Section for Jupp et al (eds) Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia
Religion and the media: content and approach
Religion is a social process that necessarily depends on communication, through which it can call communities of faith into being and sustain them through time. In contemporary multicultural Australia religion thus has a close relationship with the major avenues of communication, namely the mass media and increasingly the world of the internet. The three broad areas of media – production, content, and consumption – expose the complex ways in which ideas of the sacred on the one hand, and the social understanding of believers and non-believers on the other, are produced, circulated, interpreted and transformed. Much of the research on media and religion focuses on content and how it can be interpreted. This is a field of considerable controversy, reflecting as it does ideologies about the media and their role, as well as those about the relation of religion to society.
The mass media broadly share the widely held sentiment, that Australia has developed as a secular society infused with what may be called “Judaeo-Christian” values. The idea of secularism implies that the public institutions of government and society are not the reflection of any institutionally-embedded sectarian religious discourse, even though religious beliefs and practices are recognised as legitimate and argued by some to be fundamental to the working of society. A significant though declining majority of Australians regularly self-identify as holding a belief in a supernatural order, mostly associated with variations of the Christian view of the order of Heaven – a masculinist discourse of Father and Son held together by sacrifice, sometimes leavened by an important role for Mary as the Mother of the Christ. The other Abrahamic (Judaism, Islam) religions hold sway over a smaller but growing group of residents, weighted here to more recent arrivals. Buddhism is also growing though it still reflects the beliefs of only a small minority. About one quarter of Australians profess no religious belief or decline to nominate their beliefs in the national Census. The tension between a broadly secular sense of the social world, and the majoritarian espousal of Christianity-influenced values and behaviours, finds expression in the media.
If religious belief can be taken as a subset of broader cultural mores, then research on the media and cultural difference is useful in drawing out some of the key issues for the relations between media and religion. Media researchers generally agree that the complex media forms of today play very important roles in weaving together cultural groups, both within their own realms of action, and in the wider framework of national social structure. These networks of interaction, called communities, are made possible beyond face-to-face engagement by access to shared media organs, through which information is circulated, ideas and values promoted and tested, and narratives of morality infused with meaning and practical relevance.
Media studies tend to be interdisciplinary in their interrogations, drawing on approaches ranging from the psychological/cognitive, to the interpersonal and the societal/global. Drawing on this interdisciplinarity suggests that we can best understand the media/religion nexus in the cosmopolitan or at least culturally diverse society that is Australia, through an exploration of the ways in which cultural world-views are inflected by religious beliefs, and are incorporated into society-wide interpretive frameworks that emerge as the domain assumptions underpinning media discourses. Most religious conflict tends to be reported in the media as a consequence of cultural practices associated with the ethno-religious origins of groups, rather than a direct result of the specific beliefs embedded in religious teachings, though many of the arguments of antagonists may seek to mobilise religious dogma.
International research on religion and media includes discussions of religion, politics and the media, the role of the media as a site for the re-sacralization of the modern world, religious authority and the mediation of knowledge in secular societies, specific religions and their representation in the media, and the rise in the West and expansion in emerging societies of evangelical religions and their proselytising use of media and spectacle.
The production/content/audience model allows a systematic exploration of two “sides” of media/religion relationships. The first side concerns the ways in which secular media interpret and communicate religion, while the second side concerns the ways in which religious institutions use the media to build community and defend their interests.
Secular media and religion
When News Corporation’s company Fox Entertainment Group, part of the global conglomerate controlled by former Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch, purchased the web site “BeliefNet” as it did in December 2007, the nexus between religion, the media, and economic power was for a moment exposed to public view. The interweaving of religious views, political ideology and communication media has a long history in Australia.
The media in Australia encompasses a wide range of technologies, political orientations and audiences. The Australian media (electronic and print) are essentially privatised in the hands of large corporations (such as News Ltd, PBL and Fairfax), apart from the government-owned broadcasters (Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC and Special Broadcasting Service SBS) and the small community-broadcast sector. With the advent of cable TV (the infrastructure is also in private hands) there is now a multitude of channels, some with community content, a very few owned by religious organisations. Satellite TV brings in further diversity, while the Internet provides myriad opportunities for both large corporate and smaller private and individual groups to produce content.
