Hard to decide if it’s a hatchet job or fair reporting

Hard to decide if it’s a hatchet job or fair reporting The Hillsong denomination was featured in the BBC Four programme

Sometimes when you watch a programme you find yourself not much the wiser after it. Or you wonder if you’re getting the full story, or a distorted story and you think you should find out more about the issue, but then life moves on and other priorities take precedence.

This is how I felt after watching the documentary Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral (BBC Four, Wednesday). Despite the good pedigree of the Storyville series I thought it was quite scrappy and rather inconclusive. Hillsong is one of those US-style megachurches but originating in Australia. I had come across them before but only in relation to their musical output in contemporary Christian music (CCM). I’m not a fan of megachurches, charismatic preachers and religious services that are marked by razzmatazz so I wasn’t that well-disposed to begin with. Add in suggestions of lavish lifestyles, infidelities and allegations of historical child abuse against the founder’s father and you have a thoroughly unpleasant mix.

But then you wonder if this is just a hatchet job – so many churches and institutions suffer from the sins, crimes and mis-judgements of their flawed members that you could make every one of them out to be unsavoury. What made me even more uneasy about this film was the way each segment was interspersed with strange sequences – an evil looking ram figured often and a weird sequence involving sheep was followed immediately by a scene from one of Hillsong’s mass gatherings – not a very subtle juxtaposition. The one child abuse allegation, along with the all too familiar suggestion of cover-up, appeared randomly throughout the show, all very repetitious and disjointed.

As is often the case in such documentaries we heard from disillusioned ex-members whose stories seemed credible and were certainly interesting. This included one guy who, we were told in lengthy on-screen information at the end, later re-joined Hillsong. Most appealing of all were the young and newish members who were searching for meaning after suffering various traumas in their lives so far. Here you felt you were getting something really genuine and you hoped they’d find their way through to a better place. There was a lot from church leaders about kindness and compassion and of being with people in their brokenness, but not much coverage of any hands-on work with the poor and vulnerable. Maybe it doesn’t happen or maybe it was ignored.

Apart from skewed documentaries I don’t like media discussions where the presenters talk only to people they agree with, and let that agreement show. This applies more to discussion of issues rather than personal testimonies where a presenter who is a good listener can tease out an interesting story.

The GB News channel is prone to this flaw, with presenters very often having cosy chats with people who agree with them, each reinforcing the other in a bubble. But on two occasions last week I saw a welcome improvement. Both happened during Tonight Live with Dan Wooten, Wednesday. In one there was a spirited discussion Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International and Alp Mehmet of Migration Watch – both had very different takes on the arrival of migrants into Britain. The show over-dramatised it by separating out the segment as ‘The Clash’ – this approach should be the norm, and differences of opinion don’t have to be characterised as a ‘clash’.  Later Mr Wooten also interviewed Albie Amankone of Conservatives Against Racism for Equality about attitudes to race, including the wisdom or otherwise of ‘taking the knee’ – a debate I find increasingly repetitious and tiresome. Mr Amankone was well able for Mr Wooten’s pushy questioning and was quite strong that racist abuse of Home Secretary Priti Patel was just as unacceptable as racist abuse of footballers.

I’m always fascinated by behavioural psychology and love listening to Prof. Pete Lunn, Head of the Behavioural Research Unit at the ESRI. He spoke on Today With Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio One, Thursday) about what motivates people in relation to Covid-19 restrictions – whether it be worry about catching the virus or the perceived the consistency or otherwise of the guidelines. He described how people could be slow about returning to activities which were off-limits during lockdown. Interestingly he said that of all these activities church going was the only one where there was a ‘sudden jump’ back into practice as soon as it was possible.

Now there’s a sign of hope.

Pick of the week
RTÉ One Sunday August 1, 11.00am

Mass from Kairos Productions, Maynooth with music and singers from  Co. Laois parishes. Celebrant is Fr Brian Kavanagh. Music Director is Tom Conroy.

Everybody Loves Raymond
Channel 4 Monday August 2, 7.50am

Debra challenges Ray on why he doesn’t go to Mass with the family.

The Eighth
RTÉ One Wednesday Aug 4, 9.35pm

“Following veteran campaigner Ailbhe Smyth as she navigates the complexities of convincing a historically conservative electorate to vote for women’s reproductive autonomy” – from RTÉ’s blurb!