Four Corners producer gets it wrong again on antisemitic comments

Four Corners producer gets it wrong again on antisemitic comments

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz


On Saturday, the Weekend Australian ran an op-ed by Julie Nathan from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Nathan’s piece concerned vicious anti-Jewish bigotry which has appeared on the Facebook page of ABC’s Four Corners in the discussions surrounding the ‘Stone Cold Justice’ episode by the Australian‘s Middle East Correspondent John Lyons.

In that episode, Lyons focussed on the treatment of Palestinian minors in the West Bank by the Israeli criminal justice system. As a piece of journalism, the documentary was quite problematic; but separate to the many issues regarding its content (for AIJAC’s breakdown see here and here), a whole set of questions were raised by the antisemitism it sparked on the Four Corners Facebook page — including some additional ones relating to the ABC’s credibility and accountability.

In her article, Nathan detailed a number of comments on the page which were overtly and indisputably antisemitic — referring not to Israeli policies or even Israelis, but to “Jews” –and clearly in breach of the ABC’s editorial policies. As Nathan pointed out:

Some of the comments were deleted or edited by ABC moderators. However, many anti-Semitic comments have remained online for more than a week, spewing forth the gamut of traditional anti-Semitic themes.

In response, the Executive Producer of Four Corners, Sue Spencer, wrote into the Australian on Monday to say just how offended she had been — not by the racist material published on her page, but by Nathan’s article exposing it. Spencer first claimed that the ABC’s social media moderator had been especially vigilant:

In the lead-up to and in the wake of the broadcast of Stone Cold Justice, the social media moderator paid heightened attention to comments made on the program’s Facebook page. It is not possible to pre-moderate comments on Facebook. However, all that is possible is done to ensure that offensive posts are deleted as soon as possible.

This occurred when any unsavoury, anti-Semitic or offensive comments were made. In such cases, the contributors were also banned from commenting on the page.

Spencer then flatly denied that comments had been left on the page without being deleted, before saying how offended she was by Nathan’s allegations and stopping just short of accusing Nathan of lying:

The article also states that “many anti-Semitic comments have remained online for more than a week”. This is incorrect, as moderating has occurred on a daily basis since the broadcast.

If you visit the Four Corners Facebook site today, you will find a mixed and very robust debate about the issues raised in the report. What you will not find is anything that incites hatred or breaches the ABC’s editorial policies. To suggest that the ABC moderator is lax in tolerating racism is not supported by the facts and is offensive.

Given that Spencer chose to categorically deny any lax moderating on behalf of the ABC, it would perhaps have occurred to her to make sure that the comments which Nathan mentioned were no longer on the Facebook page. Not so, it appears. Not only were many of the comments mentioned by Nathan still up when the letter was published, they are still on the Facebook page as this is being written, two days later. Yet no one seems to have noticed, and Spencer’s claims have not been corrected or even questioned in the Australian.


No room for doubt

In her article, Nathan mentioned a post saying “Judaism is increasingly looking like a very ugly religion hiding behind a false conception of god.”As of today, that very comment from Ian Joyner has been on the Facebook page for more than two weeks:

Nathan also noted the comments which compared Israelis to Nazi Germany, observing that:

By any academic standard, such comparisons are historically ludicrous. These comments do not seek to engage in debate or analysis but only to demonise Jews and Israelis, and to minimise, justify or excuse the suffering and mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust, a standard technique for assuaging or blocking out any sense of guilt.

Glancing over at the Four Corners page, it did not take long to find Dave Scott intimating that Israel was worse than the Nazis, and Richard Doumani making a comparison between “Zionists” and Nazis, but throwing the word “Jews” in as well to avoid any doubt:

Another example of antisemitic comments which Nathan brought up were ones employing the theme of, “You Jews of all people should know better”. This morning on the Four Corners page were two separate comments to that effect from Brad Burke, saying that Jews cannot call themselves God’s chosen people and are going to hell; and one comment from Kate Hayes, saying that God did not expect such “disgraceful” and “blasphemous” behaviour “of the Jewish [sic]”:

Nathan also mentioned comments propagating “the age-old calumny about a ‘world Jewish conspiracy’.” There were plenty of those to be found too, such as this post from Tim Bradford talking about Rupert Murdoch’s “Zionist puppet masters”, which was particularly ironic given that the Four Corners episode was made by an employee of Murdoch’s flagship Australian newspaper:

Other comments still up this morning did not necessarily fall under the categories mentioned by Nathan but nevertheless contained overt or implied anti-Jewish racism. For instance, Gary Wilson opined about what “the Jews” should realise and then wished shame on them for good measure. 


Fact-check failure

When explaining why it was “not possible” that antisemitic comments had remained on the page for over ten days, Spencer mentioned that “moderating has occurred on a daily basis”, and that those comments should have been deleted by the moderator. On the strength of those two facts, she apparently felt comfortable categorically denying that the comments were there.

There was a step missing in her reasoning. It would occur to most people that if the moderators were supposed to delete the comments, but a national newspaper prints a claim that the comments are still there, then perhaps the moderators have not been adequately performing their job. The obvious step to take would be to check the facts before deciding how to respond to the allegations.

Spencer’s disregard for the facts in this instance appears to be reflective of the ABC’s attitude to the Four Corners episode. In both cases, there was a severe lack of fact-checking and a refusal to second-guess ABC colleagues. The denial in this case was perhaps even more embarrassing as the falsity of Spencer’s claims could be ascertained by simply visiting the Four Corners Facebook page and scrolling down.

The fact that she apparently did not do so is troubling. The staff at our national broadcaster can and should do better.