However the outlets controlled by the major corporate players dominate the information and entertainment consumed by most Australians, so that for most purposes it is the advertiser/publisher nexus that sets the dynamic within which the media operate. While some religious organisations have also owned commercial media (eg radio 2SM owned by the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese from 1931 to 1992, and the NSW Council of Churches owned 2CH 1931 to 1989) they were ultimately driven from the field by commercial realities and changing technologies. In its time though 2SM was known as a station that censored its playlists to accord with Church values – with negative consequences for its audience size. For the most part though the press and broadcast media accord with the broad secular orientation of the wider public. At the key Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas, this secularism is leavened by features and editorials addressing the wider social message of Christian teachings. The broad media do not normally draw equivalent implications from the celebration of Passover, Yom Kippur, Chanuka, Ramadan or Eid ul Fitr, other than to remark the occasions and perhaps report services or events.
From an early period in Australia’s history, hostility based on sectarian views typified the content of the press. J D Lang, an early non-conformist minister in Sydney, used the columns of his Colonial newspaper to argue against Catholic rights. The early Sydney Morning Herald also railed against the Catholic population, while Catholics had to buy space in the liberal secular press to communicate their views. Religion and religious freedom have been an issue for the media from the early days of settlement. Ebenezer Syme, one of the founders the Melbourne Age newspaper, declared it for religious freedom in the 1850s, as well as free secular and compulsory education. The religious freedom issue, by which for years was meant the freedom of the non-established Protestant churches (and also Catholics) to practice their faiths without intimidation by the Church of England, has had a sustained life in the media. Throughout the nineteenth century Catholicism increasingly secured leverage in relation to secular power, so that the period of about 1850 to 1950 can in part be understood as a time during which the primary schism in Australia was sectarian, where ethnicity (Irish) class (working) and religion (Catholic) reinforced each other.
We can see this clearly in relation to some of the more virulent media-enhanced debates over Christianity, found in the World War I struggles around conscription, and in the struggles around State Aid to church schools through the century until the 1960s. Irish-born Dr Daniel Mannix had already taken the lead in the struggle for government funding of Catholic schools on his arrival in Melbourne in 1913 as an assistant to the then archbishop, and had been criticised by Melbourne’s Argus as an interloper and newcomer who did not understand Australian politics. His role as a leader of the anti-conscription forces in 1917 made him a lure for media, which in general supported the national government of Billy Hughes. At the time the equation of Irish/Catholic/anti-Empire/anti-conscription tended to line up against British/Protestant/ pro-Empire/ pro-conscription position of the government. The newspapers of the day, particularly the popular and tabloid press, painted Mannix as a turncoat and traitor. The Age in 1917 would note that neither Mannix nor “any other R.C.” (Roman Catholic) had been observed to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the War. Indeed none of the major dailies diverged from the line of government support, so that it is surprising that at the Conscription Referendum of 1917 (by which time Mannix had become Archbishop) the government failed to gain the support it needed.
The State Aid debates reached their zenith in the 1960s, to be resolved by bi-partisan acceptance of central government support for Catholic education, and further legitimated by a High Court decision released in 1981. State aid had been withdrawn in the 1880s, at the time State school systems were established, and the tension around this issue had festered for three generations. By 1962 the Catholic Church system was under enormous strain, and the Church launched a political campaign for government funding; national media attention was triggered by a strike by Catholic parents in Goulbourn over poor facilities. After NSW ALP Premier Heffron’s attempt to fund Catholic schools was overturned by the Federal executive of the party, Liberal Prime Minister Menzies agreed to promise state aid for science blocks in private schools for the 1963 election, and the tide turned. By 1967 all state governments including those led by the ALP had some form of state aid, and the Whitlam replacement of Calwell inside the ALP spelled the effective end of the divide there. The 1972 ALP Federal government institutionalised state aid through the Federal Schools Commission. Media coverage of the debates was crucial to the general acceptance of the changes, though from 1965 an anti-state aid group Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) was able to secure continuing media coverage, through until its defeat in a 1981 High Court challenge. The perceived traditional anti-Catholic bias of the Fairfax media in Sydney was still evident in the somewhat sectarian accounts of the issues, but as the state-aid funds would also go to private Protestant church schools, the critique of Catholicism was somewhat muted, until in effect it disappeared.
