless character assassination'.

He did not say that he was coming to Australia so that justice could be achieved or truth uncovered. That was left to Pope Francis, whose reference to the 'foster[ing of] the search for truth' was conveyed immediately after Pell's statement.

The cardinal did not mention truth or justice.

Cardinal Pell at Vatican media conference

What he said at the media conference was perfectly consistent with his attitude and actions with regard to the media all along. Arguably an indifference to, or even fear of, their role in the search for truth in the context of justice.

The evidence for this is in his habitual hostility to media practitioners who see their role as uncovering and reporting the truth regardless of the consequences for the good name of a person or an institution. He was true to form when he began yesterday's statement with a criticism of the role of the media in the laying of charges against him.

One of his first actions after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 was to close the Archdiocese's Communications office.

Over the years, Catholic Communications had gained considerable respect, particularly from its secular media peers, for its practice of objective journalism in radio and TV production. That is where I learned my first principles of journalism and media practice in the 1980s.

The sacked director of Catholic Communications Peter Thomas had a Vatican II view of the 'pilgrim' church of the people. In media terms, this translated into practice that owed a lot to that of public service broadcasters like the ABC and the BBC.

Pell's ecclesiology represented a retreat from Vatican II to a more 'top down' hierarchical model. For him, the Church was more like a corporation that was best run along business lines. That is why he replaced Catholic Communications with an outsourcing of the work to corporate communications firm Royce Communications. I would suggest that this represented a decisive and deliberate shift from truth tellers to spin doctors.

Cardinal Pell's actions and attitudes towards the media over the years have demonstrated a lack of appreciation of its role in truth telling. If, as he stated yesterday, he is innocent of the 'false' charges laid against him, it is in his interest not to condemn the truth telling media but to trust and embrace it.


Link: statement

The spirituality and moral purpose of 'no religion'

I remember where I was when I first heard that Catholics had overtaken Anglicans to become Australia's largest religious denomination numerically. I was with a group of Jesuits at a school in Adelaide in 1979 and one of them said that he had read it in The Australian newspaper.

However religious sociologist Gary Bouma contradicts that in The Conversation yesterday. He says it was 1986.

Whatever the year of that particular milestone, yesterday's big news was that the 2016 Census data revealed that Catholics themselves had been overtaken by a new group called 'No Religion'.

No Religion Census Data graphic from The Conversation

I think it is significant that it is not being mis-reported that atheism is the majority. At least not by Bouma, who gets it right when he makes this distinction:

'Declaring "no religion" does not mean that someone is anti-religious, lacking is spirituality, or an atheist. It means they just do not identify with a particular organised form of religion.'

It seems that this middle ground majority is reluctant to identify with the various mainly Christian denominations that are associated with their particular cultural or ethnic heritage. The 'Irish Catholics' of a generation ago now see themselves as 'no religion'.

They are the ones who count themselves out when Cardinal Pell and other conservative church leaders declare that being a Catholic is a 'package deal'. These leaders say that you can't be a 'cafeteria Catholic', which means accepting some teachings while rejecting others.

This view reflected these words of Pope John Paul II in 1987: 'A large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic", and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error.'

Today the majority of Catholics including myself are cafeteria Catholics. I like to think that we are nuanced in our practice of the faith, combining conscience with guidance from credible moral leaders, whoever they may be. This group does not think twice about using artificial contraception or supporting marriage equality.

But its members are still concerned about issues of social justice. They send their children to Catholic schools believing they will develop a moral compass to guide them through life.

Even so, they won't be told what to do by the Bishops and other church leaders, whom they see as having covered up child sexual abuse to protect the Church. They look elsewhere for guidance on important issues that are not cut and dried, such as to Andrew Denton on euthanasia.

Denton is an entertainer who has become a credible moral leader because religious leaders have given up the ground. I don't agree with him on euthanasia but many Catholics do.

Pope Francis has shown the world what moral leadership from religious leaders can be about. Locally there is a handful of contrite church leaders with a credible moral and social message, such as Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta. But it will take at least a generation before there is a possibility that the Catholic Church as a whole could make up the lost ground.

Last year I declared myself a Catholic on the census form because I think it's important for 'nuanced' Catholics like myself - and indeed my confreres from other Christian traditions - to claim our damaged religious brands in the hope that they can eventually be rebuilt to reflect the more inclusive spirituality that is currently described as 'no religion'.


Links: Bouma cafeteria Denton

Planning my inurnment

I spent the weekend staying with relatives in their home by the beach on the coast at Gerroa, in the Illawarra region south of Sydney. Yesterday I accompanied my cousin when he went to the Memorial Garden at his local church to carry out an inurnment.

