By Marcus Honesta
I must be honest and fess up: I am a lapsed Catholic. My formative years were spent in the tender care of the Jesuits, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers. It is probably not surprising that I found very little charity or mercy at the hands of the brides of Christ. Nevertheless, since I left the gentle care of Edmund Ignatius Rice, I have had little to do with organised religion. On the other hand, Mr and Mrs Honesta (senior) are devout and frequent visitors to their local Catholic Church. It is their beliefs that fashion their daily lives and have done so for as long as I can remember. They are by no means alone when it comes to the influence of the church in our community at large.
I have always taken the view that belief in a divine power is very personal; it is not something to be taken lightly or made fun of to score cheap political points. If belief gives a person comfort or the ability to deal with the world and all of its ever-mounting challenges, then so be it.
Having said this, I think it is fair to say that, in many respects, religion and humour tend to go hand-in-hand. It therefore stands to reason that religion makes easy targets for comedy, satire and, let us face it, complete ridicule. But let me be clear, I am referring to religion in the general sense, not in the sense of individuals, whose personal beliefs are a private matter between themselves and their God. I believe that there is a distinction, a fine line, if you will, that decency requires should not be crossed.
Enter the “People’s Republic of Aunty”, ‘Your ABC’. Their somewhat talentless collection of wits have led an insidious, left-leaning charge against Australia’s first Pentecostal Prime Minister. One might ask to what end would they make a cowardly bid to link Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s religious beliefs to the nation’s refugee policy.
Less than a week into the job, the Liberal Prime Minister was weathering all-out mockery for his religion on ABC‘s doomed comedy show ‘Tonightly’, along with Twitter barbs from Gruen transfer panellist and Australian Labor Party’s campaign ad consultant Dee Madigan.
The attacks on Prime Minister Morrison’s faith come after his vow last December to fight back against the discrimination and mockery of Christians, as well as that of other religious groups.
On Monday night’s episode of the axed ‘Tonightly’, the Tom Ballard-hosted ABC show, self-appointed comedians Bridie Connell and Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd took aim at Prime Minister Morrison’s successful stint as immigration minister, singing, ‘We love Jesus but not refugees. If Jesus was a refugee we would say f … off we’re full.’
When I first heard the material in question, I could not help but think that Connell and Nixon-Lloyd must have been away the morning the nativity story was taught. It would appear that they completely missed everything, from the first ‘No Room at the Inn’ sign to the arrival of the three wise men and the subsequent proceedings. Or perhaps that did not sit well with the endeavour to be clever. But you be the judge.
Similarly, Ms Madigan tweeted: ‘I guess a church where they speak in tongues is good practise (sic) for politics’. Given that Ms Madigan works in advertising, where puffery is part of their stock and trade, perhaps we should not try too hard to understand what she thought was clever about her tweet.
Mike Carlton, who resigned as a Fairfax journalist after anti-Semitic Twitter responses to readers, fired off a tweet attacking Prime Minister Morrison’s refusal to go to Nauru, saying it was because he would be ‘confronted by the atrocities’ he has inflicted on refugees. He then added, ‘But it’s OK, ‘cos he’s a Christian’. Carlton, who is still bitter about his exclusion from the Cabbage Tree Club, writes very little these days that is positive about anything or anybody, and indeed sadly little worth reading. It’s such a shame.
I was not alone in wondering whether Prime Minister Morrison would have been subjected to the same rancour if he were a Muslim, Jew or Buddhist.
Let us be clear: I am not talking about censorship, I am talking about good taste, discretion and decency.
The Right Reverend Mark Powell, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of NSW, said: ‘If Scott Morrison was a Muslim or a Buddhist they wouldn’t be saying or doing this’.
Viewers also took to social media to vent their distaste.
World Vision advocate Tim Costello said such attacks were ‘not appropriate’.
Tim Costello said such attacks were ‘not appropriate’.
Mr Costello said he does not agree with Prime Minister Morrison on refugees, but that does not mean it is okay to attack his religious beliefs. ‘To be mocked for something that is highly personal is not fair game’, he said.
Peter Kurti from the Centre for Independent Studies called the ABC comedians hypocrites. ‘The show would probably not mock the religious beliefs of Ed Husic, Islam, or Josh Frydenberg, Judaism’, he said.
Another Muslim, NSW Opposition Education Spokesman Jihad Dib said, ‘By all means make some commentary that would potentially change that policy but I think once it gets into a personal issue about someone’s faith…then I think we’re going down the wrong path’.
Similarly, Penshurst Presbyterian Church pastor Chris Ashton said, ‘It seems white Christian males, particularly from the conservative side of politics are the only safe targets left’.