There has been continuing media interest in other aspects of Christian religion issues, in particular stories focussing on sexual misdemeanours of the clergy. Probably the most important involvement by the media has been in the pursuit and public “outing” of paedophile priests and ministers. The targets have been equally Catholic and Anglican clergy, so that no specific sectarian strain is noticeable. Two cases are illustrative of the rather different approaches that have evolved – populist crusading, and evidence-based investigative research. The first case relates to a former Catholic priest Michael Glennon, convicted for sexual abuse of young Aboriginal boys in 2003. Glenn had been suspended and then ejected from the priesthood during the 1970s and 1980s; he became a media cause celebre in 1985. Glennon was “outed” by Melbourne radio “shock jock” Derryn Hinch as a convicted pedophile allowed to work with young girls: Hinch’s broadcast occurred while Glennon was on trial for other charges, and led to Hinch being convicted and gaoled for 10 days for contempt of court. Glennon was later to successfully appeal a conviction on the basis of media coverage prejudicing the trial, though that in turn was overturned by the High Court.
A case with rather greater political impact affected a prominent Anglican bishop Peter Hollingworth who had been appointed Governor General by the Howard government. Leaving aside the symbolic implications of a conservative Anglican replacing Labor’s progressive Catholic lawyer William Deane, Hollingworth’s appointment as a cleric to represent the Queen of Australia, who as Queen of England is head of the established church of England, could well be seen by some as a provocation in a secular multicultural society in which Anglicans comprised a declining minority. Soon after he took up office a series of revelations about his time as Archbishop of Brisbane appeared in the media; the brunt of the allegations was that he had covered up for an Anglican priest who had molested girls some decades before, protecting him from expulsion. A strong media campaign ensued, led primarily by The Australian newspaper. Hollingworth’s defenders, such as former Victorian Governor Richard McGarvie, have argued that the media’s power to force his resignation was dangerous and threatened Australian democracy. Be that as it may, Hollingworth did resign, and was replaced by another practising Christian, this time the former military officer Michael Jeffrey.
It could be argued then that the media are closely involved in the monitoring of the relation between the Christian churches and the state, especially in relation to symbolic practices which indicate wider social controversies – such as those about sexuality and those relating to the republic and governance.
While Australia is ostensibly secular, its institutions have been clearly been influenced by the Christian traditions of the British Isles. Yet Jewish communities have played an important part in the development and leadership of those institutions, such as the role of Sir John Monash as the commander of Australian forces in the Great War, and Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowan as Governors General. The media response to the Jewish presence has however been typified at various times by stereotypical anti-Semitism. Three periods exemplify this antagonism – the period around the 1938 Evian Conference on refugees from Nazi Germany, the immediate post-Second World War period particularly affecting Jewish refugees from China, and the contemporary period of the Palestinian Intafada against Israel.
During the 1930s right-wing newspapers and weeklies such as The Truth, Smith’s Weekly and The Bulletin regularly pilloried Jewish refugees, providing a pale local reflection of Nazi papers such as Der Sturmer. In their populist orientation Jews were painted as bloated capitalists and even Nazi spies (The Bulletin pictured this through its “John Bull Cohen” character where it was supposedly British Jewish bankers who were pursuing profits at the expense of deepening the Depression in Australia).
This perspective continued in the post-war period, where Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell initially agreed to accept Jewish refugees, only to be forced through public and media pressure to introduce draconian quotas. Most famously again The Bulletin portrayed Calwell as a Jewish pied-piper, leading caricatured Jews with large noses and long coats, into the Promised Land of Australia. Media antagonism to Jewish immigration, which eventually contributed to a government decision to impose the quota on Jews, was exacerbated by the struggle against the British mandate power in Palestine to establish a Jewish state. Even in Australia the older Anglo-Australian communities of Mosaic faith were reluctant to expose themselves to the anti-Semitism stirred by the events in the Middle East.
