Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

When the ABC uses its "Media Watch" program to attack critics of the ABC

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Two federal MPs.

The high profile Turnbull Government backbencher George Christensen from Queensland. The other, federal Labor Victorian MP Michael Danby.

Both use their electoral allowances to run ads in local newspapers to attack the ABC for its coverage of completely unrelated topics in the same fortnight.

Both MPs said the ads were an attempt to speak directly to their constituencies. Danby's ads (Sept. 28 and Oct. 5) were approved by the appropriate Parliamentary department that determines such matters.

Christensen's ad in Queensland regional local papers (Oct. 7), was a detailed letter attacking an ABC TV "4 Corners" report into the controversial Adani mine project he said "avoided facts", relied on "allegations, accusations, and unsubstantiated claims," and depended "almost exclusively on commentary from other journalists and green activists".

Danby's two ads in the Australian Jewish News addressed the output of ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill and suggested that she places greater emphasis on stories of Palestinian suffering at the expense of wider political events and equivalent Jewish suffering.

In the first ad, Danby compared how McNeill reported on the stories of a Jewish family, the Salomons, slaughtered by a Palestinian terrorist in July, that he said received "minimal coverage" and the eviction of a Palestinian family, the Shamasnehs, from their home in east Jerusalem after they lost a court case involving a property dispute over prior title (AIJAC's analysis of this latter report can be read here under the title "Loopholes").

The second ad questioned the lack of reporting about an important meeting between Israeli PM Netanyahu and Egyptian President al-Sisi.

But only Danby's ads were the subject of a dedicated segment on ABC TV "Media Watch" (Oct. 9) called "ABC defends correspondent from Federal MP's attack ads" and a segment on ABC TV "Breakfast" (Oct. 6). The initial story was broken in a highly critical report in Fairfax papers (Oct.4).

So seemingly disinterested was the ABC in Christensen, that the Fairfax story noting his paid ad (Oct. 9) reported the national broadcaster declined to even comment. A search of the ABC website finds no reference to George Christensen's attack ad.

Yet not only was Danby the subject of Media Watch (Oct. 9), which we shall come to, but his ads roused the ire of the director of ABC news, Gaven Morris, prompting him to issue a statement backing McNeill and condemning Danby.

According to the statement, "The ABC has complete confidence in the professionalism of Ms McNeill. Despite unprecedented scrutiny and obvious pre-judgement by Mr Danby and others, her work has been demonstrably accurate and impartial."

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?

As for Media Watch, it smeared Danby as a "serial complainant" and implied agreement with the head of the journalists' union Paul Murphy that he "should pay the money back." Viewers were not informed that Parliament had approved the purchase of the ads as legitimate.

This was despite the fact that the segment effectively conceded  that the substance of Danby's ad criticising McNeill - regarding coverage of the Shamasneh family versus the Salomon family,  was correct, and then conceded its producers do not know if a larger critique of ABC coverage is justified on the basis that without an "extensive audit it is impossible to tell."

Moreover, although the Media Watch segment was ostensibly supposed to be on the topic of "ABC defends correspondent from Federal MP's attack ads", the program decided to widen its ambit by accusing AIJAC and "Jewish lobby groups" of a pattern of "targeting" or "attacking" McNeill and other Middle East correspondents generally.

The tone of the segment implied it was obvious that all such critiques of ABC figures are unjustified and immoral - describing them as "pressure" and "attacks" on journalists repeatedly, describing Danby as a "serial complainant" and implying that an apology is obviously warranted from those complaining, saying "Colin Rubenstein, replying to claims made in Lyons' book, was also adamant that no apology is needed."

Yet all the examples cited were of critiques about specific reporting, none of the substance of which was addressed - rather the very fact of expressing an opinion on their reporting was treated as the problem, and obviously illegitimate, perhaps even threatening and dangerous.

To do that, the program rolled out critiques of past Middle East correspondents criticised by Australian-based pro-Israel organisations as implicit evidence that this is all part of an effort to unfairly intimidate reporters for simply trying to report the facts.

McNeill was quoted saying that Danby's ads are:

... part of a campaign of attacks on reporters who refuse to kowtow to intense and intimidating lobbying and dare report the reality of what is happening here on the ground.

Media Watch also hit Danby for past criticisms of former Fairfax employee Ruth Pollard and Fairfax's Chief Correspondent Paul McGeough.

Of those two, Barry said that in 2014 Danby had:

"accused Fairfax Media's Paul McGeough and Ruth Pollard of being anti-Israeli activists even though both won journalism awards for the stories he singled out. 
McGeough, he said, was biased, incompetent and wilfully negligent.
Pollard was polemical, one-sided and neither honest nor fair." 

The deficiencies of McGeough and Pollard's Walkley award winning reports can be read in this handy primer from the Zionist Federation of Australia's Emily Gian from 2014. She also dissects former Australian Middle East correspondent John Lyons' execrable TV documentary coproduced with ABC TV "Four Corners" which also won a Walkley that year. Here is a longer AIJAC dissection of that report.

