Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Should the ABC have given advocacy journalist Sophie McNeill the keys to its Jerusalem bureau?

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There are serious questions that must be raised about whether Sophie McNeill, who has recently been appointed the ABC's exclusive Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent, can comply with the obligations contained in ABC's Code of Practice.

Of particular relevance is Section 4 of the Code of Practice, "Impartiality and diversity of perspectives", whose principles read, in part:

The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.
Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC. A democratic society depends on diverse sources of reliable information and contending opinions. A broadcaster operating under statute with public funds is legitimately expected to contribute in ways that may differ from commercial media, which are free to be partial to private interests.

Interviewed by her former professor Victoria Mason in 2011, McNeill said that the journalism she wanted to do was to frame stories from the point of view of the people who are "really suffering" in a situation. Both the examples she offered referred to Palestinians.

McNeill has acted on her self-proclaimed sympathy for the Palestinians by appearing on a panel at two pro-Palestinian events, including one sponsored by Palestinian groups and speaking alongside two other speakers who called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the movement to sever all economic, educational and cultural ties with Israel. She has also written for Electronic Intifada, an extremist website that routinely publishes screeds calling for the destruction of Israel and justifying Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians.

How could the ABC give such a candidly agenda-motivated journalist the exclusive job of Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent, with extensive autonomy?

It's a serious question that should be answered by the national broadcaster, which, according to its statutory mandate, must be free of even the appearance of bias in its news reporting, and must present all major perspectives on controversial issues fairly.

In late 2012, ABC Radio National Breakfast host Fran Kelly took back a statement she had made earlier that year to the Sydney Morning Herald defining herself first and foremost as an "activist", stressing later that "once you become a journalist you can't be an activist; you can't join protest movements".

Of course, Kelly was right. Activists who become journalists but remain loyal to a personal agenda don't earn the right to be seen as objective journalists. Instead, they are known as advocacy journalists who serve a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose.

Is Sophie McNeill an objective journalist, or an advocacy journalist? In a profile on McNeill in 2003, the ABC itself described McNeill as "a political activist and social campaigner" as well as a television documentary filmmaker. She told then-ABC employee George Negus, that part of wanting to be a journalist, "I wanted to try and make that connection that had happened with me wanting to do something and what was going on." [emphasis added]

McNeill credits John Pilger as her inspiration when she was 15 for becoming a journalist and has praised Victoria Mason, who is one of Australia's leading pro-Palestinian academics, for "opening the world to [her]" when McNeill took her class on the Middle East at Western Australia's Curtin University in 2003 ("what a difference it can make, the effect it can have on your learning and your vision of the world", McNeill said in 2009 about studying under Mason).

Similarly, she sings the praises of Robert Fisk for showing her the ropes during her time reporting from Beirut.

Her reporting does not show a clear record of separating her media career from her activism. And there is little doubt that her activism continues and influences her reporting in terms of how she frames stories, particularly about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.


Sophie McNeill's Apparent pro-Palestinian Activism

As mentioned before, 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.

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.

 

In February 2013, McNeill accepted an invitation by a Sydney Palestinian student activist group "Silence is Betrayal" to speak at an event titled "Harry Fear: Reporting Aggression" discussing "activism, Palestine and Journalism", headlined by pro-Palestinian video propagandist and BDS activist Harry Fear (to call him an advocacy journalist would be an understatement).

According to the account of a Palestinian student who summarised from a personal video she made of the event, McNeill accused Israel of collectively punishing Gazans, a personal judgement on McNeill's part contested by Israel that should call into question the impartiality of any of her reporting on Gaza.

Her apparent role at the event was to inspire student activists through her first-hand accounts from Gaza, and she appeared eager to play the part.

According to the tweet of one attendee, she spurred the audience on. "'As media consumers we have no excuses anymore', we cannot say we did not know, only we choose not to know", she admonished.

The other two speakers at the event - Harry Fear and Sara Selah - both called for boycotts of, and other attempts to bully Israel, while Selah effectively called for Israel to be replaced by one Palestinian state.

The event was sponsored by Students for Justice for Palestine and the Palestine Action Group, among others.

Let's be clear. There is nothing wrong with a journalist offering her services at a public function to provide some background into a location she has reported from, however the nature of this event was clearly activism and it appears she was invited to speak as an activist-journalist, like Fear.

McNeill's participation was tantamount to joining a protest movement, the very thing that Kelly warned was unacceptable for journalists, particularly at the ABC.

It's important to note that, at the time she spoke at this event, McNeill was working for the ABC as host of Triple J's current affairs program, "Hack". This fact calls into question her ability or willingness to forgo her activism when her profession makes it appropriate to do so.

Later in 2013, McNeill, along with prolific pro-Palestinian photographer Richard Wainwright were the only journalists presented to speak at the Human Rights in Palestine Conference at the ANU, an event organised by her former professor Mason.

In addition, while living in Beirut in 2007, McNeill filed a story with the notorious anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada.

Here, the content of the story she filed, which was about Lebanese mistreatment of Palestinians, was in itself not problematic. What is a problem, however, and what should have given ABC pause when choosing McNeill for her current job, is why McNeill chose to work with a website whose raison d'être is to increase popular support for the elimination of Israel and routinely publishes material justifying Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians.