From the establishment of Israel on, the conflicts in the Middle East have flavoured media orientations towards Jews in Australia, while the reverse has also been important. Two broadly opposed perspectives on the media and modern Jewry have been advanced by those who are either pro- or anti-Israel. In the case of the former, the media are seen as a major arena of struggle and importance for support for Israel. The media, particularly the Fairfax press and the ABC, are perceived as left of centre and critics of Israel, masking their deep-seated but socially-unacceptable anti-Semitism in the political language of balance and objectivity. Meanwhile those who support the Palestinian struggle for a homeland, argue that the Australian media (especially the Murdoch press) are heavily pro-Zionist, and systematically portray the Arab cause and Arabs as dangerous, anti-democratic and racist. In this view the media represent entrenched pro-Jewish and Zionist interests, which are part of the Australian elite.
The media relation with Islam is perhaps the most controversial dimension of media and cultural diversity. At the international level media battles over the representation of Islam have led to major diplomatic confrontations, such as with the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006. In Australia the popular media have been the most criticised for their portrayal of Muslims, their encouragement of hysteria about Islamic fundamentalism, and their willingness to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.
Australian research has shown systematic stereotyping, the promotion of negative images and perspectives, and the increasing linking of any reporting or discussing of Islam with terrorism. Key incidents that have attracted media attention include a series of events with asylum seekers off Western Australia in 2001, soon before the New York 9/11 terrorist attacks, then the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, the Jakarta Australian embassy bombing of 2004, the London bombings of 2005 and the attempts in 2007, the arrests of the “home grown” alleged terrorists in England and Australia and the continuing horrific news of deaths from Iraq. While terrorism has clearly been a matter of continuing concern for the media, the argument is made that the undifferentiated reporting of Muslims and Islam in association with violence and terrorism has had a major and deleterious affect on community relations between everyday Muslims with no association with terrorism, and their fellow citizens.
Local and state media have played a key role in publicising one of the more divisive issues that involve Muslim communities. With the rapid growth and increasing prosperity of Muslim communities and their diversity and geographic spread, there have been many occasions where communities have sought to build new religious schools or mosques. Planning decisions on these applications are the responsibility of local government, and have often triggered local protest – ranging from religious bigotry to worries about traffic and noise. Local newspapers in particular have been active participants in the discussion of these issues, their approach ranging from the balanced to the inflammatory. These events have also become fuel for television satirical comedy, when the ABC show The Chaser set up a table with a mosque model in the heart of the upper middle class Anglo-Australian Sydney suburb of Mosman, and then filmed the reactions of the local residents (mostly negative and horrified) when they were told the mosque was planned for their neighbourhood.
In the Australian context the most analysed event has been the December 2005 so-called riots at Cronulla, a beachside suburb south of Sydney. Some 5000 people gathered to “protect” the beach from the perceived threat from young Muslim men arriving from western Sydney to use the beach, but also allegedly to harass local women and attack local lifesavers. The police report noted the role of the media in helping to instigate and organise the event, in particular detailing the participation of commercial radio talk-back “shock jocks” in giving airtime to racist agitators, and supporting their inflammatory hate speech.
This controversy points also to the levels of analysis applied to the media. The print media publish all of these types of material – ostensibly balanced and neutral news reports, far more idiosyncratic and personal opinion columnists, and a range of reader comments. The most controversial material can be found written by the columnists, where for the most part the views represented tend to be conservative, nationalistic, Anglo-centric and suspicious of diversity and difference. Similarly the talk-back commentators on commercial radio reflect similar stances (and may be the same people), drawing on their listeners’ often populist prejudices and seeking to mobilise public opinion on controversial issues, often in relation to Islamic communities and refugees and asylum seekers. There is more debate about the intent, content, and effects of straight news reporting. Some analysts argue that there persists a systematic bias underpinning news reporting (and the headlines that guide readers’ attention and the images that illustrate the stories), so that a meta-level review of the print media over time reveals a deeply embedded set of narratives that privilege and reinforce Anglo-Christian world views. If this perception is valid, it is hardly surprising, given the broad nature of Australian society. However in a culturally pluralist and multifaith society there may well be dangerous consequences for social cohesion and intergroup relations if prejudices are allowed to masquerade as objective truths.
