Christians don’t get a fair go in the media, or why Eric Abetz gets it right

MEDIA WATCH | John Sandeman

Monday 19 October 2015

Senator Eric Abetz’s claim that Christian conservative politicians don’t get fair treatment by the Canberra Press Gallery deserves to be taken seriously.

Abetz told The Australian’s media editor, Sharri Markson that “Journalists will need to explain why they do this, but it is very clear that if somebody swears their oath on the Koran, this is a wonderful expression of diversity and to be encouraged, whereas if you swear your oath on the Bible then you’re an old fart and not to be taken seriously. Well, excuse me, what’s the difference?

“There is a special negative-sentiment override for those that profess the Christian faith.”

Abetz gave Markson the example of Tony Abbott being called the “Mad Monk”.
“Just imagine making fun of somebody else’s religion of a different nature, as in if you are a Muslim, Buddhist or a Hindu,” he said.

“There is the double standard that you can basically vilify anyone from the Christian side of the tracks but don’t you dare touch anyone else.”

It’s not just about a nickname. Abetz makes the point that conservative Christians get scant sympathy.

Some media insiders agree with him. Buzzfeed’s political editor Rob Scott tweeted in response, “Abetz has a point but what a dummy spit”.

A few weeks ago, Andrew West, compere of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report told fellow ABC presenter Richard Glover, “The thirty per cent of Australians that are social conservatives don’t get a fair go in the media”.

Andrew’s programme is one place that does strive for fair coverage for religious minorities, which possibly means it is the exception that proves the rule.

Despite the Christian point of view being out of fashion or even abhorrent to some, media ethics should mean that it is covered and given space, airtime or pixels.

Abetz comes from a conservative evangelical background, and his brother Walter has been a long time leader in “Assembly of Confessing Congregations”, a conservative network within the Uniting Church in Australia. (Full disclosure, this writer edited their magazine AACatalyst until recently.)

Meanwhile, over the weekend The Australian carried a report, “‘Be prepared to die for God’ kids told in state school classes” describing a Year 9 Special Religious Education curriculum based on the book You: An Introduction by Michael Jensen, senior minister of Darling Point Anglican in Sydney’ inner East, and a regular Eternity columnist.

The Australian’s story summarised the views of some lobbyists against Scripture teaching in public schools, in particular painting the You material as somewhat extremist.

The Australian points to a letter written in You by Bronwyn Chin who died of pancreatic cancer in 2013. “I would like to grow old with my husband and see my kids grow up. But God appears to have a better plan,’’ the letter says.

Her minister, Sandy Grant of St Michaels Cathedral, Wollongong, wrote a moving letter to the editor in response.

“Is it really so odd to suggest that suffering can be an opportunity for growth?

“Though now attacked by a Victorian lobby group, I conducted Bronwyn Chin’s funeral, with over a thousand attending – evidence of admiration for her actions and attitude, including how she faced cancer.

“About one hundred were students from local high schools including her children’s, where lessons, such as the one with her reflection on cancer, are well received by those choosing SRE for their kids.”

Grant added, “Of course, admiration does not always equal agreement. But by Year 9, students often confront unpleasant topics, including illness and death, in English, History, PDHPE, alongside the school library and the Internet.”

Painting the issue of suffering, and the comfort of following Christ in difficult circumstances, as somehow extreme, is to marginalise Christianity as a whole – for Christians of many stripes from Pentecostal to Catholic will see a response to suffering as something central to their faith. (Our responses will vary, which makes the journos’ task in understanding us harder than it should be.)

When I worked in a newsroom, I had to spend a lot of time explaining to Christians that if the average journalist started to instinctively understand Christianity then either there had been a major revival in the paper, or that the Bible was wrong in saying that some things are “spiritually discerned”.

Yet Abetz’s point is a fair one. Despite the Christian point of view being out of fashion or even abhorrent to some, media ethics should mean that it is covered and given space, airtime or pixels.

That is clear in the journalist code of ethics regarding fair reporting.

There are two issues raised by Abetz. Does the Christian point of view, and in particular the activities of Christian politicians get fair coverage – by the Canberra Press Gallery in particular? It would be a brave person who could answer, “Yes”.

And does the media in general make much of a fist of understanding Christianity? Well, The Australian’s report on Scripture teaching and the You material will suggest the answer is no.

There have been suggestions by some Christians, upset at the story about You: An Introduction, to take The Australian to the press council for an allegedly misleading headline.

But The Australian, which is a socially conservative newspaper, tries hard to cover religion, and the fact that the Scripture issue got a bad story there indicates just how hard it is for Christians to get their point of view across.

If you can’t get good coverage in The Australian, for a conservative issue, where can you get it?

Assuming for a moment that the absence of a Christian voice in the story meant that the Christian groups were not approached (and this may be unfair) the Abetz thesis might seem to be proved.

But we should not leave things there.

The fragmented nature of the NSW scripture teaching scene may have made it hard to know where to turn.

Are there credible Christian spokespeople in journalists’ contact books? Making this happen is not just up to the reporters.

Rather than seeking to reap retribution on the journalist, it might be worth working out how Christians can be more effective in getting their view across. Christian organisations should be proactive in talking to newsrooms, in my view, if they wish to be effective, and not simply wait for the calls to come.

Much of the momentum in the Scripture in Schools issue comes from Victoria where Special Religious Instruction has been squeezed out of classroom time.

It is fair to say that the Christian groups in that state were on the back foot from the start. It took a while for media professionals’ advice to be taken. Good media liaison may not win culture wars (and yes, it feels a bit like one is starting), but it can win skirmishes, or at least mean battles don’t get lost by default.

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