SBS-TV and the Middle East
Oct 20, 2003 | AIJAC staff
A Report by
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council
This report originates in the long-running concern of the Australian Jewish community that SBS exhibits an entrenched and strongly pronounced bias against Israel in its news, reportage and selection of documentary material and in the lack of responsiveness, indeed negativity, of SBS to reasoned and documented complaints. It examines the problem of bias in SBS news and current affairs coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This report demonstrates that an analysis of SBS television news and current affairs indicates a pattern of factual inaccuracy and bias in selection of material, emphasis and reportage that regularly spills over into overt editorialising. It also demonstrates that this pattern has been sustained over many years up until the present.
When viewed against SBS’s legislative guidelines and Codes of Practice, this record indicates that the network has consistently violated both where coverage of Israel is concerned.
A review of SBS current affairs coverage reveals a decade-long pattern of favouring overwhelmingly anti-Israel documentaries or material severely critical of Israel, no matter how biased and unreliable. For example, a two-month period (October-November 2002) saw SBS screen eight documentaries on Arab-Israeli issues, five of which were anti-Israel, three of which were reasonably balanced and none of which could be described as particularly sympathetic to Israel.
Additionally, an in-depth analysis of SBS news coverage over a one-year period identified 57 cases of serious bias involving variously editorialising, selectivity, graphics and, most importantly, 13 cases of outright factual errors. Despite official written complaints regarding several, no public apology, retraction or correction was forthcoming for any one of these errors, five of which we describe here:
Reporting as fact a Palestinian claim that the Palestinians had instituted a cease-fire which had in fact been unilaterally declared by Israel and which was later ended by a Palestinian suicide bombing.
Falsely reporting that Yasser Arafat had arrested two men involved in the murder of a priest when, in fact, it was the Israelis who had arrested the men, while the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of committing the murder.
Misidentifying a spokesman of the Israeli settler movement as an Israeli Foreign Ministry official and thus misleading viewers to believe that his call for an all-out war on the Palestinian Authority was the policy of the Israeli government.
Falsely claiming that six Palestinian civilians had been killed in an Israeli military counter-terrorist action when in fact four of the six fatalities were members of the Islamist terrorist group, Hamas.
Erroneously stating that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel.
Our analysis of SBS television news and current affairs coverage of the Middle East indicates that what can be reasonably termed a ‘culture of bias’ afflicts SBS. In view of this, serious consideration should be given to the adoption of legislative reform to provide for a revised Charter and Codes of Practice that make explicit SBS’s obligations with respect to the presentation of news, current affairs and documentaries.
The reforms would:
Provide for the establishment of an adequately funded and staffed external independent complaints panel to deal with non-vexatious allegations of bias and error in a timely and expeditious fashion that permits early correction, retraction or clarification where these are found to be warranted.
Prescribe that any findings by the complaints panel of inaccuracy, distortion or unprofessional practice need to be speedily and effectively rectified as far as possible through prompt public correction, apology or clarification, both on-air and on the SBS web-site.
Empower the panel to investigate complaints, including detailed submissions of long-term or institutional bias affecting news reportage, current affairs and documentary selection.
Establish the principle that decisions of a complaints panel should be subject to further appeal to an independent body with commensurate powers and capacity to investigate issues of long-term or institutional bias.
Affirm the principle that complaints do not derive their worthiness or seriousness, so far as SBS is concerned, from the number of people who lodge them, but from the inherent merit of the complaint as judged by the panel or the appellate body.
Regular monitoring and reporting on current affairs features and documentaries to ensure the presentation of a spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives on particular issues and themes over the shortest timeframe reasonably possible.
Ensure that the provenance of all documentaries is fairly and fully disclosed to viewers when broadcast to ensure that SBS viewers do not become the unsuspecting audience of advocacy journalism and partisanship.
Institute Codes of Practice on news reportage that obliges news programmes to present the relevant facts, using a consistent lexicon that reflects the practice expected of a professional broadcaster. It must also ensure that broadcasts do not advocate or present partisan views and must prohibit tacit or explicit editorialising.
Ensure that the use of file footage is both directly relevant to the particular story and clearly designated as such in all cases.
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) has always strongly supported SBS as a multicultural broadcaster, and continues to do so. It hopes to see professional, accurate and unbiased news and documentary programming on SBS, as promised in the SBS Codes of Practice and consistent with SBS’s obligations as a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. This is simply not occurring with respect to coverage and reporting of the Middle East.
For many years, AIJAC has been concerned about the nature of SBS coverage of matters pertaining to Israel, the Middle East more generally, and other issues of concern to the Australian Jewish community.
The accountability and complaints review procedures at SBS have correctly been the focus of debate for some years. It is always a matter of importance that public broadcasters are responsive to reasoned criticism and have in place suitable mechanisms for reviewing the merits of various complaints. AIJAC has been concerned for several years that substantial and documented complaints from the Jewish community have been handled neither seriously nor expeditiously.
SBS Television, Australia’s multicultural broadcaster, has shown a continuous record of bias in its reporting and coverage of Middle Eastern events. This is inconsistent with SBS’s Charter and Codes of Practice, its obligations as a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, and with SBS’s special multicultural focus.