Religions and their media
Many religious bodies have their own media, such as the official Catholic Weekly, and some religious communities also support private media such as the Jewish News. With the expansion of the Internet, many congregations now host their own pages or websites, while various fora have been created for online discussion of religious issues. Where religious communities have seen the need to forge a particular identity in the face of major social change, as with the Sydney evangelical groups in the Anglican communion, the internet has been a major focus of effort and investment. However from the outset of organised religion media outlets have played an important part in their development and survival.
The Catholic Weekly (Sydney Archdiocese) is descended from the first Catholic newspaper, the Australasian Chronicle, established under Bishop Polding’s guidance in 1839 to challenge the sustained attacks on Catholics perceived to be the mainstream of the supposedly secular but in reality Protestant press. By the end of the century the Catholic Press was composed of pro- and anti- monastic forces, organised as well around opposing views regarding Home Rule for Ireland. By 1917 only the Catholic Press and the The Worker (a union newspaper) were opposing the government’s push for conscription. The Press came under threats of censorship, having decided to back Mannix in Melbourne, rather than the pro-war and conscription Archbishop Kelly of Sydney.
By the 21st century many Catholic dioceses were publishing their own weekly or monthly newspapers, as well as publishing online versions. The hard copy versions indeed were under some stress, with the readers of the free-access online pages being invited to show their commitment by also subscribing to the paid paper editions. Brisbane published the Catholic Leader ( which described itself as Australia’s leading Catholic newspaper), while Melbourne published Kairos each fortnight, described as a journal.
Protestant church communities were also active in publishing newspapers. The free colony of South Australia featured a variety in the nineteenth century, such as Colonization Commissioner George Angas’ Protestant Advocate and Family Newspaper, the Congregational Church’s Christian Colonist which after 20 years was absorbed into the national Australian Christian World. The Colonist pursued a progressive evangelical position, advocating for women’s suffrage, opposing state aid to religion, and campaigning against the British opium trade in China. Other denominations also published their own journals such as The Primitive Methodist Record, The Free Presbyterian, and the long-running Catholic Church Southern Cross.
The advent of the new century allowed a foregrounding of modernist views evident in more minority religious outlets such as Adelaide’s Century/ Morning, with links to the Swedenborgian/ Theosophist groups, demonstrating their commitment to vegetariansim, socialism and opposition to White Australia. The creation of the Methodist church in 1900 led to a new journal The Australian Christian Commonwealth, which continued into the 21st century as the Uniting Church New Times.
One of the more dramatic though fringe publications that agitated against Catholicism was The Rock (1945-1995), a radical Protestant publication that combined the reporting of alleged lurid sex scandals involving priests and nuns, with the excoriation of Catholic theology and attacks on the alleged allegiance of Catholics to Rome. While fairly widely distributed in the late 1940s ,1950s and into the 1960s, its last major campaign concerned state aid. Australian writer Thomas Keneally, of Irish Catholic origin, notes in an autobiographical interview that The Rock was influential during his childhood in stimulating local anti-Catholic feeling in New South Wales.
While the religious press had historically performed a dual function – propagation of the particular faith and the criticism of other faiths, the ecumenical flavour of the Christian churches’ public statements produced by the reconciliations after the Vatican Council, have made sectarianism far less of an issue. Indeed with the interfaith councils and dialogues promoted by government after the events of 9/11, the general public critiques of other faiths has faded in the widely accessible media.
One example however of the continuing aggressive role of some evangelical Christian faiths was exposed in an acerbic interchange between Catch the Fire ministry, and the Victorian Islamic Council. From 2002 to 2006 the Islamic Council was locked into a series of legal challenges, appeals and re-hearings before Tribunals and Courts with the leaders of Catch the Fire, over the publication in leaflets and on the web, of attacks on the faith of Islam. The central issue was the right of a Christian body to portray Muslims in a negative way – and if doing so was a breach of the 2002 Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. For our purposes it is the process of publication that has revealed the tension between ideas of free speech and ideas of the right to be protected from vilification on the basis of religious belief. Following mediation the two sides agreed to respect the rights of people to pursue their beliefs, and to speak and publish freely about their beliefs, within the law.
