IN THE MEDIA

ABC shames itself with its bias on Israel and Hamas

Jul 26, 2021 | Colin Rubenstein

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

 

In a speech in March, ABC managing director David Anderson asserted: “Essential to the perception of the ABC’s independence and impartiality is the reality that we are independent and detached from government direction.” Equally important to that perception is that the ABC be seen as accountable to the public for how it uses the more than $1bn in funding it receives annually.

While allegations of ABC bias are nothing new, overt activism by some staff has become increasingly brazen. This casts doubt on management’s commitment to the corporation’s statutory duty to ensure its presentation of news and information is accurate and impartial. Furthermore, there is no effective independent mechanism to scrutinise the ABC and determine whether it is fulfilling these statutory duties.

Perhaps if there had been, some notorious controversies over alleged bias could have been avoided. Examples include then communications minister Richard Alston’s many complaints about unfair ABC coverage of the second Gulf War in 2003; a Four Corners episode about beef that riled the National Farmers Federation in 2018; Catalyst episodes pushing questionable scientific claims in 2013, 2016 and 2018; and Emma Alberici’s error-strewn article on government tax cuts in 2018. The concentration of recent Four Corners episodes targeting conservative public figures – Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, George Pell – but no progressives has also caused concern.

The ABC’s multifaceted Middle East coverage, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict, provides another useful case study. A previous Middle East correspondent, Sophie McNeill, had a record of pro-Palestinian reporting. She left the ABC to become the Australian researcher for Human Rights Watch, which engages in anti-Israel campaigning. During May’s Israel-Hamas hostilities, current Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner tweeted his intention to desist from using the word “clashes” after pro-Palestinian activists suggested he should. They argued “clashes” implies false equality between the sides.

Joyner was in the vanguard of a push by activist journalists and other media workers to supposedly “do better on Palestine”. In mid-May, some ABC staff, although not Joyner, signed a letter calling for the rejection of “both-siderism” and prioritising Palestinian perspectives in coverage.

This is part of an international campaign by pro-Palestinian activists to replace objective and fact-based reporting with an unashamedly partisan approach. It is hard to reconcile this approach with ABC editorial standards that require impartiality and reject unduly favouring one perspective.

The ABC extensively covered the May conflict, with several items daily on one platform or another. While some were unexceptional, others misstated details such as the chronology of events, impacting the public’s understanding of which side initiated aggression. Many items repeated the false narrative of Palestinian terror group Hamas – for example, in claiming Israeli forces fired on or “raided” Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or that tensions were inflamed by Israel’s government having supposedly attempted to evict Palestinians from homes in Sheikh Jarrah, when this issue was actually a long-running private property dispute before the courts, with no government involvement.

Journalists are becoming activists by picking a side in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, according to Sky News Digital Editor Jack Houghton. Mr Houghton said the ABC should not have rejected a complaint by the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council about a QandA episode in May concerning the recent conflict.

That conflict set off protests and anti-Semitic violence around the world, underlining the heavy responsibility of media to report factually and objectively. Contrast this with ABC coverage of the widespread internal Palestinian violence in June, following the death in custody of a vocal critic of the Palestinian Authority, Nizar Banat. Mainstream media covering this included The Australian, SBS, The West Australian, Yahoo Australia, The Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera. But a search of the ABC website produces nothing. Why did the ABC decide there was nothing to see here?

Meanwhile, part of the May 27 edition of ABC’s Q&A focused on the Israel-Hamas violence. The five-person panel comprised pro-Palestinian activist Randa Abdel-Fattah, lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who has represented Palestinians at the International Criminal Court, Indigenous singer and songwriter Mitch Tambo, Labor MP Ed Husic and Liberal MP Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel of Indian heritage. His was the only voice to provide an informed perspective that was not anti-Israel in the ensuing pile-on; even Tambo was highly critical of Israel despite admitting limited knowledge of the subject.

Q&A is an opinion program and, while opinions needn’t be impartial, the point of such programs is as a forum airing diverse views. ABC editorial policy states “a democratic society depends on diverse sources of reliable information and contending opinions”, and it “aim(s) to equip audiences to make up their own minds”. Heavily stacking a panel like this is a derogation of ABC obligations. Yet, in response to the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council’s complaint, the ABC insisted the segment did not breach its impartiality standard.

The reality is the ABC acts as its own judge and jury with respect to complaints, which are handled by Audience and Consumer Affairs. The ABC describes this as an “independent unit”, but this would be unlikely to pass the pub test. In 2019-20, of more than 6000 complaints received, A&CA upheld about 6 per cent.

While A&CA decisions can be appealed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, in reality this is little help. ACMA lacks resources, so few decisions are reviewed, and it has no power to require change.

The ABC rightly values its independence from government intervention. Yet true editorial independence demands a genuinely independent complaints ombudsman – something public broadcasters have in countries including Canada, Norway and The Netherlands.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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