Some breaches and instances of bias that we describe below would perhaps, in isolation, be considered minor. Taken together with the whole of the material we have assembled for this report, however, we believe that these instances underscore what can be reasonably termed a ‘culture of bias’.
This indicates that the network may have some specific problems of organisational attitude and structure that require remedial measures. It bases this assessment on two specific long-term and continuous patterns in SBS coverage of Middle Eastern news and events.
‘World News’, the news programme offering the most complete Australian television coverage of Middle Eastern events, has an overwhelming and consistent record of anti-Israel bias in its selection of stories, in the language used by reporters and presenters, and in the visuals presented. This has been persistently present over many years and is apparent when comparing the coverage of the Middle East given by SBS to other free-to-air television news sources.
Documentary and current affairs programming on SBS consistently show an overwhelming preponderance of material highlighting, or sympathetic to, anti-Israel viewpoints.
We have not focused on SBS coverage of other important issues and conflicts, but we understand that problems of bias and imbalance are not solely concerns of the Jewish Community. For example, the Turkish, Christian Lebanese and Vietnamese communities in Australia have raised serious concerns over SBS’s coverage of Turkey, Lebanon and Vietnam and the manner in which their complaints are treated. SBS producers and managers consistently dismiss complaints about their coverage, often without any substantive attempt to reply to criticism. Consequently, AIJAC believes that part of the resolution of the problem for SBS lies in establishing an independent external complaints review process.
There are documented instances of serious factual errors for which SBS representatives have either failed or refused to issue an appropriate correction or apology. Only a mechanism that removes the complaint process from those directly responsible for the material to which the criticisms pertain has any realistic prospect of producing a balanced and objective response to viewer complaints.
At the outset, it bears emphasising that even the institution of an independent complaints procedure is unlikely to completely resolve the problem. As demonstrated below, the problem with SBS is not simply a matter of bias or lack of professionalism in specific cases, which a complaints procedure might ameliorate somewhat, but a systemic problem involving a whole journalistic style and set of assumptions that ensures these problems repeatedly recur.
Throughout its history, encompassing the various amalgamation proposals, the restrictions imposed by the Public Service Act and the Television Broadcast Act, SBS struggled to find a distinctive place in the Australian broadcasting system. However, after much parliamentary and community debate, SBS received its own Act and Charter in November 1991. The new legislation defined SBS’s role and set out its structure, powers and responsibilities. However, the then Government stressed that for SBS to fully qualify for funding it must provide for programming that reflected the multicultural character of the Australian community and encouraged the use of community languages.
The Australian Jewish community has long had reason to be concerned about the multicultural broadcaster’s bias against Israel both before and since 1991. Mainstream Israeli viewpoints are typically marginalised, distorted and, to say the least, infrequently represented in the large body of broadcasting that SBS devotes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
What follows is a record of SBS’s treatment of relevant subject matter that establishes a clear pattern of partisan bias and selectivity that ought to be simply unacceptable to a professional and valuable tax-payer funded institution charged with informing the Australian public.
In saying this, we acknowledge and indeed encourage the broadcasting of material that presents a variety of perspectives on Israel. Equally, however, we are of the view that comparable reports presenting mainstream Israeli views and perspectives are not provided equivalent airtime to reports that are critical. The record of SBS programming that so clearly favours an anti-Israel perspective which appears below should be understood in that context.
SBS World News coverage of the Middle East, while the most comprehensive, is nonetheless consistently unbalanced, arguably more so than any other Australian television news service. This has constituted an unbroken pattern for many years which has intensified since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in September 2000. The problem is pervasive and includes:
the language of reporters and presenters, which often spills over into implied or explicit editorialising;
the selection of overseas news reports and its placement in SBS World News;
the footage selected to illustrate stories and the graphics used to illustrate the introductions of presenters; and most seriously,
the factual accuracy of some SBS news reports and commentary.
Generic examples of bias
1. Language and editorialising. In reporting Israeli-Palestinian violence, SBS almost always refers to Palestinian violence against Israel as “claimed” or “alleged”, except in the case of major large-scale suicide attacks, while Israeli violence against Palestinians is almost always reported as actual and undisputed. Moreover, SBS ‘World News’ has repeatedly made the main subject of its stories Israeli retaliatory action against Palestinian attacks, not the Palestinian attacks that preceded Israeli actions, the latter often reported as something Israel “claimed” had prompted its actions.
In 2001, this occurred repeatedly regarding Israeli forces returning fire at the town of Beit Jala, where Palestinian gunmen were regularly opening fire on Gilo on Jerusalem’s southern outskirts (see the section, SBS News – The Record for January-December 2001). It also occurred in reporting Israeli strikes upon Palestinian terrorist installations and headquarters (described as “assassination” of “militants,” sometimes even mere “activists”) with the terrorist outrages that prompted them being merely Israeli “claims” – on the occasions these were mentioned at all.
SBS reporters repeatedly use language that accepts Palestinian legal contentions in the Arab-Israel dispute as true, even when Israel and international legal scholars dispute them. Thus SBS reporters and presenters routinely refer to all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as “occupied Palestinian land.” Yet it is indisputably the case that this land has never previously been under the sovereignty of either the Palestinian people or a state called Palestine, nor is there any legally binding UN decision or international treaty that says it should be.