I'd never heard the word before. It refers to the placing in a 'niche', or some other resting location, a person's cremated remains that are contained in an urn.

Memorial Garden at St Marys Star of the Sea Gerringong

Following a ceremony at the end of Sunday Mass, my cousin dug the hole in the designated niche and put the urn in place before covering it with dirt and planting flowers over it.

The Memorial Garden was constructed and opened eighteen months ago. It is a variation on the form of the traditional labyrinth or maze and was inspired by the labyrinth in the Vatican Gardens.

It was suggested by my cousin's 91 year old mother, who had an urgent need to find the right resting place for the cremated remains of her husband - my father's cousin - who died in 2007.

Plan for Memorial Garden at St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

After the parish subsequently took up the suggestion and completed the design and construction, his remains were placed in niche 407. Adjacent niches are reserved for other family members and friends.

Yesterday I made a spontaneous decision to purchase niche 406, as I have become increasingly conscious of the need to specify what I would like done with my remains after I die.

Actually I've never had any particular wishes in this regard. For whatever reason - possibly to do with residual lack of self esteem - I've had an 'I don't care' attitude.

But increasingly I've felt concern for those around me when I die. They would be scratching their heads wondering what my unexpressed wishes were, and perhaps justifiably frustrated or annoyed that I had remained silent on the matter.

As of yesterday, this is resolved.

inurnment at Memorial Garden St Mary Star of the Sea Gerringong

But it does cause me to reflect upon the changing sociological profile of the community and the reality that many people including myself no longer fit neatly with established church or other traditional rituals surrounding death and how they would like to be remembered.

I don't know how this plays out in practice. But I imagine that the circumstances for many people become awkward when they have not expressed what they would like to occur when they die, and have never been asked. How do you pay respect to a person who was single or lived a life that was singular?

This happens to people at all levels, with many not part of a traditional family when they die. They may be comfortable with that - as I am - but there's no pro forma, and it's important for us all to accept that we are worth remembering and to decide how we would like this to occur.


Link: Memorial Garden

Moral combatants in war

The Sydney Film Festival's notes on the documentary Last Men in Aleppo describe it as 'an unforgettable and visceral portrait of White Helmet volunteers toiling amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city'.

While viewing it, I found myself questioning the point of a visceral account of a war, in which emotions take precedence over the facts. Was the film presenting truth or fiction, or perhaps something in between?

Last Men in Aleppo

A few months ago, I'd read of accusations that the White Helmets had passed on false information about the Idlib chemical weapons attack because they wanted to see the end of the Assad regime.

The attack was being described as a propaganda event staged by the 'pro-western' White Helmets. I was shocked that an organisation charged with providing humanitarian assistance could be accused of taking sides in a war.

That is apparently quite common now. As it is with news organisations, which used to pride themselves in reporting facts rather than passing on propaganda.

I remember there was disquiet at the embedding of reporters with elements of the military during operations in the Iraq War. Now this kind of thing has become the norm, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that war reporting cannot be trusted to the extent that it could in the past.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, whose book War and the Death of News was released earlier this month.

Martin Bell - War and the Death of News Reflections of a Grade B Reporter

He believes there is little hope for truth in war reporting, and in journalism in general. 'We don't have a clue what's going on ... As technology advances, journalism retreats.'

The problem is that Bell himself was influential in the unravelling of objectivity in war news reporting.

A few years ago I was studying journalism and remember his championing of what he called the 'journalism of attachment' while he was reporting the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

This was defined as journalism which 'cares as well as knows'. War reporting as we knew it had been an amoral activity, which is not surprising given that it sought to be objective and dispassionate. But Bell argued that it needed a moral purpose.

At first glance, I liked the journalism of attachment. But then I began to wonder what journalism is about if it is seeking something other than the whole truth. It is as if we are on a slippery slope towards what is now referred to as 'fake news'.

Marie Colvin

Practising 'attachment', war journalists - like the White Helmet humanitarian workers - become moral combatants and subject to strikes from the opposing side. That explains the death of the celebrated Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and her photographer while covering the siege of Homs in 2012, allegedly targeted by Syrian artillery fire.

Colvin said she considered her job was to shine a light on 'humanity in extremes, pushed to the unendurable... I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village.' But this made her a player in the war rather than a resource that can be respected by both sides.


