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ABC’s McNeill vowed to be an advocacy journo, and she delivered

Sep 26, 2016 | Ahron Shapiro

A year and a half ago, after ABC announced Sophie McNeill as its new Middle East Correspondent, AIJAC questioned how the ABC could give the sensitive post to a journalist who had openly taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After all, McNeill had once written a story for the website Electronic Intifada – a website that openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

Unlike her ABC colleague Fran Kelly, who said that once she began working as a journalist with the National Broadcaster, she ceased being an activist, McNeill has never recanted her pledge to use journalism to serve one particular narrative. As I pointed out in 2015, when you craft your reporting to further a political agenda, that makes you, by definition, an advocacy journalist.

In 2011, in an interview with ANU’s Victoria Mason ahead of a lecture she gave at the university entitled “Reporting from Conflict Zones”, McNeill offered two examples of how she prefers to frame stories from the point of view of the people who are “really suffering in a situation”. Tellingly, both examples she gave were of Palestinians – and one specifically referred to Gaza children with cancer.

If you just try and frame stories from the point of view of the people who are really suffering in a situation, be it in Lebanon, if you re hanging out in a Palestinian refugee camp, [or] in Gaza you re hanging out, you know, at the children’s cancer ward. One of the saddest things I’ve seen in my whole life is spending some time filming in a children’s cancer ward in Gaza. I just think if you just – if you look at a situation and you just – yeah, I guess just try and spend time with the people who are – who really don t have any power and it is hard, you know, for them to have a voice. Then that’s, yeah, that’s the kind of journalism I want to do.

Five years later, McNeill has now fulfilled her ambition to do a feature story about children in Gaza suffering from cancer, in a 10-minute story for Lateline that aired on September 21.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with reporting about the challenges facing young cancer patients in Gaza and their families. How it is reported, however, does matter. And here – in a predictable fashion that has become McNeill’s professional calling card on the Israeli-Palestinian issue – she has improperly used the ABC as a vehicle to promote the Palestinian narrative:

1) Portray Palestinians as the victims. This is done by using as much anecdotal, personal stories and heartstring-tugging footage as possible.
2) Portray Israel as the victimiser ideally through utterances of the Palestinians with the grievances you’re looking for. Israeli representatives get their token right to reply with an impersonal single statement slipped in at the end of the story.
3) (In the case of Gaza) Downplay or ignore the responsibility of Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and especially Gaza’s Hamas government to serve the medical needs of these Palestinians. They aren’t given reply at the end of the story because they don’t stand accused by the story narrative. Israel does.

For the purposes of clarity, a deconstruction of McNeill’s Lateline piece appears in a separate blog to be published shortly.

Unlike the deconstruction, this blog does not stand as a critique of McNeill per se but rather of those people at the ABC responsible for hiring her as the National Broadcaster’s sole Jerusalem-based Middle East Correspondent, and overseeing her work there.

The ABC dispatched her to Jerusalem despite the fact that, before she took the post, they knew her track record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were made aware that she had written a piece for the Electronic Intifada, had appeared as a guest speaker at a pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Palestinian advocacy function and that, in 2011, she had talked about her desire to perform as an advocate and not an impartial journalist.

McNeill’s decision to file virtually the exact story that she proposed in 2011 as an example of the sort of journalism she “want(s) to do” to promote her advocacy agenda, and her ABC editors’ decision to let her, stands as an indictment of the ABC’s ability to do its job in an impartial way as required by law. Among other things, it should properly be put to ABC’s new Director Michelle Guthrie during Senate Estimates as part of routine parliamentary scrutiny of how the ABC performs its taxpayer-funded role.

Gutherie was not in charge when the decision was made to give McNeill the Middle East Bureau job, but as the head of the ABC, she should have to answer for McNeill’s brazen attempt here to get ABC to support her apparent desire to run the ABC’s taxpayer-funded Middle East Bureau as an advocacy journalist and not an impartial one.

Given the ABC’s statutory obligations to be impartial, she shouldn’t be allowed to run her own agenda, and the ABC must be scrutinised for its decision to let her.

Ahron Shapiro

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