Similarly, SBS routinely refers to all Israeli settlements in these territories as “illegal”, something disputed both by Israel and many international legal experts. SBS cannot claim expertise in international law and thus has an obligation to refer to such contentions as claims and not to present them as facts.
The language of SBS presenters and reports often contains explicit editorialising about Middle Eastern events. This was very clear during Israel’s 2001 prime ministerial election campaign, when SBS reporters and presenters consistently implied that the election of Ariel Sharon was an ominous and frightening development. Presenter Mary Kostakidis said unequivocally that it “sounded the death knell” of the peace process. Mr Sharon is almost never referred to on SBS News without the use of the adjective “hard-line” or some other pejorative term. Such descriptions are not used routinely with respect to any other foreign leader, certainly not in reference to any other elected leader.
Moreover, SBS regularly uses euphemisms to describe Palestinian violence, including “demonstrations”, “unrest” and “insurgent action” with regard to confrontations involving the use of firearms and Molotov cocktails. In the period under review, SBS news reports insisted that bombings and shooting attacks were carried out only by Palestinian opposition groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, when a large quantum of the violence has been conclusively demonstrated to involve security services and militias associated with the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. In contrast, other networks were been able to report that these latter groups have been involved in actual terrorist attacks against civilians.
2. Selectivity. SBS news selection reflects a constant willingness to emphasise developments or relay foreign news service reports that tend to support Palestinian claims or which imply criticism or undesirable truths about Israel or its leaders. For example, SBS has given vastly more prominence to Arab and other claims that Mr Sharon is a “war criminal” than any other news service in Australia. SBS consistently selects more foreign reports on the Middle East from the BBC and other sources that are highly critical of Israel or its policies than other news services in Australia.
This type of selection has occasionally led SBS to compromise its stated role of encouraging tolerance and multiculturalism. An egregious example since the renewed Israeli-Palestinian hostilities was a report (15/10/00) by BBC reporter, Martin Brabant, ostensibly focused on the US presidential election, but which essentially fed anti-Semitic stereotypes about hidden and malign Jewish power by insisting that the money of Jewish donors controls US politics. Statistical data shows that this is not a sustainable proposition, but Brabant claimed all the same that Jewish money was responsible for “ensuring the Palestinians don’t stand a chance”. When a Jewish donor denied Brabant’s claim, Brabant insisted in his voiceover, “the reality of politics in this country is that money talks.”
SBS gives vastly more prominence to the claims and statements of Palestinian spokesmen and representatives than any other news service in Australia. Moreover, their claims are almost never questioned or represented as questionable by reporters and presenters. Conversely, statements by mainstream Israeli representatives or political leaders, when reported, are often accompanied by SBS commentary that insinuates that the statements are factually dubious or rightly disputed by Palestinians. Moreover, SBS also has given vastly greater prominence than any other news service to the statements of marginal, normally left-wing, Israeli critics of Israeli policy, presenting their statements uncritically, and implying that these prove Israeli responsibility for Middle Eastern turbulence.
SBS ‘World News’ has a long, continuous history of providing context for stories or interviews only when such context appears to cast Israel in a poor light. A good example was a report (22/1/01) regarding a Jewish security guard accused by prosecutors of having beaten to death a stone-throwing Palestinian youth five years previously. In due course, an Israeli court dismissed these charges but convicted him on a lesser count relating to the incident and imposed on him a light term of community service. ‘World News’ presented this as “a stark reminder that there’s no guarantee of justice” in Israel, without referring to the actual court findings, and insinuating instead that the man had in fact been found guilty of beating the boy to death. In this case, as in many others, it could be argued that SBS failed to discharge its duty of fair and accurate reporting.
SBS’s raison d’être is to be the voice of multicultural Australia, and this means in particular being particularly sensitive to the variety of views about international affairs in the Australian community, and being wide ranging in its presentation. This goal has been compromised by a record of unprofessional and biased reporting on the Middle East.
3. Footage and graphics. In selection of graphics and footage, SBS has repeatedly used images that apparently illustrate Israeli violence or brutality. In early December 2000, the graphic for the presenter’s introduction to a story primarily about Israeli political developments in the lead-up to the country’s prime ministerial election was a picture of Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in an Israeli-Palestinian crossfire early in the violence the previous October. (The party responsible for the boy’s death, incidentally, has never been proved conclusively, but investigations now strongly suggest that he was probably not killed, as was once widely believed, by Israeli fire). Similarly, a story on Israeli-Palestinian clashes in early January 2001 was introduced with a graphic in the background depicting an Israeli soldier looking down the barrel of a gun, though the story did not cover any incident involving Israelis firing live ammunition. Moreover, much of the footage used to illustrate ‘World News’ stories was slanted, frequently showing Israeli soldiers firing weapons, but only rarely showing the extensive Palestinian use of live weapons. Preference was given to footage of youngsters throwing rocks, often in completely different times and places from the events being actually reported. In view of the entirely different complexion this paints of the events being reported, this practice amounts to a serious, indeed systematic, distortion.