Host Paul Barry dedicated the largest part of the segement to Lyons and his recently published memoir "Balcony Over Jerusalem" covering his six years in the role. Lyons has recently started as head of Investigative & In-Depth Journalism at the ABC, a fact that was not conveyed to viewers by Media Watch. This raises the issue of conflict of interest.

The book is drenched in false assumptions, historically inaccurate claims, hearsay and just plain specious statements amounting to an attempt at the comprehensive delegitmisation of the Jewish state. Yet the book was effectively promoted by the Media Watch segment.

Lyons was quoted saying:

In my 35 years in journalism I've never found so much pressure or heat when attempting to report about Israel. And that's due largely to the power of the Israeli lobby in Australia. And that's a subject that generally you're not meant to talk about.

and also that

I went there with the view that I'd been in Washington and in New York, I would report it as I saw it, but every time I would write about settlements, something that's factual, you get targeted as a journalist. If you write the truth of what you see in front of you in Israel and the West Bank, you will be savagely targeted.

Media Watch quoted the claim in Lyons' book that:

 AIJAC published a dossier which amounted to a comprehensive attack on [McNeill]... [and] wrote to the board of the ABC, referencing it ... 
The ABC's managers answered each claim, taking more than three weeks.

Clearly, Lyons' book is another sacred cow that does not need to be tested for accuracy, with the program effectively taking its claims as true without checking them. They were not.

AIJAC did not write to the ABC Board generally about McNeill as claimed, but was in contact with two members of the Board, one of whom was the then Managing Director. Moreover, AIJAC has been highly public and transparent in questioning the appropriateness of appointing someone like McNeill to this particular position given her history of activism - painting our public compilation of existing, previously published material on and by McNeill for our argument as a "dossier" is clearly an attempt to turn a routine element of opinion writing into something sinister.

Also aired was Lyons' claim in the book that "other Jewish groups" also "prepared dossiers" on ABC correspondent Peter Cave and "they took their case against Cave's bias to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. It took two years but Cave was cleared of bias."

Lyons' claims about what happened with Cave were also not correct - the claim adjudicated by the ABA was not whether Cave was "biased" overall, but whether one specific story he broadcast was accurate and met his obligations under the ABC editorial guidelines.

Moreover, the group in question was the tiny and apparently now effectively defunct group calling itself ICJS (Issues of Concern for Justice & Society), a small group of individuals with no funding or organisational-backing which simply did online critiques and wrote letters of complaint. To portray this group's complaint as part of some threatening organised "Lobby" or campaign of "pressure" is simply absurd.

Not content with Lyons' voice, Media Watch then included an over-the-top quote from Cave too:

Danby has been a serial complainant since the late 1980s, trying to force censorship on every ABC correspondent who's ever been posted to the Middle East. Peter George was the first, and every correspondent ever since has copped complaints from Danby. His complaints are half-truths and ill based.

Most reasonable people looking at the complaint over Cave's reporting, who apply common sense and not the legalistic criteria statutory bodies use to determine breaches, would be satisfied Cave was in the wrong in the specific case at hand.

As AIJAC's Australia/Israel Review reported about Cave in September 2002:

Auntie Israel Bias
ABC Radio Foreign Editor Peter Cave refuses to accept that there was no massacre in Jenin, even after the UN report found this to be the case. In the wake of the UN report, he said, "The simple fact is that nobody really knows how many died, It's unlikely to be the five hundred that the Palestinians claimed originally, or fewer than ten as the Israelis originally claimed." [Ed Note: This is a distortion. Israel claimed that fewer than 10 civilians were killed] He concludes, "Just as in Tiananmen Square, the power of the tank and the gun ensured there was no proper body count or accounting. Just as happened in Tiananmen Square, the uninformed and those with their own agenda are now claiming there was no massacre. There was a massacre, a considerable number of human beings were indiscriminately and unnecessarily slaughtered. The truth was the other victim", ABC Radio "Correspondents' Report" (August 4, 2002).

Cave's August report was a recapitulation of his erroneous claim three months earlier in May 2002 of a "massacre" in Jenin, when it was clear even then that there had been no such thing, but rather a battle in which people on both sides were killed. AIJAC has criticised reports by Cave, Lyons and McNeill where it believes that they have not been accurate or impartial, or have made significant omissions.

This is not an "attack" and it is not "pressure". It is the exercise of  a democratic right to express an opinion on taxpayer-funded ABC journalism.

AIJAC's Colin Rubenstein explained on Oct. 9 in a public statement on Danby's ads:

"In a public document we issued in 2015, AIJAC submitted that Sophie McNeill - who had described herself and has been described by the ABC as an 'activist' filmmaker associated with the Palestinian cause, and who had spoken at an event promoting boycotts against Israel - was an inappropriate choice for Middle East correspondent for the taxpayer funded ABC, with its statutory obligations of impartiality. We believe that aspects of McNeill's reporting on Israeli-Palestinian issues since then have borne out our concerns.
"Precisely because it is an important national statutory body, the ABC, like all public institutions, must be subject to appropriate scrutiny and accountability, as well as public criticism where warranted - even if some of its supporters and employees seem to feel that it needs to be protected from, and has immunity from, all such criticism and scrutiny. AIJAC therefore believes it is completely appropriate and justifiable for Michael Danby MP - or anyone else - to call attention to any shortcomings of the ABC, including reporting by Ms. McNeill."

