Post-truth hits NSW

At a time when many people are rightly questioning facts and figures, and rolling our eyes at the concept of ‘alternative facts’, surely it is incumbent upon us to tread with great care before casting allegations into the public sphere.

In the space of 4 days, the same newspaper, Newcastle Herald, has published an astonishing 5 articles by the one journalist, talking to the same topic, Scripture Classes in NSW schools. There is little development of the story across these pieces, they are mostly repeating the same negative rhetoric toward SRE.

Given the nature of the accusations being made, it is important that the public is given balanced reporting, with opportunity for alternate views to be expressed. Sadly, such balance is absent in these articles. We read of a string of protagonists who are  quoted at length, but with no SRE supporters quoted at all (with one exception being a Youthworks statement from their website). Is this story so obvious and one-sided? It is one thing to find a couple of dissenting priests, one who is known for his dislike of orthodox Christianity and therefore is hardly representative of mainstream Christians in NSW. Why not ask the many clergy who support SRE? The one-sidedness of these stories is enough to sink a battleship!

A poll was attached to one of the articles, conducted by Fairfax and asking the question, ‘Should scripture in state schools be suspended until the NSW government releases its scripture review?’ Over 73% of the 5000+ respondents answered no. The cynical side of me suspects that this poll was placed in the middle of the article in order to garner wide public support for suspending SRE, except it fell flat.

Some of the allegations are relatively minor, but others are most serious. Of gravest note is the implication that Youthworks’ Connect material has been involved in the Royal Commission into child abuse, and that the material is creating space for ‘grooming. This is fallacious and slanderous. Child abuse is a national moral issue and allegations cannot be treated lightly or flippantly. The media, and any person for that matter, should refrain from drawing ties to abuse when there is no evidence, and should there be evidence, surely the authorities including police must be informed.

One of the two articles published this morning begins by stating,

“SCRIPTURE in public schools is not an issue about religious views or what you believe about the historical accuracy of the Bible, which is where a lot of the argument seems to settle these days given the heavy involvement of evangelical Christian churches.

The scripture debate is about a more basic issue than that – child protection.

For more than three years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has considered how institutions – churches, schools, sporting organisations, welfare providers, government departments, police, the justice system – have responded to child sexual abuse.

What can be said today, without any doubt, is that an institution with responsibility for children that fails to make child protection the top priority, is an institution where children are potentially at risk.” (Newcastle Herald, Feb 2nd)

It is astonishing to see a newspaper publishing not just sensationalism, but defamatory and slanderous claims. If I wrote an article linking an atheist group to child abuse, without clear evidence, I should expect to find myself in trouble.

Truth telling works both ways. SRE providers have a responsibility to work within the parameters set by Education Departments, and to ensure their material is age appropriate. When we make mistakes we must be eager to correct them. Evidence shows us that SRE providers continue to  work well with Education Departments in fulfilling all righteousness. The Queensland review is a clear example that the system is working well, with Youthworks taking ownership of poorly worded material and being quick to amend it.

I understand that not everyone likes the Bible and Christianity, and that some Australians have a view that such things don’t have place in a secular education. It is one thing for people to disprove of Scripture classes, but it is quite another to engineer false claims in order to have these classes suspended altogether. As it became apparent in Victoria, the agenda was not to suspend classes, but to remove Christian ideas and thinking out of schools completely, and the NSW public should not be tricked into thinking that those orchestrating the campaign are intending anything less.

We should also remember that no child is compelled to take SRE classes. Families have freedom to participate or not. That many thousands are choosing to enrol their children into the classes (I believe these numbers are growing in some schools), signals that not only SRE’s popularity but also the public wanting this curriculum for their children.

Perhaps leaders of the anti-SRE groups might consider arranging a face to face meeting with SRE providers? Would that not be more constructive rather than using newspapers to throw around out-dated and misinformation?

If we truly care for our children’s well being (and I’m sure that this is the case for people across the different perspectives on SRE), surely it is in our best interest to avoid false facts and stick close to what is true. 

This morning, as I read the Newcastle Herald, I remembered how a group of agitators conspired against Jesus. He did not retaliate or compromise integrity, he stood firm but not arrogantly, but with conviction and love, even for those who were accusing him. It is disingenuous to create an air of suspicion and fear by misrepresenting the facts and not publishing  balanced views. We should expect a higher standard of our media, but regardless of how Christians are portrayed, we must continue to graciously pursue what is good and right and noble.

“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23)

Below is a copy of the corrections that Youthworks released yesterday:

“We also submitted a correction request to the Newcastle Herald this morning, asking them to address serious inaccuracies and misleading statements regarding Connect and SRE more broadly. We are still yet the hear back from their editors.

