Gayby Baby, scripture in schools and making a noise

MEDIAWATCH | John Sandeman
Tuesday 1 September 2015

In the last two weeks, two controversial activities have been pushed from class time in state schools. In NSW the Gayby Baby movie, an account of four children growing up with gay parents, was banned from screening to the whole of Burwood Girls High School, in the inner west of Sydney. In Victoria, Special Religious Instruction was pushed out of school time to before or after school or lunchtime.

In both cases a band of passionate supporters was left feeling bereft. Both moves by the respective state ministers of education were swift, unexpected, and done with little consultation. Both moves left winners and losers. In Victoria, ACCESS Ministries appeared to lose and the anti-scripture lobby group won, and in NSW the parents and churches who complained about the movie emerged the victors while the school and the alumni who had made the movie and set a up “wear it purple” day in support of LGBT students lost. Both cases made living in Australia feel more like the USA and its culture wars.

There is a common lesson in both cases too: a small determined lobby group can achieve their desired outcome, be it banning a controversial programme from a school, or shifting scripture to out of school hours. In both cases the media amplified the protests and was key to forcing change.

It was the Daily Telegraph’s Wednesday morning front pager “GAY CLASS UPROAR: Parents outraged as Sydney school swaps lessons for PC film session” that kicked off the mini culture war.

But the war was already over. The movie session, set up as a compulsory all school session, had been made voluntary by the time the Telegraph printed their story. And the Tele also lamely reported that the Education Minister had already moved the film out of school hours.

So the media reporting really happened after the issue was settled. The coverage only stoked up the culture war with those for or against the movie screening getting even more stirred up. By contrast, the Victorian decision to remove scripture from schools had been a slow moving train wreck with a long media campaign by opponents of ACCESS Ministries finally achieving their desired result. If one of the lessons from Victoria was that Christians should have a more effective response to a media campaign, then a lesson from NSW might be not to shout too loudly.

A prescient word came from Mark Thompson, principal of Moore Theological College, in the Sydney Morning Herald a few days before the Gayby Baby furore. Writing about the gay marriage debate he commented: “Shouting louder and hurling abuse is no substitute for careful argument and reasoned conclusions. Threatening those who disagree with you with legal or economic sanctions might eventually force them into silence but at what cost to democracy and free speech?”

This time the Telegraph and those opposed to the LGBT lobby shouted loudest, at least for a time.

A local minister, Mark Powell of Cornerstone Presbyterian, accused the school of promoting a gay lifestyle on radio station 2UE “The students who oppose a gay lifestyle are the ones feeling ostracised. I am concerned with the shutting down of the freedom of speech and this is what the gay lobby does.”

He had a good point. The combination of a compulsory, all-school screening of the movie on the “wear it purple” day – where students are invited to wear purple in support of LGBT students – would have meant Christian or Islamic students with a different view might have felt ostracised.

Interestingly enough, the openly gay Liberal MP, Shayne Mallard, agreed, telling the Legislative Council, “It is possible that Burwood Girls High School … could have handled the communication of the film’s presentation better.” He also pointed out that the school’s over enthusiasm to show the movie could be partly accounted for by the fact that the films director Maya Newell, is an old girl of the school.

At this point I have to admit to being a local and that the school is within walking distance of my house. My local Anglican church has been able to hold Christian seminars in the school for years and the school has been very co-operative. My minister alerted us to the issues and asked us to pray especially for the school head Mia Kumar, and discouraged outrage or loud protest.

It’s likely that those who did protest – and probably a protestor tipped off the Telegraph – may not have anticipated the media storm. But to heighten the tensions between students of different backgrounds is not particularly helpful. Shouting is no substitute for debate – or conversation – as Mark Thompson pointed out. I hope that pushing the movie out of the school day does not lead to a call for the Christian seminars we organise to meet the same fate.

The Gayby Baby story has seen some instances of just plain bad reporting. The Telegraph’s Miranda Devine, whatever one thinks of her opinions, is a reporter who is meticulous with her facts (she is a former colleague), observing in her Telegraph column, “This newspaper reported accurately the concerns of numerous parents at Burwood Girls High over the planned compulsory screening to all 1,200 students of the overtly political documentary promoting same-sex parenting.

“Those concerns included direct complaints to the school and complaints made via three religious ministers acting on parental request. It was in response to those complaints that principal Mia Kumar changed her mind on Monday and allowed students to opt out of the screening.

“Yet the department pretended there had been no complaints from parents, thus portraying our story as inaccurate and, worse, muzzling those concerned parents.

“A department spokesperson was quoted in The Guardian on Wednesday, saying: ‘The school has not received any complaints from Burwood High School parents’. That just wasn’t true.”

Other stories asserted boldly that the movie had been banned from schools. The Sydney Morning Herald’s education reporter, Eryk Bagshaw, wrote, “On Wednesday, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli took the extraordinary step of using his ministerial powers to ban a film about the children of gay parents, Gayby Baby, from being shown during school hours.”

The Education Minister made it clear that he did not impose an absolute ban. He was happy for the movie to be shown in classes where it fit in the curriculum. He was opposed to “all-school” showings.

In the rush to culture war, subtlety is always lost.

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