Moreover, if the very act of making complaints under ABC procedures by Australian citizens - as in the Cave case - is going to be treated by Media Watch and the ABC's new head of Investigative & In-Depth Journalism as prima facie evidence that something nefarious is going on, perhaps it is time for ABC management to simply abolish its complaints procedure and Code of Practice and announce that from now on the ABC will be doing whatever it wants with the A$1.3 billion it gets annually from parliament.

To his great credit, the Australian's foreign news editor Greg Sheridan gave a full throated defence of Danby's right to criticise media coverage, exposing the absurdity of the faux indignation of Media Watch et al (Weekend Australian, Oct. 14).

Of Danby the man and his motivations, Sheridan wrote:

Danby is a passionate man, sometimes impetuous. He almost never gets invited on to any ABC program and the Melbourne-based Fairfax media never prints his opeds but merely attacks him from the left, as do the fellow travelling websites such as Crikey and The Guardian Australia.
So occasionally he buys ads to make his point. He has even used his electorate communications allowance for this, after checking with the relevant agencies that this was kosher, so to speak.

Analysing the chasm between pro-Israel supporters and media professionals who come under scrutiny, he observed:

The ABC is consistently biased against Israel in a similar way to the BBC and for similar reasons. The overwhelming majority of ABC reporters and general broadcast commentators share a fairly narrow spectrum of world view, ranging from the middle left of Labor to the green left.
This is why the ABC finds it so difficult to come to grips with, or even understand, the complaints this kind of bias generates.
Within their world view these ABC broadcasters mostly behave professionally, and in the field often with heroic distinction. But in that world view, as has been well established in countless books and studies, Israel represents, entirely falsely in my view, Western colonialism, militarism and racism.
This gives reporters and producers an instinct never to represent Israel sympathetically. Jewish Israeli civilians (even victims of terrorism) are almost never portrayed sympathetically on the ABC, unless they are abusing their government or society. Then they are moral heroes.
To humanise an innocent Jewish Israeli grandfather or child brutally murdered in their home by a terrorist seems somehow or other to be supportive of Israel, so it is rarely done.
Danby in his ads was responding to this profound emotional truth. 

Sheridan saw troubling undercurrents in the response to Danby's ads, which had run "in small-circulation newspapers that might reach 20,000 readers. In response he is attacked, mocked, vilified and condemned in many ABC news programs and by numerous ABC commentators to a cumulative audience in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Surely even in the ABC someone must see this is a kind of parody of free speech."

He was also derisive of the ways ABC broadcasters "sometimes darkly refer to ‘dossiers' that have been compiled on McNeill, as though this involved nefarious access to ASIO files. What they mean by dossiers is articles and footage that McNeill herself has produced. In other words, judging a journalist by their output."

Driving his point home, Sheridan delved into the issue of how complaints from Jewish sources are processed at the ABC:

The implication is always that Jewish criticism of the ABC over Israel is somehow sinister. Two questions: what penalty has any ABC producer or broadcaster ever paid for this criticism? Answer: none. Therefore it is really not too sinister. And is not even the ABC aware of the true, astonishing weirdness of a body that gets more than $1 billion of taxpayers' money each year trying not to answer criticism but to declare it "inappropriate"?
A more sophisticated broadcaster would have interviewed Danby at length about his criticisms, even if the interview was robust or Danby's views were answered by somebody else.

Another important voice was Sydney Institute Director and Australian columnist Gerard Henderson who noted in his Media Watch Dog column (Oct. 6) prior to Media Watch's Oct. 9 broadcast that:

Placing an advertisement in a paper like the Australian Jewish News is no different from writing a letter or distributing a flyer to constituents.  That's what politicians do.  The criticism of Michael Danby by Fairfax Media journalists Adam Gartrell and Broede Carmody on this issue overlooks the fact that parliamentarians regularly advertise in newspapers. Even Jewish ones, no less.
It's true that the likes of Michael Danby has criticised Sophie McNeill's reportage from the Middle East. But it is also true that Mr Danby has not criticised the work of Matt Brown, the ABC's other Middle East reporter.
ABC journalists invariably criticise others.  But the likes of Virginia Trioli get oh-so-offended when someone criticises the ABC or its coverage.  Also, it's worth pointing out that the ABC's criticism of Michael Danby by Ms Trioli and others is also conducted per courtesy of the Australian taxpayer.

It is ironic that the ABC's own program dedicated to critiquing media reporting in Australia in all its various iterations clearly has an issue when the spotlight is turned on the news gatherers themselves.

Is it really appropriate for the ABC taxpayer funded program devoted to critiquing the media to instead be turned against those who dare to criticise the ABC - and without even addressing the substance of their complaints but merely implying that the very act of expressing an opinion on ABC reporting, or making an official complaint about it, is improper and threatening?

- Allon Lee

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