Here are the changes we’ve asked for:

1. The Connect material never encourages students to have secrets with their SRE teachers or other adults.

2. The use of the term “Special friends” was used in the context of describing someone who is a follower of Jesus – “Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends”. Education Queensland acknowledged that while they understood the context – a child-friendly translation for Jesus’ disciples – the term was unsuitable in context of child protection, and asked CEP to use an alternative (p. 11 of the Education Queensland Review). There is no suggestion in the material that students should have special friendships with adults. The term has taken on a particularly insidious connotation since the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse and will be removed from future SRE material.

3. The Education Queensland Review never accuses or suggests that Connect encourages grooming behaviour, but provides recommendations where language and terminology has been unhelpful in this context.

4. The insinuation in the story that SRE has been a feature of the Royal Commission is untrue and intentionally misleading.

5. The articles contain a decontextualized quote asking about a man born blind: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?” which is used to imply that the curriculum links disability (in this instance, a man’s blindness) with sin. The quote in its actual context is a question asked of Jesus in a Bible passage, to which he immediately responds “No”. At no point are students asked this question, nor are they asked to evaluate disability in this context. Joanne McCarthy’s use of it is intentionally misleading and sensationalist.

6. The February 1 article makes no mention of the fact that the Education Queensland review found the “vast majority of Connect materials are consistent with legislation and policy concerning religious instruction”, nor that changes have already been made to the material which were reviewed by Education Queensland.

We eagerly await their reply.”

Here is the link to a statement published by Youthworks, also dated February 2nd:

Update February 4th. The Herald today published another article by the same journalist, also speaking to the topic of the Royal Commission but this time there is no mention of Scripture Classes and their providers. I am only mentioning this update because in sharp contrast to the previous days articles, this one was well written and substantive.

8 thoughts on “Post-truth hits NSW

  1. Pingback: Special Religious Education in NSW and “grooming” | Law and Religion Australia

  2. Thanks for representing a balanced view. Your immediate and balanced response is in stark contrast to the sensationalist views represented in the Newcastle Herald. That newspaper and the otherwise fine journalist involved should distance themselves from such unwarranted and sensationalist reporting. This makes me now lean towards distrusting both the Newcastle Herald and the journalist involved … shame.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your interest in the truth, Murray. With respect to your comments:

    “We should also remember that no child is compelled to take SRE classes. Families have freedom to participate or not. That many thousands are choosing to enrol their children into the classes (I believe these numbers are growing in some schools), signals that not only SRE’s popularity but also the public wanting this curriculum for their children.

    Let me provide a personal example of my SRE experience in Victoria that is, clearly not uncommon for many parents in NSW.

    When my son enrolled into prep (2013) I received a parental permission form for SRI. There was no information about the content of this program on the form. The school newsletter contained no information about the SRI content; neither did the school website. When I asked the school for more information they referred me to the SRI provider website. The website contained four brief statements about the content. There was nothing specific to give me anything like the information I required to make an informed choice. As a result I opted my child out SRI. Imagine my surprise to find out, at the end of the year, that due to a ‘clerical error’ my son had been in SRI classes all year. To say that I was angry was an understatement; I was given no information to make an informed choice and when I made a choice, my wishes were not respected.

    In reading some of the comments from NSW parents in the past few days clearly the parental ‘choice’ you talk about, appears to mirror the informed ‘choice’ I had. And, like me, clearly many NSW parents have had their choice obfuscated,ignored or hidden from sight (you may recall that last year NSW removed the ethics option from the parental permission form after pressure from Fred Nile and others).

    The Victorian experience of providing genuine informed SRI choice to parents about SRI saw enrolments in SRI plummet 42 per cent from 92,808 Victorian students in 2013 to 53,361 in 2015.

    I suspect that if/when NSW parents are provided with the informed choice that Victorian parents were ultimately given, the trend of SRI registrations in NSW would almost certainly go the same way as Victoria.


    • Ross, thank you for sharing

      Just a couple of comments for now:

      First, the issues that have been alleged in these newspaper articles are of much more serious nature than those you have just shared. That’s not to belittle your experience, which is an important one, but the scale of allegation in the Newcastle paper is of a very grave note. Frankly it is appalling to make connections with Royal Commissions and grooming and child abuse without clear evidence. And it is these groundless claims that is the main point of the blog post I wrote

      Second, I respect your decision to opt-out your child, given a lack of information being made available to you about the program. That is unfortunate. I can speak from experience that we have had no such trouble finding out relevant information about the programs. But I appreciate that not everyone has found it as easy. This is an issue that is easily rectified, and doesn’t need SRE to be suspended or removed.