Muslim NSW Labor MP and Opposition Education Spokesman Jihad Dib.
Later I will discuss whether ABC is in breach of its broadcasting charter; but, for now, here is what the Prime Minister had to say.
Prime Minister Morrison slammed the ABC comedians as ‘numpties’ (stupid or ineffectual people) for mocking his Christian faith, saying that his religion teaches him to turn the other cheek when under fire.
Speaking to reporters in Caringbah this morning, the Prime Minister said he did not watch the musical segment on Tom Ballard’s ‘Tonightly’, which was in its final season after being axed over poor ratings.
‘The ABC can be numpties every now and then, but my faith teaches me to love each other and to turn the other cheek’, he said.
‘I’m the Prime Minister and I work for all Australians everyday—I’m on their side. I’m about bringing Australians together, not about creating differences and pushing them apart’.
When asked to respond to a number of questions, including whether Prime Minister Morrison would have been treated differently if he were Muslim, an ABC spokesman defended ‘Tonightly’, saying it regularly satirised ‘people in positions of authority, regardless of their race, gender or religious beliefs’. ‘The Shadow Ministers musical skit did not attack Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s religion or religious beliefs”. One has to wonder whether the apologist making the statement had even seen the aforementioned piece.
He went on further: “Most viewers would understand the skit to be a satirical way of examining the relationship between such beliefs and government policies on asylum seekers”.
‘In conclusion the ABC apologist concluded “Mr Morrison has publicly discussed his religious beliefs on numerous occasions and many media outlets have explored how his faith sits alongside his public policies and statements, including News Corporation”, he said.
As to ABC’s Charter and Code, under which it operates.
ABC distinguishes between four types of content for which the general underlying principle of appropriate context applies: news and current affairs, opinion, topical and factual, and performance. Under the code, the broadcaster is required to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and current affairs information ‘is accurate according to the recognised standards of objective journalism’. This applies with respect to ‘assertions of fact of fact, not to expressions of opinion’. The code states that it is the aim of the broadcaster to equip audiences with information so that they are able to make up their own minds on issues, which differs from commercial media ‘which are free to be partial to private interests’.
Appropriate context under the code also relates to fair and honest dealings, avoiding gratuitous harm or offence, the protection of young people and the protection of privacy.
However, the question of what is meant by legitimate context in ABC’s code has, at times, been contentious. For example, it is unacceptable under ABC’s code to use language, sounds or imagery simply to offend, but it is acceptable to use such language for bono fide purposes. Content which disparages or discriminates on a number of grounds, including race, sex, age, disability, religion, and cultural or political belief or activity, is unacceptable.
By its very nature, ABC is under particular pressure around neutrality, due to the expectations arising from its public ownership. It is clear that the organisation is struggling to lead and manage this culture. The question is why and what, if anything, can be done.
It is apparent that the current Board of the Corporation (The ABC) is not up to the task of requiring the management to follow up on their corporate and community charter. So, perhaps the time has come to appoint an independent watchdog for a period of twelve months to oversee their editorial content and make direct recommendations to the Parliament as to future operational directions.
All media organisations share similar challenges. Their role in providing news, current affairs and events-related entertainment is to provide journalism that meets the public’s demand for information. Often, there is a healthy conflict between what journalists believe should have priority and the demands of the market.
Commercial media managers know that too narrow an editorial focus will reduce audience size; as such, they identify lucrative target markets and commission relevant content accordingly. While there is plenty of push and shove in this process, success is determined by readership and viewer ratings, which eventually translate into advertising revenue. Throughout these constant and often intense negotiations, agreed levels of editorial independence must be maintained.
ABC, on the other hand, receives confused market signals. The board and management provide no public guidance as to what constitutes success or failure.
The relevant part of the ABC Act, Section 6 (2) (iii) reads, ‘The responsibility of the Corporation as the provider of an independent national broadcasting service [is] to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs’.
As there are no accepted definitions of ‘wide appeal’ and ‘specialised’, nor which programs meet which criteria and how success should be measured, it is virtually impossible to determine how ABC is performing. Nevertheless, not doing so contravenes the spirit of the act. It is also fraught with danger.
Prime Minister Morrison, the split in the last election vote was 42% to the Conservatives and the balance to the rest. Should ABC remain unable to find more balance, perhaps reducing their budget by 42% might help them do so. At least this would mean the 42% that remains unrepresented by them would not be paying for their lopsided views.
ABC has heeded the preferences of its internal culture for far too long. Clearly, ABC needs some leadership in this area. It is high time.