4. Factual inaccuracy. The problem of factual inaccuracy is obviously difficult to describe in general terms. Each instance is case-specific and the best way that it can be illustrated is by specific analysis, which we provide below. Suffice it to say at the outset, however, that the incidence of factual inaccuracy with respect to the Middle East is very high.
Instances of bias and lack of professionalism fall under one or more of these four areas of concern and each is indicated as required in the following section that covers the performance of SBS news coverage during 2001.
This analysis lays no claim to completeness and we have confined ourselves to recording the clearest instances of bias and/or distortion although there were many more that in our view could be described as such. The most serious finding to have emerged is that we were able to document 13 cases of serious and substantive factual errors, which are concisely listed below:
Misreporting the facts surrounding a criminal case involving the death of a Palestinian and besmirching the Israeli judicial system.
Misreporting that the new Sharon government has a policy of increasing and expanding settlements.
Falsely asserting that Israeli policy in a given instance originated with Mr Sharon, who had not at the time actually assumed office.
Erroneously stating that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel.
Wrongly reporting that an Israeli halt to settlement activity is the key finding of the Mitchell Report when it has no key findings as such, but provides a schedule for resuming negotiations once a cease-fire has been effected.
Reporting as fact the Palestinian claim that the Palestinians had instituted a cease-fire when in fact it was the Israelis who had instituted a unilateral cease-fire, later ended by a Palestinian suicide bombing.
Erroneously reporting that the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had publicly clashed with Mr Sharon on implementing the Mitchell Report.
Falsely reporting that Yasser Arafat had arrested two men involved in the murder of a priest when, in fact, it was the Israelis who had done so, while the Palestinian Authority had accused Israel of committing the murder.
Misidentifying a spokesman of the Israeli settler movement (Noam Arnon) as an Israeli Foreign Ministry official (Oded Eran) and misleading viewers that his call for an all-out war on the Palestinian Authority was the policy of Israeli government.
Incorrectly reporting that Israeli military operations conducted in areas under Palestinian control are a breach of the Oslo agreements. Perusal of the actual agreements reveals that Israel retains on-going security rights, including those of military incursion, for the purpose of self-defence.
Misrepresenting the issues that led the US and Israel to withdraw from the Durban anti-racism conference as purely a matter of opposing anti-Israel language in a draft resolution. In fact both countries were far more alarmed at anti-Semitic clamour of the whole conference and a draft resolution calling in effect for Israel’s dismantling. The same report also misrepresented Australia’s principled opposition to the draft resolution in terms that suggested that it actually supported it.
Falsely claiming that six Palestinian civilians had been killed in Israeli military counter-terrorism action when in fact four of the six fatalities were members of the Islamist terrorist group, Hamas.
Incorrectly reporting that the US had threatened to take Israel’s presence in the West Bank to the UN Security Council, when nothing of the kind was threatened or in fact took place.
A detailed summary of SBS’s Middle East reportage for 2001 follows below. This summary is not comprehensive but illustrative – additional examples could be produced from the period in question.
Jan 13 Selectivity, footage & editorialising: More footage of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and guns than of Palestinians throwing stones as well as footage of Palestinians fleeing while being fired upon. “In Hebron, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a young Palestinian man they said had been firing on them.” As so often, Israeli statements are implicitly disbelieved as being merely “claims”. Further, “Saeb Erekat is trying to reach a breakthrough against the odds, but any progress could be undone if Israelis elect hard-line Likud leader Ariel Sharon as PM”. On any reasonable assessment, that statement was commentary, and highly biased commentary at that, not news.
Jan 15 Footage & selectivity: Footage of a Palestinian funeral and guns being fired into the sky. The report stated that the dead man was “shot dead by Israeli soldiers. They said he threw an explosive at them.” Once again, Israeli reaction, not Palestinian action, was the focus of the story, with causation again written off as merely an Israeli “claim”.
Jan 22 Factual inaccuracy, footage & editorialising: Footage was of a body in a morgue, then of a Palestinian man leaving a building (presumably the morgue) distraught and crying hysterically as “Israeli soldiers shot dead a 15 year old boy for throwing stones.” Footage then followed of an Israeli man talking on a mobile phone with the voiceover “That as a Jewish settler was let off with community service in a Jerusalem court for beating a 10 year old West Bank boy to death. It’s a stark reminder that there’s no guarantee of justice or common sense prevailing.” In reality, the facts of the case, nowhere mentioned in the report, were these: the death occurred 5 years earlier; the court found the man (a security guard) had not beaten the boy, as the prosecution claimed, but that he had struck him once after the boy threw stones at cars, causing the boy to have an epileptic fit. The man had in fact afterwards actually tried to help the youth, earning him a light sentence in these mitigating circumstances. Yet SBS was content to completely distort this episode as being a case of murder and to besmirch the reputation of the man and of Israeli justice.