The internet has clearly transformed the way in which religions proselytise and build communities of believers. In this it has built a new layer on the mass audiences already created through radio and television. In addition to the mass media, cable television has also expanded dramatically the reach of the messages produced by various religions, permitting an integration of many media and allowing a careful targeting of messages. Again it is the evangelical Christian churches that have apparently been the most successful in this work, demonstrated by the rapid increase in Pentecostalist identification over the period 1996 to 2006 (a 26% increase – while Catholicism had increased by 7%, while Anglicanism had declined by 5%, and the Uniting Church by 15%).
The Pentecostalist churches such as the Hillsong example in Sydney, have developed a global reach; Hillsong has a centre in Texas, from which it distributes DVDs in North America, as well as running the most successful Christian program on American cable tv. In Australia Hillsong offers a full range of media, including internet, DVDs, and pay television. The Church uses popular music, including a range of extremely successful prize-winning CD albums, and also operates an academy for music through which many of its younger adherents are trained. One effect of this engagement with music has been the success of evangelically-trained singers in popular shows such as Australian Idol. The first Idol winner Guy Sebastian came from an Adelaide Pentecostalist congregation; in 2008 he was the voice of the theme song for the Catholic church’s World Youth Day, in which Pope Benedict visited Australia. In a slightly ironic turn, the finalists for the 2007 Australian Idol were a blond Anglo-Australian young man of evangelical beliefs from Cronulla backed by the Pentecostalist churches, and a Maltese-Australian young woman strongly backed by her local Catholic Parish and the wider Catholic youth movement. Given there are 23 times more Catholics than Pentecostalists, it is a testament to the organising capacity of the latter and their strong concentration in the young adult demographic that they could hold their own until the final.
Among Muslim communities with their wide variety of ethnicities (over 60 countries of origin are represented in the Australian ummah) the common language is English, even though the liturgical language is of course Arabic. Given the high proportion of Muslims who are Australian–born, and young, the Internet has also become a major avenue of communication. A small number of locally made television programs are narrowcast on community cable tv (such as Melbourne’s Café Salam), while various community radio stations provide time for the different tendencies and ethnicities. On sites such as MuslimVillage, run by a Sydney-based group of young Muslim activists, the many tendencies and factions among Muslims are played out in the hundreds of threads that now crowd the site. As well the site carries links to hundreds of other organizations, which often have their own forums and discussion threads. MuslimVillage gives particular prominence to issues associated with communal leadership, stimulating open debate that acknowledges the etiquette of respect and calm engagement with issues.
Religion, media and cultural diversity
In mass societies religious communities above the size of a commune are really only feasible if they make use of media to build their bonding social capital. This realisation has been well identified by the major religious organisations in Australia, which have both a history of creating their own media, and of engaging with the wider media of secular society. The religious media are organs of both persuasion and reinforcement, while they offer protected public spheres for communicants to engage with questions of belief and doctrine.
Secular media on the other hand have wider social roles, for they are key participants in debates that go far beyond internal religious disputes. Rather they are involved in testing some key questions of modern democracy – for instance, the role of religion in a secular society, the relation between church and state, the relationship between public, sectoral and personal moralities, and the way in which religio-cultural differences should be identified, interpreted and communicated. With the expansion of electronic and cyber media, older arguments about the nature of mass media have taken a new turn. No longer is it enough to explore whether the media are ideologically biased or serve the interests of particular classes or interest groups; while this approach is still valid, the proliferation of media and the advent of what has been called the “prosumer” (producer/consumer) has made simple statements less useful.
In early 2008 Geert Wilders a Dutch right-wing parliamentarian launched an anti-Muslim film Fitna on YouTube, claiming that the Quran advocated violence, and Islam should be banned from Holland. The mere claim that the film was to be shown elicited world-wide anger from Muslim governments, and when it was launched on LiveLeak it was at first taken down from its YouTube mirror. The debate however moved on when a young Muslim Raed AlSaeed uploaded a response to Fitna, entitled Schism, demonstrating the dangers of the Bible and fundamentalist Christianity. Made in 24 hours for almost no cost, it ends with the laconic insight, that both Fitna and Schism suffer from the same failing, a massive selective perception geared towards reinforcing prejudice instead of understanding.
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