Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Cracking the Codes

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Jamie Hyams

As previously noted in the AIR, BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen, in a report shown on SBS TV “News” on September 19, 2009, stated, “Israel has been building homes for Jews in the occupied territories in defiance of international law for more than 40 years… It has put building for Jews in the occupied Palestinian territories at the heart of the conflict, because the idea is that once Jews live there, it makes it very difficult, even impossible to give the land back.”

Clause 2.2 of the SBS Codes of Conduct (“the Codes”) states, “Reasonable effort should be made to ensure news and current affairs programs are balanced and impartial,” and that, “SBS has a policy of self-identification (see Code 1.5) and does not arbitrate on the validity of territorial claims.” Furthermore, a recent SBS News and Current Affairs Directive, issued in accordance with a finding by the SBS Ombudsman, stated that the West Bank should be described geographically, and to describe it as “Palestinian land” or “disputed land” would breach the provisions of the Codes of Practice requiring impartiality. While Bowen originally filed his report for the BBC, the SBS Codes also apply to reports gathered from elsewhere.

AIJAC was confident that Bowen’s comments were in breach of both the Codes and the Directive, so we sent a formal complaint to the SBS Ombudsman. The complaint read, in part, “By stating that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank is ‘in defiance of international law’ and by labelling the area ‘occupied Palestinian territories’, Bowen is arbitrating on the validity of a territorial claim. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim the rights to the disputed land, yet Bowen clearly arbitrates in favour of the Palestinian claim.”

It would seem only logical that the Bowen report did, in fact, breach the Codes, but SBS Ombudsman Sally Begbie, formerly an ABC journalist, disagreed. She found that Bowen’s terminology “reflects that of the United Nations and the ICJ [International Court of Justice] which use both ‘occupied territories’ and ‘occupied Palestinian territories’. Therefore use of these terms cannot reasonably be said to display a partiality.”

Of course, in using these terms, the UN and ICJ were in fact arbitrating on the validity of a territorial claim, though neither arbitration has in fact any force under international law. However, this is exactly what SBS is not supposed to do under its own self-written Codes. Ms Begbie’s argument would, therefore, seem to be an admission that Bowen’s report is in breach of the Codes. Also worth noting is the adamant refusal by SBS to refer to any group as terrorists, no matter what their tactics. There are several groups SBS regularly reports on, such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, who the UN has determined are terrorists. If SBS is now going to adopt the UN’s determinations, they must start describing these groups properly, as terrorists.

Ms Begbie then goes on to claim that the use of the term “occupied Palestinian territories” is commonly used by the international media to describe areas east of the green line, and cites three articles, one from each of the New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times to make her point. These papers are not governed by the same Codes as SBS, so it is hard to see how this is relevant. Her argument seems to be that if other media do the wrong thing, so can SBS. She also claims that Bowen “did not pose a proposition about ownership and then rule on it.” True. He just ruled it was Palestinian territories without posing the proposition.

Ms Begbie does not reach the issue of the Directive until her conclusion, when she states that, as Bowen does not use the term “Palestinian land” and that the term “occupied Palestinian territories” is “different”, her investigation is a “separate and distinct ruling.” In other words, at SBS, “land” and “territory” can have different meanings when required to assert compliance with policy. Sadly, Ms Begbie does not bother to explain what the difference actually is.

It’s not just SBS that has trouble complying with its own policy in describing the West Bank. In June 2009, the ABC Independent Complaints Review Panel (ICRP) recommended that, when describing the West Bank, the “unqualified use” by the ABC of the term “occupied territory”, favoured by the Palestinians, or “disputed land”, favoured by Israelis, “could suggest lack of impartiality in reporting, which it would, obviously, wish to avoid.” However, Anne Barker, reporting for the Nov. 24 edition of “PM” on a boycott of West Bank products, stated, “Ahava’s products are manufactured at Mitzpe Shalem, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Under international law it’s occupied Palestinian territory, and Israel is illegally exploiting the natural resource for its own profit.” In fact, under international law, the territories are disputed.

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