Feb 6 Editorialising and factual inaccuracy: Mary Kostakidis: “Israelis have started voting in a prime ministerial election that is set to sound the death knell of the current peace process. Sharon’s victory would see Israel take a sharp turn to the right, putting the nation on a collision course with the Palestinians.” Garry McNab in his report stated, “Sharon’s promise of peace on Israel’s terms is alluring. No more land will be given away. Jewish settlements will be expanded, not disbanded.” In fact, Sharon never publicly stated that settlements would be expanded, nor that he would refuse to relinquish more land, and during his term of office, no new settlements have been established, and some illegal outposts have been removed. He has also agreed to the Roadmap peace plan, which calls for the freezing of all settlement activity once a ceasefire is in place and the dismantling of terror networks commences. Finally, he has repeatedly made it clear that he is prepared to trade additional land as part of peace agreements, speaking repeatedly of “painful concessions” and making it known through press interviews that this includes land transfers.
Feb 7 Selectivity: Following the Israeli election, the first comments shown on the news were those of the Palestinians and Arabs, then American commentators. No Israeli commentary was presented on a major political event in that country. This is akin to having commentary on a British election being offered exclusively by the IRA, Sinn Fein and pro-republican sympathisers in America.
Feb 13 Selectivity: Ross Cameron, “Palestinians run for cover as bombs rain down on the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army denies responsibility for the attack, which included gas canisters. It says a Palestinian rocket fell short of its target, a nearby Jewish settlement. A number of Palestinians, including children, suffered shrapnel wounds.” The Palestinian account was again retailed as fact, the Israeli denial as merely an allegation.
Feb 19 Selectivity & editorialising: Richard Mason spoke of “America and Israel going ahead with their provocative Patriot Missile tests…” This is plainly not news, but commentary. The Patriot is a defensive missile, not an offensive weapon and it does not become objectively provocative because some people choose to allege that it is. Even if it were so, that would have been no warrant for an SBS reporter to adopt that view as his own or that of SBS in a news story. A written complaint outlining these points was summarily dismissed by SBS.
Feb 20 Factual inaccuracy: Garry McNab, “The peace and security promised by Israel’s new Prime Minister are not yet in evidence. Instead, Ariel Sharon’s rule has seen the two sides lock horns in a spiralling war of attrition.” In point of fact, Mr Sharon had not yet assumed office and Israeli decisions at that date were being taken by Ehud Barak as caretaker Prime Minister. A written complaint noting these facts was dismissed by SBS on the spurious and uninformed grounds that, as Prime-Minister Elect, Mr Sharon must have had some role in government policy. This was a further instance of wilful and arbitrary dismissal by SBS of a genuine complaint regarding factual accuracy.
Feb 21 Editorialising: Mary Kostakidis, “His [Barak’s] decision [to join the cabinet] appears to pave the way for a hard line right wing government under Likud’s Ariel Sharon, offering no concessions to the Palestinians.” In fact, Mr Barak’s step led to the formation of a National Unity government that sought several times to bring about resumed negotiations, including even taking the unprecedented step of declaring unilateral cease-fires which were not reciprocated by the Palestinian Authority.
Feb 24 Editorialising: Hilary Andersson (BBC), “Israeli fire is directed straight into a civilian area [of Khan Younis]…Israel says it will keep firing into Khan Younis, smoke and bullets, hysteria or not, until the Palestinian gunmen stop. Even though this may be an abuse of military might because it is civilians who pay the price.” Ms Andersson failed to inform viewers that the Palestinian gunmen using the cover of civilians are in violation of the laws of war. Instead she editorialised that the blame lay with Israeli forces responding in defence of their own civilians.
Mar 2 Factual inaccuracy: In a story regarding a Palestinian bomber, Jeremy Frankel stated “Sources say he confessed to planting another device in the capital Tel Aviv.” Jerusalem, of course, is Israel’s capital, not Tel Aviv. In response to a letter pointing out the mistake, SBS made the unembarrassed claim that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) regards Tel Aviv to be Israel’s capital. AIJAC subsequently sought and obtained clarification from DFAT that it does not regard Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. Rather, the DFAT position is that, while it does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it does not therefore claim that somehow another city is. Clearly, Mr Frankel’s mistake was built upon a misunderstanding. This sort of embarrassing error, and its obtuse defence by SBS, is reminiscent of the way the former USSR also used to refer to Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. The clarification from DFAT we received was duly mentioned in a further letter of complaint to SBS on this and several other matters. In their response, SBS refused to concede that an error had been made, insisting that they had received contrary information from the same source.
Mar 3 Editorialising: Lee Lin Chin, “There are fears of an escalation in the Middle East conflict after a hard-line former general was named as Israel’s next Defence Minister”. The Defence Minister in question was Benyamin Ben Eliezer, a member of the left of centre Labor party, and the same party faction as the late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. In other words, he is a centrist in the Israeli political spectrum and his characterisation as “hard-line” is clearly ideological, not factual.
Mar 3 Selectivity: “Four more Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, two of them children. One was a 9 year old boy who had been playing outside his family’s home with a toy gun.” Why or how these people came to be killed (outside the boy, all appear to have been armed combatants) and in what context did not seem to matter to SBS or appear in their reports. This disturbingly mirrors Palestinian news reports in which Israel is regularly assailed for real and imagined acts without any context for the purpose of underscoring alleged Israeli evil intent.