Finally, in 2009 (see here and here) and again in 2013, McNeill initiated online campaigns to raise money for her "dear friend" and Gaza fixer, Raed Al Athamneh. Raising money to help someone you work with through a crisis is not necessarily inappropriate. But for a journalist to adopt the Palestinian narrative in their pitch for donations most certainly is.

For example, she wrote "most of Gaza's residents are refugees who used to live inside Israel's borders, but were forced out when the country was created in 1948".

This revisionist historical narrative that Israel forced out all the refugees - language used by her mentor Pilger - represents an endorsement of the Palestinian narrative that Israel is entirely responsible for the refugee problem, ignores the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians fled and were not forced out and ignores the war that was launched against Israel by the Arab nations and Palestinians who rejected partition.

In this essay, she also made an allegation that Israel "collectively punished" the Palestinians of Gaza, describing the blockade of Gaza as a means of punishing the Strip's residents who support Hamas.

She initiated a fundraising campaign for Raed again in 2013, according to her friend and Australian Gazan Patrick Abboud and an appeal she posted on ABC Triple J Hack's Facebook page.



McNeill's past journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian issue

Can anyone expect McNeill to give Israel a fair go - that is, gather and present news and information with due impartiality and to not unduly favour one perspective over another as stipulated in ABC's Code of Practice - based on her prior work? Let's look at nine consecutive examples that span the period from May 2007 through May 2013.

 

Synopsis: SBS description: "Sophie McNeill reported on the plight of Israel's Arab population".

Implied message: Israel is racist. Israeli Arabs lack equality and can never be equal as long as Israel is a Jewish state.

Key facts missing from the story: Equal rights for Israeli Arabs are enshrined in Israeli law. While examples of discrimination exist against minorities in Israel as elsewhere, the Israeli government is constantly pursuing ways to alleviate this. In general Arabs in Israel enjoy the greatest amount of freedoms and economic opportunity in the Middle East. McNeill only interviewed discontented Arabs.

 

Synopsis: Story focuses on the group Combatants for Peace - former IDF soldiers who befriend Palestinians.

Implied message: Israel is responsible for the conflict and must atone for its sins.

Key facts missing from the story: While Israelis and Palestinians are interviewed, only Israelis are shown expressing contrition for their role in violence between the two sides or criticism of their government. The Palestinians, as shown, are portrayed solely as victims.

 

Synopsis: McNeill promotes the narrative that Israeli Jewry as a society is radicalising in terms of its Jewish character through the demographic growth of the ultra- orthodox.

Implied message: Israel is not really the pluralistic Western society it purports to be but is shifting towards religious radicalism.

Key facts missing from the story: The secular-religious divide in Israel, for what it is, has little impact in most Israeli lives and is not a crisis to the extent McNeill suggests. Her story creates a false impression that Israel is rapidly becoming an extremist religious state. McNeill unfairly paints all ultra-Orthodox with the same extremist brush, ignoring the fact that the political extremists among them represent a minority of the ultra-Orthodox community. McNeill says that thousands of Israelis are turning back to their religion, creating the notion that secular Israelis are choosing to becoming ultra-Orthodox as part of a one-way societal trend. There is no factual basis for this claim.

 

Synopsis: McNeill looks at the Palestinian schism between Fatah and Hamas, which had recently taken over Gaza. Her storytelling is peppered with allegations and half- truths against Israel, although Israel was ostensibly not the focus of the story.

Implied message: There is moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. Israel and the US collectively punish Palestinians for supporting Hamas. Israel and the PA are in collusion, to a varying extent, to the detriment of Palestinians.

Key facts missing from the story: While discussing failings of Fatah/PA and Hamas, the story fails to mention the biggest Palestinian collective failure that being the failure to accept successive Israeli offers of statehood as part of a two-state peace outcome or prepare their people for peace. Israel's blockade on Gaza is, and was, legal and does not constitute collective punishment. The actions Israel takes to defend itself are undertaken solely as a response to attacks on its citizens. Israel provides substantial electricity to Gazans and unfettered access to Israeli hospitals for those Gazans in need who submit requests and do not pose a security risk.

 

Synopsis: A little over two months after John Lyons produced an inflammatory feature story about the purchase by Jews of a property in east Jerusalem and eviction of its Palestinian tenant in the Weekend Australian, Sophie McNeill, who was mentioned in Lyons' story produced a segment on the same topic and recycled much the same allegations.

Implied message: Israel forced out Palestinians when it was created and continues to force out Palestinians from their rightful homes.

The facts missing from the story: The purchase of individual real estate by Jews in east Jerusalem is, and always has been, a court-tested matter of simple property rights and not a government policy.

 

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Israel's 2009 election, McNeill does a story about the most controversial figure in Netanyahu's coalition: Avigdor Leiberman, concluding that Israel's extreme right is gaining support in Israel.

Implied message: Lieberman, not Netanyahu, should be seen as the face of the new Israeli government and support for his politics is growing among Israelis.