Links: Last Men interview book Attachment

Hope is school builder Zac's greatest resource

The big drawcards at this year's Sydney Film Festival included Nicole Kidman's latest The Beguiled, and Ben Mendelsohn's Una, which opens in cinemas tomorrow. To enter the screening of Una, I stood in a queue that snaked several hundred metres down Market Street and around the corner into Pitt Street.

They were both good films. But I found myself more drawn to Tom Zubrycki's documentary Hope Road, which is about raising money for a school in South Sudan. There was no queue to get inside for this one.

For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious

Zubrycki is now 70 and has spent many years perfecting his particular style of his observational documentary that is defined by the films' closeness to their subject.

The subject matter may be worthy but I always find the execution quite nail biting, and often humorous in a subtle way that is recognisably Australian. I am reminded of the famous 'For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious' cartoon by Stan Cross that was first published in 1933.

Zac Machiek

Oddly this state of mind is characteristic of the White Australia era that preceded multiculturalism, yet Zubrycki's films reflect the vision of his father Jerzy Zubrzycki. Zubrzycki senior was a university academic credited as one of the main architects of the Australian government's multiculturalism policy that began in the 1970s.

But of course the genius of multiculturalism is that it was able to bring 'old' and 'new' Australians together in one magical harmony. That is exactly what happens in Hope Road, with South Sudanese refugee Zac Machiek getting together with three 'old' Australians including Zubrycki himself, to raise funds to fulfill his dream of building a school in his former village in South Sudan.

Bricks for South Sudan school before they disappeared

It's not promising, on a variety of fronts. They can't find a major sponsor for their walk to raise funds. One of the fundraisers has to have surgery for a brain tumour. Zac's marriage breaks up and he becomes a single father. The escalating war intervenes and the bricks they've bought to construct the school disappear.

Because the war is unlikely to end any time soon, the vision itself is challenged by the suggestion that scholarships might be more practical than building a school.

Plans for South Sudan school

But Zac insists on the school and hope is their greatest resource. The film ends with plans for the school still a long way from realisation but the team's hope as strong as ever. As a film goer, it has you longing to see the sequel. As a human being, it makes you want to donate to help the project along.


Links: Zubryki Hope Road Donate

Trusting Iran

I'm being asked to name my favourite of the 34 feature films I've just seen at the Sydney Film Festival. Normally it's hard to choose, but there is one that comes to mind.

It stands out not only because it is very different to any of the other films, but for the urgency of its simple message at this time and its invitation to me to act on a particular desire.

Rosie

The film is a beautiful Canadian feature length animation titled Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming. Its theme is the power of imagination to overcome the distrust and political intransigence that is bringing us closer to major military conflict.

The story is about a naïve mixed-race aspiring poet named Rosie. She travels from her home city of Vancouver to Shiraz, the Iranian cultural mecca where she has been invited to read her poem at a poetry festival.

She feels very awkward because of the cultural differences, but is overwhelmed by the graciousness of her Iranian hosts, for whom nothing is a problem. This contrasts with the attitude she receives from a fellow western guest named Dietmar, for whom everything is a problem.

Rosie becomes reacquainted with her Iranian father, who disappeared from her life when she was a young child. Her judgment of him dissolves and they embrace each other when she learns of the circumstances of his return to Iran. Ignorance and prejudice is defeated.

Rosie under the blossom tree

Perhaps part of its appeal to me is that for some time I've wanted to travel to Iran for an experience of breaking down barriers like Rosie's.

But the US Government won't have anything of it. About two years ago it introduced a new regulation denying those who've travelled to Iran since 2011 easy entry to the US under its visa waiver program.

Do I care about this? Not really. The US has its reasons for wanting to have the rest of the 'free' world join it in not trusting Iran. But I won't be bullied. I'd rather feel free to reach out to Iranians, learn from them, and enjoy their hospitality, just as Rosie did.


Link: Window Horses

Vanessa Redgrave and the Sydney Film Festival refugee advocates

I've spent the past eleven days at the Sydney Film Festival, at the famous State Theatre in the centre of the city. From 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning until mid afternoon or early evening.

I viewed the usual 34 feature films, in what has become an annual winter ritual. I haven't skipped or had to miss a film since I was teaching in 2008.

Vanessa Redgrave at State Theatre

I've sat in seat D36 on the Mezannine level alongside my friend Shirley, who has been my Daytime Subscriber companion in that space for the past 14 years. Sadly, we learned this year that another companion - Anne - was not in the seat D34 this year because she died in March.

Unlike most Festival filmgoers these days - the casuals - we do not pick the films we see. They are chosen for us by the curators. Many of the films I most appreciate are ones I would not have chosen from the hundreds screening at the various Festival venues each year.

