ABC’s unholy row: church leaders’ fury over religion cuts

The ABC is planning to dump its executive producer of religion in a move savaged by Christian and Islamic leaders angry that the broadcaster will elevate a non-specialist to the once prestigious post.

Religious leaders have slam­med the ABC for the alleged “systematic dismantling” of religious programming, with managing ­director Michelle Guthrie warned that she could breach her commitment to 30 of the nation’s ­religious leaders last year that the broadcaster would maintain the quality of its religious content.

The Australian understands the ABC’s executive producer of religion, Jane Jeffes, a religious broadcasting specialist, has been told she is “potentially redundant”, with the role expected to be filled by Joe Gelonesi, who has ­experience in science, the arts and philosophy.

Jeffes’s redundancy is expected to be confirmed this month.

Under changes to the structure of religious programming at the ABC, the service will also be blended with the topic of ethics and moved under the control of Radio National, where Gelonesi has worked for more than a decade. The religion editor will have less capacity to initiate programs and appoint staff, but the head of science will remain a specialist in that genre.

Religious figures argue the change is part of a move in the past few years by the ABC to diminish its religious content, while the former head of ABC Religion Radio, Paul Collins, accused management of a “complete failure to understand the essential cultural role that the ABC plays in Australian society”.

Mr Collins, who left the ABC in 1996, said the religion department used to employ 18 people across four states. He said that was now closer to five, all in Sydney.

“From the last board and the present board and through senior management, there is a complete failure to understand the essential cultural role that the ABC plays in Australian society,” he said.

“They just don’t get it.”

Prominent Anglican minister Lynn Arnold said the move would weaken the ABC’s religious programming. Dr Arnold, a former Labor premier of South Australia and a doctor of philosophy, said the restructure differed from Ms Guthrie’s assurance to religious leaders in November.

He said the ABC’s looming decision to replace Jeffes with a non-specialist appointment did not honour the spirit of the meeting between religious leaders and Ms Guthrie: “We had been led to believe that in their program res­tructuring, there would be new initiatives in the area of religious broadcasting that (would) see movement of people but the overall impact would be neither a ­reduction in overall airtime or content quality.”

The restructure comes after religious groups were critical that the religious radio show Sunday Nights with John Cleary was axed last year.

An ABC spokesman said the broadcaster was committed to a wide range of religious programming. “ABC radio is currently in consultation with staff regarding proposed changes to the management of its specialist genre units,” he said. “An announcement on the outcome of this process will be made in due course. There will be no impact on specialist content or programming.”

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier said the move was “questionable” and slammed the broadcaster for giving “vague” assurances.

“We were seeking to engage with the board but all the communications back to us have been triumphalism about the ABC’s performance when we know from other sources that the amount of content used is much less and the amount of resources being put into it is much less,” he said.

“I’m concerned about the blurring of religions and ethics as one topic. I think they are both important topics but putting them together obscures the distinctiveness of how religions are differently structured to ethics.”

A spokesman for Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations said it was surprising the ABC was considering replacing Jeffes.

“The direction the ABC is taking is the wrong direction. The person who is supposed to replace Jeffes does not have a strong religion background,” he said.

“They have culled a number of programs from the religious ­affairs unit and one of the best shows was Sunday Night with John Cleary. Those kinds of programs are needed more now than ever because the conflicts occurring around the world have rippling ­effects in Australia. If the ABC doesn’t talk about it, no one will.’’

Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan said the ABC was not “facing up” to its responsibilities as a public broadcaster.

“I think this is just another part of the systematic dismantling of quality religious programming by the public broadcaster and it denies their civic responsibility to the more than 60 per cent of the culturally and religiously diverse Australian community,” he said.

Shane Healy, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne media ­director, called it “disappointing”.