I worked for the ABC for thirteen years, during the 1970s and 1980s, mainly as a producers-directors assistant in television, so back then I understood something of its ethos, although it’s obviously evolved a different ethos since then. I left in 1986 to finish my studies and train for the priesthood.
In the early 1990s, while beavering away on my doctorate, I was laid low with a cold, one rainy winter’s day, and stayed home in front of the television. Naturally, it was tuned to the ABC, since I still clung to the entrenched illusion that the national broadcaster was superior to the commercial media. While I was stretched out on the lounge, miserable, a children’s education program came on air. It was about Northern Ireland and was either made by the ABC, or the voice-over was dubbed by the ABC, I couldn’t tell which.
As the program began, the camera slowly pulled out to reveal a wide-shot of a town or village, or maybe it slowly zoomed into a close-up, I’m no longer sure. The voice-over said something like, and I paraphrase: “There are two kinds of people in Northern Ireland: Catholics who regard the Pope as the head of their Church and Protestants who regard the Queen as the head of their Church.”
Thus a simplistic scene was set for educating Australian children about the complex situation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which wanted to give the impression that the Troubles were a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants rather than a nationalist conflict between Republicans and Unionists.
There was one problem, though. The voice-over wasn’t true. It might be the kind of generalisation one hears in pubs and coffee shops, or anywhere the misinformed pass on misinformation, but it was outrageous coming from the national broadcaster. While it’s always tempting to use simple messages to convey complex subjects, Aunty had a responsibility to do better, and I wrote a letter to the head of the ABC saying so.
My letter was dutifully referred to the responsible branch—which, by the way, I had worked in ten years earlier—and in due course I receive a response from the branch head, written in consultation with one of his senior program officers. It was the kind of intrinsically superior letter one expects from intrinsically superior individuals working for an intrinsically superior institution. Although neither the branch head nor the senior program officer had any idea of what they were talking about, they assumed I was wrong, and felt obliged to tell me so. (Apparently the ABC is like that these days.) They told me about something historically important, which I was apparently unaware of, called the Protestant Reformation, and to settle the issue they enclosed a copy of the Act of Settlement 1701, presumably to prove the voice-over was true. To mix metaphors, they were drawing a long bow, shooting themselves in the foot, and waving a red rag in front of a bull.
Leaving aside the issue of the Protestant succession, which is irrelevant in this case, several points ought to be made. First, during the Troubles, the majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland may have remained loyal to the sovereign as Unionists but they did not belong to a church which regarded the sovereign as its head. Second, the sovereign is only head of the Church of England where it is established: that is, in England and nowhere else. Third, the Anglican Church in Ireland was disestablished in 1871, and the Anglican Church in Wales in 1920. Fourth, outside of England, all worldwide provinces of the Anglican communion are autonomous, including the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Ireland. Fifth, in answering the question “Is the Church of Ireland Protestant or Catholic?” that church’s website states:
It is both Protestant and Catholic. For this reason it is incorrect to refer to members of the Church of Ireland as “non-Catholic” … The Church of Ireland is Catholic because it is in possession of a continuous tradition of faith and practice, based on Scripture and early traditions, enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, together with the sacraments and apostolic ministry. The Church of Ireland is Protestant, or Reformed, because it affirms “its constant witness against all those innovations in doctrine and worship, whereby the Primitive Faith hath been from time to time defaced or overlaid”.
(Preamble and Declaration to the Constitution of the Church of Ireland of 1870, 1.3)
The issue can be clearly put. The late Reverend Ian Paisley was not an Anglican. He was Presbyterian. Although it is Anglican, the Church of Ireland does not regard the sovereign as its head and neither does it represent the majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland. Were these facts too difficult for the researchers and program staff of the ABC to absorb?
While we can understand why the average Australian may not be able to distinguish between Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists in Northern Ireland—and can be forgiven for confusing a nationalist conflict between Republicans and Unionists with a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants—surely we expect more from the ABC than the mindless dissemination of cultural prejudices, especially when it comes to educating children.
Since receiving my intrinsically superior letter from Aunty, I no longer believe the commercial media is inferior.
Dr Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.