I used to take annual leave from my job at this time of the year. Now I'm a retiree like most of the other daytime subscribers, except many are much older than me.

However it seems we share the same humanitarian values and enjoy similar art house and documentary films. Including the mix of drama and factual films, and indeed the combination of drama and fact in particular films, which tend to reflect the most pressing issues confronting humanity.

Vanessa Redgrave director of Sea Sorrow

This year it was refugees, and one of the festival guests was refugee advocate and veteran British actor Vanessa Redgrave. At 80, she has just made her directorial debut with her film Sea Sorrow, which combines a survey of the history of international refugee conventions with stories and recollections of past and present refugees.

It was not a surprise that she received a standing ovation as she stood on stage to introduce her film. It is clear that many in the adoring audience were also refugee advocates. In fact my companion Shirley is secretary of a local suburban refugee support group.

But I kept thinking about another octogenarian humanitarian, the veteran senior public servant and now blogger John Menadue, with whom I worked for a couple of years until a few months ago.

John is constantly frustrated by the single minded idealism of refugee advocates, whom he believes stand in the way of solutions, which must always be political. Politics is the art of the possible and must always involve compromise.

Sea Sorrow still

But I think John would agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to refugee advocates, to the extent that their activism helps to stem the tides of mass indifference to the plight of these people and right-wing political fear mongering.

Vanessa Redgrave talked about the 'field of energy' the advocates seek to generate around the world.

Noticeably short of breath after climbing on to the stage, she told her Daytime Subscriber friends that her message to refugees is: 'We will save you till our last breath'.

After viewing Sea Sorrow, I was sure that however many more breaths she has until her last, she has accomplished what she set out to do for refugees, with this film.


Links: Redgrave Menadue

How the Catholic Church came to embrace its enemy Anthony Foster

This morning a State Funeral will be held for Catholic Church child sexual abuse victims advocate Anthony Foster, who died suddenly on 26 May.

In her tribute to 'the man who was integrity personified', fellow campaigner and Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy says there wouldn't be a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse without Anthony and and his wife Chrissie.

Anthony and Chrissie Foster

'Anthony Foster's integrity left him devastated by the Catholic Church, but it also made him one of its most devastating and formidable foes.'

In earlier days I was not a fan of the Fosters. I did not like the way they treated the Church as the enemy. I was aware of the Church's often unsung role in standing up for victims of abuse in many other areas such as sexual slavery.

I knew that the Church was fundamentally on the side of victims of all sorts of injustice. So I did not understand why the Fosters couldn't work with the Church rather than against it in achieving justice for the victims of the rogue priests.

I was naive and wrong. Eventually I came to accept that sexual abuse was a sin of the Church itself more than the 'rogue priests', whom I believed were themselves victims.

I became convinced that the Church's culture stunted the priests' growth as sexual beings and that child sexual abuse was the result. The Church as an institution had to own responsibility for sexual abuse, and change its culture.

The Fosters were right. The Church could not be trusted to achieve justice for abuse victims using its own processes. The perpetrator of the evil of the abuse was the Church itself, rather than a few - or even more than a few - bad apples. Don't put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

So I came to believe that the Church was indeed the enemy of the people, as it had been portrayed by the Fosters and the media. If it was really the champion of the poor and marginalised - as I'd previously believed - why was it using its considerable financial resources to engage the best lawyers to fight the hapless victims in court?

If the Church itself was taking an adversarial approach towards victims, why shouldn't victims' advocates like the Fosters take an adversarial approach towards the Church? I was fully on board with the Fosters.

Fortunately the Fosters and other victims' advocates had fellow travellers within the Church. Some were courageous and competent individuals in positions of influence such as Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council. He was not afraid to slap down the Bishops - his employer - until they joined him in insisting that the Church's culture must change.

That is now happening, with some of the strongest and most moving statements and actions coming from bishops themselves. I think Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long's tribute to Anthony Foster must be the most notable. He reveals that he was quietly working with the Fosters to achieve justice for victims while some of his fellow bishops were fighting them in court.

Now others are joining him. These include Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who personally castigated the Fosters during World Youth Day 2008 for 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. These words of Bishop Long speak for themselves. The Church's own theological term metanoia (conversion of heart) comes to mind.

'At the end of the Royal Commission hearing of the five Metropolitans, the Fosters met with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. After he had left the meeting, Anthony [Foster] became very concerned how deeply affected Archbishop Fisher was. He contacted me and asked if I could check and make sure that the Archbishop was OK.'


Links: funeral McCarthy Long wounds