Mar 4 Selectivity: Lee Lin Chin, referring to Palestinian funerals held that day, stated, “One of them was a 9 year old boy. His family showed the bedroom where he had been standing by a window when he was hit in the chest by a bullet. It’s believed to have been fired upon by Israeli troops.” This referred to the same boy in the report the previous day, yet the stories are inconsistent. In fact, both (contradictory) allegations were made by Palestinians at different times and have been clearly and uncritically recycled by SBS.
May 1 Selectivity: in a story on the deaths of five Palestinians in two explosions, one in Ramallah and the other in Gaza, SBS News reported that “the Israelis are suggesting the blast could have been caused by Palestinian terrorists accidentally detonating explosives.” The Gaza explosion was attributed to a “car bomb”, but no perpetrator was identified in this report. In reference to the Gaza explosion, the SBS web-site recycled the Palestinian claim, “Palestinians say it’s part of the Israeli army’s attempts to remove activists [sic].” In contrast, other news sources generally accepted that both explosions were the result of Palestinians accidentally detonating their own bombs intended for Israeli civilians, as indeed did some Palestinian sources.
May 6 Editorialising: Jeremy Cooke (BBC), “It’s likely that the Mitchell Commission’s comments on Jewish settlements built illegally in Palestinian territory will be uncomfortable reading for Ariel Sharon.” Perhaps, but it could be also claimed that Mitchell Commission’s comments on implementing a cease-fire and arresting terrorists might make uncomfortable reading for Yasser Arafat. Clearly, of the possible inferences that could be drawn, Mr Cooke chose only this one – and a misleading one at that, in view of Israel’s actual freeze on new settlement construction under the Sharon government.
May 7 Editorialising: Jeremy Cooke, in a BBC report on the death of terrorist Ahmed Assah shown on SBS, said, “…apparently the latest victim of what is an Israeli assassination policy. Anyone they believe to be involved in attacks against Israeli civilians is, it seems, regarded as a legitimate target. No-one at Ahmed Assah’s funeral denied he was a member of the extremist Islamic Jihad group which admits to the sort of gun and bomb attacks which Israel regards as terrorism”. He went on to say, “This is the Israeli Prime Minister touring a Jewish settlement built on Palestinian land,” a statement that prejudges the issue of ownership and sovereignty that is properly the subject of negotiations. These were two examples in one report of editorialising masquerading as reportage.
May 8 Factual inaccuracy, selectivity & editorialising: Mary Kostakidis’ introduction to one SBS News bulletin went as follows: “The Pope’s calls for reconciliation and harmony in the region have gone unheeded by Israel’s Prime Minister. Ariel Sharon has also rejected calls from an international commission to halt the construction of Jewish settlements in disputed areas. This comes as violence in the region escalates. Israeli troops have now for the first time staged a major offensive to enter Palestinian controlled territory on the West Bank. The target, the village of Beit Jala.” SBS reporter Jeremy Frankel placed the onus on ending the violence squarely on Israel, saying, “It was hoped a US sponsored report, backed by Northern Ireland peace broker Senator George Mitchell, would herald a cease fire, but Ariel Sharon has rejected one of the commission’s key demands, that building Jewish settlements on occupied land must stop. It was thought that the unilateral acceptance of the report’s findings would pave a tentative path back to peace talks. That now appears unlikely.” There were several problems with these statements. First, Palestinian gunfire from Beit Jala upon Jerusalem civilians, the context of the Israeli operation, was not mentioned, but Israel’s operation to put a stop to it was treated as aggression. Second, the Palestinians did not call a cease-fire in response to the Pope’s call, but this significant and newsworthy fact was also ignored in the report. Third, the Mitchell Commission report called on a cease-fire to be effected before any other measures, including a settlement freeze, be put into effect. Lastly, the Israeli government actually accepted the Mitchell proposals in their entirety. SBS viewers were thus completely misled as to the nature of the Mitchell proposals and which side was actually violating them.
May 11 Choice of language: In this report, SBS seemed to be struggling for euphemisms for Palestinian violence and terrorism. Jeremy Frankel reported, “The latest attacks in Gaza, the first on Yasser Arafat’s headquarters since the uprising began, sends a strong message – as long as there is Palestinian insurgent action, there will be a forceful Israeli reaction.” In no other conflict reported around the world have suicide bombings and the deliberate mass murder of civilians been described as something other than terrorism; certainly not as “insurgent action”.
May 12 Similarly, the following night, Lee Lin Chin said, “Israel says there’ll be no let up in its attacks and strong responses to unrest in the Palestinian territories.”
May 16 Selectivity: In another report on Israeli-Palestinian clashes, SBS reporter Garry McNab referred to “unarmed Palestinian protestors” when Palestinian gunmen have deliberately used the cover of their own civilians to fire upon Israeli forces, inevitably drawing fire. BBC reporter Orla Guerin, on the same bulletin, claimed, “Almost as soon as the demonstrators arrived, there was live fire from the Israeli army in spite of the fact that many of those around us here are young children.” Ms Guerin had no comment to make on the fact that children are deliberately concentrated at the scene of firefights, a tactic that has produced the bulk of Palestinian civilian casualties, a phenomenon that has never earned a news story in its own right on SBS.
