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ABC, SBS remind journalists to remain impartial

May 28, 2021 | Naomi Levin

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Australia’s two public broadcasters have both told a Senate Estimates hearing that they have reminded their staff of the need to report impartially, after a small number signed a pro-Palestinian open letter.

A handful of, mostly junior, staff working at ABC and SBS signed an open letter circulated by some of Australia’s most vociferous pro-Palestinian lobbyists. The other signatories were largely freelancers, academics, or junior reporters and student journalists.  A small number of former senior media representatives also add their names, including Tony Walker, Mike Carlton and Mary Kostakidis.

The letter, which unsurprisingly neither recognises Israeli sovereignty over any part of the State of Israel nor mentions that Israel was battered with more than 4000 rockets, records a “growing dissatisfaction with the media’s treatment of Palestine”.

It specifically called on editors and publishers to “consciously and deliberately” give more airtime or newspaper column inches to Palestinian people, to “avoid the ‘both siderism’ that equates victims of a military occupation with its instigators,” and reject “weasel words”, such as “clashes” that “obscure the reality of a violence disproportionately endured by Palestinians”.

Responding to the fact that ABC staff – the most prominent of whom were Indigenous Affairs Editor Bridget Brennan and ABC Investigations’ Dylan Welch – had signed the open letter, ABC managing director David Anderson reminded his staff of ABC editorial policies.

“These are people acting as individuals, where I do get concerned is that certainly if it’s an individual who has to report on the matter impartially then it does, then it is problematic,” Anderson told the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications.

“But it is a name on a petition that they are exercising their own judgement for, and I would want to see that their reporting is impartial and accurate as it should be.”

The open letter comes at a time when the ABC has been under fire for its one-sided reporting on the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.

It culminated in a robust debate about the conflict during ABC TV’s Q&A program on May 27 that included no Israeli or Jewish voices. Featured on the panel were Palestinian activist Randa Abdel-Fattah; human rights lawyer and Palestinian sympathiser Jennifer Robinson; Chifley MP Ed Husic, who is of the Muslim faith, and singer Mitch Tambo. Wentworth MP Dave Sharma was also on the panel – ostensibly to provide balance as he served for a time as Australia’s Ambassador to Israel.

While Sharma was a fine diplomat and strengthened Australia’s relationship with Israel, he is not Jewish, nor is he a leader of any Australian Zionist organisation. It was highly inappropriate that the ABC placed him alone on the panel with the expectation that he represents the views of the Jewish community.

Mandi Wicks, the director of news and current affairs at SBS, was also asked about the open letter during Senate Estimates. She told senators SBS had spoken with staff members who had added their names to the open letter.

Wicks said SBS did this “to understand why they wanted to sign that petition, but also to remind them that SBS is a publicly funded national broadcaster, which must be and be seen to be objective and impartial.”

She continued: “For us it was more around if they were to action the elements that were outlined in the letter that could be in breach of our code of conduct or social media protocol.”

According to the ABC’s Editorial Policies, “The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presenting of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”.

The policy goes on to list Standard 4.5: “do not unduly favour one perspective over another”.

The SBS Code of Practice offers a similar requirement of impartiality, although SBS has an additional clause that SBS make “public interest considerations” when it comes to seeking impartiality.

The relevant section reads: “Reasonable effort must be made to ensure news and current affairs content is balanced and impartial, having regard to the circumstances at the time of reporting and broadcasting or publishing, the nature and immediacy of the material being reported, and public interest considerations.”

In response to criticism that their open letter was seeking to distort news coverage of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, the letter writers tried to draw a moral equivalence between their one-sided petition and media study tours of Israel. It is important to note that Australian journalists participating in Israel study tours have never been required to sign a document requiring them to breach their own employers’ editorial guidelines of impartiality and independence.

The way the Israel-Hamas conflict was reported on the national broadcasters was raised by at least two Government senators.

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz highlighted a report by the ABC’s Zena Chamas called “Australia’s Palestinian and Jewish communities watch from afar as Palestinian-Israel crisis escalates”.

Chamas, a signatory of the open letter, interviewed six people for her story – three Palestinians, two Jewish people who openly admitted they were not Zionists, and Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Alex Ryvchin.

Senator Abetz asked the ABC’s editorial director Craig McMurtrie how this could be construed as balanced. McMurtrie replied: “We don’t start from a proposition that says on any issue there must be perfect balance. The importance is to get the balance of perspectives over time. We can’t include every face of every source.”

Liberal Senator Alex Antic went further, accusing the ABC of being “institutionally antisemitic” – a characterisation ABC managing director Anderson rejected.

Senator Antic highlighted a report from May 13 (which has since been revised and republished) called “An attempt to explain why explosions are again filling the skies over Israel and Gaza” by Emily Clark.

Anderson responded: “There are conflicts such as this – and very complicated matters – there are certain things we have looked into that have already been published to ensure that they’re accurate, some corrections have been made.”

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