No evidence of media prejudice against Catholicism

Claims that Fairfax and the ABC are picking on the Catholic Church are baffling.


Did you know Fairfax and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are involved in a concerted attack on religious freedom in general, and the Catholic Church in particular?

You didn't? Well, Sen­ator George Brandis thinks you should.

Two weeks ago, the federal Attorney-General delivered a lec­ture on religious freedom to the Law School of the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. Freedom of religion is too often ignored, he complained, when human rights and freedoms are discussed and defended. He then launched into an extraordinary attack on Fairfax Media and the ABC.

It is worth quoting at some length:

"In fact, not only has reli­gious freedom been neglected, it has actually been the subject of open attack from those who domin­ated much of our political discourse, particularly in the national broadcaster and the Fairfax media. Almost invariably, their tar­gets have been the Christian churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, and people of Jewish faith. Indeed, so deaf have we become to attacks upon reli­gious liberty, so accepting have we been of the open scorn with which their tenets, their liturgy, their customs, their clergy and their congregations have been derided, that the great Dyson Heydon, delivering the Acton Lecture in April of this year, was moved to describe anti-Catholicism in mod­ern Australia as 'the racism of the intellectuals'."

Did Brandis offer his listeners a single example of this onslaught against religious freedom? Did he quote one program on the ABC, or one article in a Fairfax newspaper, that treated Catholic or Jewish tenets, liturgy and congregations with scorn? No, he did not; not one; which prompts me to wonder what the hell he was talking about.

Perhaps "the great" Dyson Heydon, AC, QC, lately of the High Court of Australia, can enlighten us. His Acton Lecture consisted mainly of an account of the attack on the Catholic Church in 19th-century Germany led by Chancel­lor Otto von Bismarck, the so-called Kulturkampf [culture struggle].

Towards the end of his lecture, briefly, Heydon mentioned modern Australia. "Now there may be a new anti-Catholic movement, particularly among the intellectuals. . . It is in­tolerant. It is hypocritical. It fails to recognise the extraordinary con­tribution of Australian Catholicism to education, to charitable relief, to the running of hospitals, to social progress of all kinds, to political life, and indeed to the life of the nation as a whole."

Like Brandis, Heydon saw no need to bore his listeners with ac­tual instances or evidence.

After playing some long extracts from Senator Brandis's lecture on his Religion and Ethics Report, the ABC's Andrew West turned to that classic "anti-Catholic" intellectual, David Marr, for a "response". Marr said he "supposed" Brandis was referring to the way Fairfax and ABC journalists had covered the issue of child abuse.

But is this really what Brandis was referring to? Was he really claiming that the sustained criticism in the media of the way the Catholic Church, and other religious institutions, have dealt with both the victims and the perpetrators of child abuse - criti­cism that has been so amply justi­fied by the revelations of the current royal commission - consti­tuted a sustained and unjustified attack on the tenets, the liturgy, the customs, the clergy and the congregations of the Catholic Church (and, for that matter, on the Jewish faith)?

Does that critical journalism constitute what Heydon chose to call "the racism of the intellectu­als"? It doesn't seem tenable. Yet, if Brandis and Heydon were not talk­ing about the coverage of child abuse, what on earth were they talking about?

After all, Australian Catholics are doing pretty well at the mo­ment. In a Liberal-National Party Coalition government, the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the Treasurer and some five other cabinet ministers are Catholics.

The Catholic Church still seems to wield enormous influence in the Australian Labor Party and the wider labour move­ment. Overwhelmingly popular so­cial measures, from same-sex marriage to voluntary euthanasia, have been blocked in the Federal Parliament, largely thanks to the opposition of Christian, and especially Catholic, union leaders and parliamentarians of all parties. This is not a church that, to outside eyes, is suffering from persecution or loss of political clout.

But if Marr is right, and Brandis and Heydon are actually talking about the reportage and comment­ary surrounding child abuse, that would be even more troubling. Cer­tainly, investigative journalism by the likes of the Newcastle Herald's Joanne McCarthy and ABC Lateline's Suzanne Smith, among many others, led directly to the Gillard government's decision to set up the royal commission. Should those reporters instead have turned a blind eye to the perpetrat­ors and their protectors in the Catholic Church, out of respect for "the extraordinary contribution of Australian Catholicism"? Of course not.

It is shocking and unacceptable that the nation's senior law officer should be accusing two of its main media organisations of conducting a systematic campaign against re­ligious freedom, and that one of its most respected former High Court judges should be hurling around phrases such as "the racism of the intellectuals", both without offer­ing a skerrick of evidence or justi­fication. Gentlemen, I challenge you to put up, or back down.

Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.