May 17 Factual inaccuracy & editorialising: The following day, McNab reported that, “The Israelis have been accused by governments world wide of using excessive force to quell the Palestinian uprising. Clearly, little of that criticism is being heeded.” He went on to describe the halting of settlement expansion as the key finding in the Mitchell report, ignoring the fact that Senator Mitchell himself has repeatedly emphasised that the commission he headed calls first and foremost for an unconditional cease-fire before the implementation of all other recommendations. Once again, SBS viewers were provided a skewed reading of the Mitchell report.
Jun 6 Selectivity: SBS News and newsbreaks almost buried the news of an Israeli unilateral cease-fire and chose instead to give prominence to the fact that Mr Sharon called Arafat a “murderer” and a “liar”, implying this threatened peace prospects.
Jun 12 Factual inaccuracy, selectivity & editorialising: On the day that Israel lent its backing to a US cease-fire plan, SBS News mentioned this first in the lead in but then, “At the same time, Israel’s controversial building programme continues to fuel tensions”. There was no evidence of this in Garry McNab’s story that followed. In recounting an incident of Palestinian youths stoning people, resulting in an Israeli attempt at dispersal through the use of tear gas, footage was shown of a little Palestinian girl coughing and another one crying. The story then switched to the funeral of an Israeli baby killed by a stone thrown through the window of an Israeli car by a Palestinian, with settlers heckling Sharon and calling him a coward “for the uncharacteristic restraint he has shown since the Palestinians announced a cease-fire”. This was inaccurate: at that date, Israel had adhered to a unilateral cease-fire for the previous ten days, not merely from the moment the US proposed a complete cease-fire. A final instalment in this report consisted of a story regarding a member of Palestinian terrorist group, Islamic Jihad, being critically injured by “a suspected Israeli car bomb”. Yet again, a Palestinian propaganda claim was recycled without query. No evidence later emerged to substantiate this claim, and in contrast to SBS, most other media outlets correctly reported that the Islamic Jihad member had been killed by the premature detonation of a bomb intended for Israeli civilians.
Jun 13 Choice of language: In an introduction to an SBS News broadcast, newsreader Mary Kostakidis asked whether “hard-liners from both sides” would go along with the cease-fire, despite there being nothing about Israeli resistance to the cease-fire in Jeremy Frankel’s subsequent story. Ms Kostakidis persisted in the follow up interview, however, asking correspondent Ross Dunn, “How hard will it be to get hard-liners from each side like Hamas and Jewish settlers to co-operate?” Ross Dunn’s answer to this question, quite properly, dealt only with Hamas. Political opinions on settlements and settlers are diverse but the false equivalence of a whole category of civilians with terrorist groups is a clear example of deep-seated bias.
Jun 14 Factual inaccuracy: SBS reporter Jeremy Frankel seemed confused about the cease-fire plan, saying, “The Palestinians would have preferred the package of plans put forward by the Mitchell Report but they had to settle for something less concrete.” Viewers were thus told that the cease-fire plan omitted many of the elements of the Mitchell Commission proposals that would have satisfied Palestinians. This was untrue: the cease-fire was never implemented on the Palestinian side, but was entirely based on the Mitchell plan. SBS viewers would not have learnt this.
Jun 18 Factual inaccuracy, editorialising and selectivity: Two stories on this occasion were involved: The first story on this edition of SBS News was about an alleged conflict between Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon and the second was the court action being taken in Belgium against Ariel Sharon for his role in the Lebanese Phalangist’s Sabra and Chatilla massacres in 1982. Palestinian security chief, Jibril Rajoub, referring to the Palestinian intention to violate the cease-fire plan, said, “The Israelis initiated a unilateral war against the Palestinian people last September. The Palestinian people reacted. No Palestinian will be arrested”. Naturally, SBS in reporting the news has to present official statements, no matter how false or extreme, but it was left without challenge or comment despite its falsity. Reporter Alastair Wilkinson claimed that Peres “spoke out publicly against the Prime Minister for the first time, accusing him of ignoring the internationally endorsed Mitchell Report.” In fact, no evidence of this “public accusation” by Peres was presented – for the good reason that it never occurred. Israeli reports said the two had disagreed strongly at a governmental meeting but had not disagreed publicly for which reason the precise nature of their disagreement was uncertain.
Jun 19 Selectivity: SBS became the only news service in Australia to reproduce portions of a controversial BBC documentary which called for Ariel Sharon to be placed on trial as a war criminal over his role as Defence Minister at the time of the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. The documentary itself was an exercise in partisan advocacy, as it uncovered no evidence that was previously unknown to the Israeli judicial inquiry held at the time. That inquiry absolved Mr Sharon of direct responsibility for and foreknowledge of, the massacre. It later emerged that several of the Israeli interviewees were concerned about the way their commentary had been edited and placed in the documentary; that an American interviewee, Morris Draper, is a paid publicist for Palestinian interests; and that the international jurist interviewed, Justice Richard Goldstone, by his own account, had not spoken in reference to Mr Sharon at all in the interview.
Jun 21 Factual inaccuracy: Jeremy Frankel reported on the shooting of a Greek Orthodox monk, Georgios Tsibouktzalti, in Palestinian-controlled territory the previous week, stating that Arafat had arrested two men from his own security service as part of his commitment to the cease-fire (which proved abortive as a result of continuing Palestinian non-observance of its terms).