      Third, I’m sorry your child ended up in those classes when you specified otherwise, and I understand your anger. It shouldn’t have happened, and being a parent I know that this does happen in school sometimes, for all kinds of things. I can think of families who have opted out of other programs such as yoga, only to discover that their child had participated. This is the fault of the school not SRE providers who rely on the schools for such information

      Fourth, in terms of what parents should realistically expect of information about Scripture classes, there is no secret as to what is taught. When we sign up our kids for such a class, common sense should realise that Christian Religious Instruction will talk about the basics of Christianity, and use the Bible and tell stories from the Bible.

      In terms of parents being aware of class content, there is a question here over what is realistic about parents knowing in advance what lessons will include? What you might expect may be more than what other parents think important.

      Also, as we know, and as Scripture providers have openly admitted, sometimes there are weakness or errors in the teaching methods, and they have worked with Education Departments to make the proper adjustments. I see that as a positive.

      Finally, in terms of dropping numbers in Victoria, it’s a misnomer to suggest that the large drop off was due to “proper information” being given. As someone who was heavily involved in the process, both as a parent with children in schools, and in my capacity as a Church minister working with various groups and members of Parl., I can tell you that it was largely a campaign of fear and misinformation that scared off many schools and families. No doubt, it caused some parents to realise that they don’t want this for their children which is fine, but imagined fear created by some protagonists was rephrensible. If what is true is true, then one should not need to resort to fallacious accusation.
      Again, I am not suggesting that the program could not be done better, or that information be more accessible (which was clearly an issue in your case), but the record shows that the campaign conducted in Victoria by anti-SRE persons was consistently diluting little bits of truth with litres of misinformation. Here is one such example –

      thanks again for commenting. Great to hear from you


  4. Thanks Murray. To pick one point of your response “…….common sense should realise that Christian Religious Instruction will talk about the basics of Christianity, and use the Bible and tell stories from the Bible.”

    To a point I agree with this but, as you are no doubt aware, what passes for accurate, true, authentic or real Christianity depends upon which Christian you talk to. How do parents know whether they are getting the moderate Christian teaching (eg Uniting Church) or Catholic teaching or fundamentalist teaching (eg Fred Nile, Ken Ham etc)? Clearly each of these examples across the Christian spectrum will focus on their preferred part or interpretation of the the Christian faith. Speaking about the Victorian experience I suspect that many parents, unsure of what version of Christianity they were being asked to opt their child into, chose ‘no’.

    When an adult stands at the front of a classroom they have immediate authority and credibility in the eyes of primary school children and if these adults are saying, for example, that the world was created in six days and that you (the child) have sinned and are dirty, then naturally many parents would regard this as an experience they do not wish their child(ren) to have, especially away from their direct supervision.
    Also my two cents’ worth is that the main provider of SRI in Victoria, Access Ministries, scored many own goals because they were never on the front foot in addressing legitimate parents concerns about public access (no pun intended), to the the content their instructors were using. I thought AM came across as defensive and unwilling to believe that many parents had genuine concerns about the way SRI was being run.

    The NSW scripture providers would do well to heed these lessons if they do not wish their franchise to go the same way as Access Ministries’.


  5. I would have no objection to SRE if the students who are not attending could continue in their classroom with curriculum based learning instead of being forced to take part in non curriculum based activities which is a huge waste of valuable education time. The fact that my child has to miss out on an hour of actual learning so a very small number of children can learn about what amounts to a fairy tale is scandalous & should not be occurring in public schools.


    • Skye, there are 2 problems with your position,

      one is that you are far too optimistic about the state of education in Australia.
      There are lots of distractions from core curriculum in a student’s week. Its not like each school is a well oiled machine that makes every minute count for your child’s education.

      the other is that you are far too pessimistic about religion’s truthfulness. The majority of people in the world identify as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew or Hindu. In the case of Christianity, it cannot be proven that Jesus rose from the dead, but it is well attested that he lived, taught about the Kingdom of God, was crucified by Romans and is responsible for the existence of Christianity. That’s not a fairy tale (although to be fair some elements of it may be made up.)

      But lets broaden the issue slightly, a significant minority of people in the world dismiss all religions as fairy tales. This is powerful rhetoric, but its also profoundly arrogant. Iran and Iraq’s history are deeply shaped by Islam, India’s China’s and Pakistan’s have all been deeply shaped by Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. Would you wish to say to the citizens of those nations that their civilisation is based on a fairy tale? That’s a big and presumptuous call. I don’t believe any of those religions ultimately, but each of them has some grounding in reality (ie. Budda and Mohammad actually lived). They are worthy of our respect.
      Likewise I am a Christian, and don’t expect everyone to believe Jesus rose from the dead or that he will come again. But I do expect people to take the evidence that no serious secular historian doubts the real existence of Christ seriously. Even if they are understandably hesitant about miracles, etc…

      I think the real scandal here is that the west has been so profoundly shaped by Christianity, Jesus and his teachings, and that the west is doing everything it can to deny and cover that up. I wonder why we are doing that.


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