The facts missing from the story: McNeill depicted Netanyahu's government as a coalition of conservatives, ignoring the fact it included the Labor party. Israel's government was politically diverse after the 2009 election, not uniformly right-wing. Support for far-right issues Lieberman champions is not growing inside Israel. Finally, McNeill implied Lieberman's rejection of the Annapolis plan represented a rejection of a two-state resolution. In fact, Lieberman has said repeatedly that he supports a two-state resolution. What he was rejecting was adopting the particular peace proposal of the previous Israeli government that the Palestinians, in any case, never responded to.

 

Synopsis: Story focuses on Israeli policy of targeted assassination of Hezbollah officials in Lebanon, but revisiting an insinuation made in "Offside in Israel" also strongly suggests Israel is arresting Palestinian human rights activists on false charges of spying for Hezbollah in order to silence them.

Implied message: Israel's targeted killings of key Hezbollah officials is unique, shadowy and sinister. Certain Israeli Arabs have been accused of spying for Hezbollah as well but these suspects all deny it and insist they're actually political prisoners, persecuted for their pursuit of equality for Israeli Arabs.

The facts missing from the story: Israel is not the only country that uses the tactic of targeted killings of terrorists - a tactic that is widely accepted as an acceptable form of warfare against an enemy that employs terror as part a campaign of asymmetric warfare and refuses to follow the Geneva Conventions. The indictment against the primary Israeli Arab spy suspect showed a deep level of involvement in espionage and the suspect had already confessed at the time the segment was filmed. Two months after this story aired, the suspect pleaded guilty to slightly reduced charges and was later sentenced to nine years in prison. Despite the fact that the story aired footage of the suspect's wife vehemently denying the charges against her husband, no follow-up regarding the suspect's admission of guilt and conviction was made by McNeill or SBS Dateline.

 

  • ABC Triple J "Hack" news segment on the Gaza escalation of November 2012 (Audio and transcript of the program)

Synopsis: In Hack's only episode focusing in part on the Gaza escalation of November 2012, McNeill interviewed Daniel Levy, a far-left London-based Israeli well-known for his criticism of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, though she touts him misleadingly only as a former adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and a former member of official delegations during peace talks with the Palestinians.

Implied message: This Israeli interviewee, who puts the blame on the lack of peace with the Palestinians entirely on Israel, represents an informed, expert and mainstream view on the conflict.

The facts missing from the story: Of all the global Israeli experts McNeill could have interviewed, Levy was a bizarre, obscure pick. A protégé of long retired left-wing MK Yossi Beilin, what Levy is best known for and more recently than the advisory roles McNeill cited - is being the lead Israeli
drafter of the so-called Geneva Initiative of 2003, a far-left Israeli peace plan created in conjunction with a handful of Palestinians that has never been endorsed by the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians or their leaders, but is still clung to as relevant by marginal fringe players like Peace Now. This connection was not mentioned.

 

Synopsis: In an article published as analysis by the "Drum", McNeill interviewed Gazan civilian victims and their families affected by deadly fighting during the November 2012 Gaza escalation and pursued a response by Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor. The Gazans, however, were given an opportunity in the story to respond and dispute Palmor's version of the story.

Implied message: Ordinary Gazans are undergoing intense human suffering at the hands of Israelis, who are represented solely by callous-sounding, unfeeling spokespeople whose honesty is cast in doubt.

The facts missing from the story: Palmor places the responsibility for Palestinian civilian deaths ultimately on Hamas. Instead of asking a Hamas official to repond to the claim, McNeill approaches a Palestinian lawyer. Although McNeill reports from Gaza, no Hamas member is interviewed for the article.

 

The Obligations of an Overseas Correspondent for the ABC

There are serious questions that must be raised about whether McNeill can comply with the obligations contained in ABC's Code of Practice.

Of particular relevance, as noted above, is Section 4 of the Code of Practice, Impartiality and diversity of perspectives, whose principles read, in part:

The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism.
Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC. A democratic society depends on diverse sources of reliable information and contending opinions. A broadcaster operating under statute with public funds is legitimately expected to contribute in ways that may differ from commercial media, which are free to be partial to private interests.


Any reporting by an ABC employee, including McNeill, is required to follow the following standards:

4.1 Gather and present news and information with due impartiality.
4.2 Present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented.


And also

4.4 Do not misrepresent any perspective.
4.5 Do not unduly favour one perspective over another.

 

What makes this matter even more serious is the fact that the Jerusalem bureau is undergoing changes. While until now there were two ABC Middle East reporters (most recently Hayden Cooper and Matt Brown) as well as some support crew, the ABC says that it is making Jerusalem a Video Journalist bureau later this year. That move, it would appear, would give McNeill substantially more autonomy than previous Middle East correspondents have had.

The onus now lies on O'Neill to demonstrate that ABC management was not irresponsible in making the appointment - given her self-described dedication to frame stories from the point of view of the people who are "really suffering" (in her lexicon, the Palestinians) - and whether she can possibly fulfil the statutory obligation of an ABC correspondent to present news with due impartiality and to be fair to all perspectives.

 

Ahron Shapiro

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