This entire report was incorrect. First, the arrests were actually made by Israel’s General Security Service (GSS). Second, the GSS said the two accused men had confessed, saying they obtained their weapons from Marwan Barghouti, one of the leading figures in the Palestinian campaign of violence since its inception. Third, Lamia Lahoud, in the Jerusalem Post (22/6) reported, “Barghouti accused Israeli settlers of the killing, a charge echoed by the PA.” Fourth, in an official statement, the PA Ministry of Information argued that [the monk] Tsibouktzaltis was killed on the same road as a Palestinian man, shot two days later…. The PA statement said that the Greek Orthodox Church also holds settlers responsible for the monk’s death. If the facts of the case had been as Mr Frankel stated them, how did the PA arrest two Palestinians for the murder and then, the next day, accuse Israelis of committing the deed?
When confronted with these errors and anomalies, as well as the relevant citation from the Jerusalem Post SBS, as on past occasions, refused to concede that an error had been made. Instead, SBS requested that we forward “agency or other copy of June 21st”, implicitly denying the accuracy of the Jerusalem Post report, so that such new evidence could be considered. It is not unfair to observe that a professional media outlet would not prevaricate in this way but might undertake its own independent investigation to speedily ascertain whether an error had been made. It is also difficult to dispel the suspicion that this form of response is intended to bog down genuine complainants in a time-consuming exchange of letters that naturally diminishes the prospects of problems being addressed.
Jul 6 Selectivity & footage: SBS News presented a picture of Mr Sharon, followed by one of corpses at the site of a massacre, insinuating not too subtly that the scene of death and destruction we were viewing had been produced by Mr Sharon himself. An insert was then made of a picture of Elias Hobeika, the Lebanese Christian militia leader actually responsible for the massacre in question, the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon. The occasion for this report was the move afoot to bring Mr Sharon to trial over the massacre in Belgian court. Mr Hobeika’s central role in the massacre was not mentioned in the report, nor the fact that no one was seeking to indict him for war crimes. Rather, he was shown allegedly declaring his willingness to testify against Mr Sharon. On any reasonable accounting, this report was not a proper, informative news story, but an exercise in uncritically regurgitating propaganda against Mr Sharon, composed of half-truths, omissions and distortions.
Jul 14 Factual inaccuracy & editorialising: In a report covering the murder of an Israeli by Palestinians, someone identified by the SBS caption as “Oded Eran, Israeli Foreign Office [sic] official” stated “We should destroy all the facilities, all the infrastructure, all the framework of the Palestinian Authority, to get rid of Arafat and all his establishment and to understand that Arafat is a partner only for terror.”
Accordingly, SBS viewers were given to understand that it was the policy of the Israeli government that Israel should launch a military offensive against the Palestinian Authority with a view to its ouster. The interviewee, however, was not, as identified, Israeli Foreign Affairs official, Oded Eran, but a spokesman for the extremist wing of the Jewish settler movement, Noam Arnon. Reporter Matthew Sadler then went on to adopt the Palestinian justification for terrorism, saying, “Palestinian forces are continuing their battle to oust the settlers from Arab land.”
When this matter was raised with SBS, we met with an unapologetic response that additionally indicated no intention of rectifying the error. An admission was forthcoming on this occasion that an error had indeed been made – but then dismissed as momentary and of no consequence. It was alleged by SBS that the erroneous attribution had been “removed within one second” – which is simply not correct – and that “most viewers would not have even seen the error”. However, we spotted the error easily, without having to either stop the tape or repeat it. We regard the argument that a factual error is unimportant and that SBS viewers do not really absorb details shown on their screens as a frivolous one. Additionally, SBS chose not to deal with the serious implications of their error as outlined in the previous paragraph.
Jul 20 Choice of language, editorialising: Reporting on the killing of 3 Palestinians by extremist Israelis, newsreader Mary Kostakidis first reported that Mr Sharon had condemned the killings but then asked correspondent Ross Dunn the leading question, “Ariel Sharon has condemned the attack on the family, but hasn’t he helped create a climate for vigilante action like this?” Ross Dunn, to his credit, treated this question with the contempt it deserved, pointing out that, ironically, this is what radical settlers, such as Noam Arnon are saying. (These settlers blame Mr Sharon’s policy of restraint and perceived failure to adequately protect them from the murderous Palestinian attacks for creating Jewish vigilantism).
Jul 27 Choice of language, selectivity: In a report on the Israeli killing of a Hamas leader, Salah Darwaza, SBS reporter Alistair Wilkinson referred to him as a “Palestinian activist” and implied the Palestinian rejection of the Israeli “claim” for his killing was sound, something he could only do by ignoring available evidence. Wilkinson stated, “Israel accused him of masterminding Hamas attacks which killed eight people. His family categorically reject the claim, saying he was a political, not a military, leader.” [Note: This despite the fact that, as reported elsewhere, pamphlets distributed by Hamas at the funeral described him as a “brigadier”]
Jul 30 Choice of language, selectivity: It was reported that six Palestinians, belonging to the Fatah faction loyal to Yasser Arafat, had been killed in a