Michael Danby MP – grievance debate over ABC reporting of Israel and Palestine

photo of Michael Danby MP
June 18, 2012

Naturally, I wrote to the ABC on 19 December objecting to this sin of omission. My objection was, and is, straightforward and self-evident: ABC TV viewers’ prospective concerns were minimised by saying that it was only Israel that considered Hamas to be a terrorist organisation. Absent was context: any reference pointing back to Australia’s position, which in fact accords with that of Israel, and specifically designates the Ezzedine Brigades of Hamas as a terrorist group.

Full speech

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (21:09): Australia’s parliament has listed 17 groups as terror organisations since 2003. Hamas has been listed and re-listed by parliament as such an organisation on several occasions. Founded in 1987, the purpose of Hamas and its Ezzedine brigades as enshrined in Hamas’s charter is to create an Islamic state in all of geographic Palestine. At the recommendations of the relevant Australian government committees, it has been considered a threat to Australian interests and a potential risk to Australian businesspeople, tourists and government officials. Let us be clear: the threat that Hamas poses to Australia is clear and present. That is why I was surprised by a report on the ABC on 12 December 2011 which concerned the guilty plea in an Israeli court by an Australian citizen, Eyad Rashid Abuarga, on the charge of espionage on behalf of that organisation, Hamas. Mr Abuarga was sentenced to 30 months jail along with an 18-month suspended sentence for providing services to an illegal organisation. He was detained on 24 March 2011 at Ben Gurion Airport, attempting to enter the country on his Australian passport. According to the indictment, Abuarga provided what the intelligence services call ‘scoping’ for the Hamas organisation of various industries and places there. The indictment said that this Australian citizen had worked for Hamas for four years and stressed, ‘The seriousness of his being recruited to help the terrorist activities of Hamas,’ for which he was ultimately convicted and jailed. Yet in the report by ABC’s 7 pm Victorian metropolitan TV news service by Middle East correspondent, Michael Vincent, Abuarga was introduced with the following words, ‘Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organisation’.

Naturally, I wrote to the ABC on 19 December objecting to this sin of omission. My objection was, and is, straightforward and self-evident: ABC TV viewers’ prospective concerns were minimised by saying that it was only Israel that considered Hamas to be a terrorist organisation. Absent was context: any reference pointing back to Australia’s position, which in fact accords with that of Israel, and specifically designates the Ezzedine Brigades of Hamas as a terrorist group. The clear inference of the story’s introduction was that only another country regarded Hamas as a terrorist organisation, materially different to the Australian government, the US government and the Canadian government which also regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation. The ABC’s distorted frame of reference was the prism the viewer was conditioned with when the report was broadcast.

Following the ABC’s procedure for complaining about relevant programs, I wrote to the Victorian news editor, Shane Castleman. His response, which was dismissive and full of obfuscations, failed to address the matters I raised. Castleman seemed to imply that the Abuarga case is being heard in Israel and therefore it is Israel’s view of Hamas that is fundamental to the man’s predicament. The conclusion from Mr Castleman’s response is that it is the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation by Australia that is irrelevant. This is completely untrue of course, and is sadly the conclusion that reasonable viewers would take from this material omission. Without this context, and absent the common knowledge of the average viewer, there is no context with which to characterise the activities of Hamas in our society.

The ABC creates a clear insinuation that an Australian citizen is subject to a domestic Israeli law that may not constitute a crime in our country, or perhaps has domestic political significance in Israel is prejudicial to the rights of Australians under the norms of Australian law. This could not be further from the truth.

My objection to this tepid ABC response elicited a further answer from another ABC executive, Mark Maley, which failed to advance the matter. He merely reiterated, ‘As the Australian government was not involved and made no representations to the court or to the Israeli government it was not necessary to report its views on Hamas or on any other matter.’ This is plainly ludicrous. The story was reported in Australia for an Australian audience. It was not a generic international news story. It was made by an Australian news organisation and reported by that organisation’s resident correspondent. The fact that the Australian government was not involved or did not make representations is not in dispute, but it does not excuse the negligence or insouciance of the ABC towards the most serious issue of safety of Australians.

It is disappointing that after sending a copy of my letter to the managing director of the ABC, Mr Mark Scott, I have had to resend it as his office has still not responded six months later. Surely with the arrest and jailing of an Australian man for assisting a terrorist organisation it is fair to report that under Australian law Hamas is a terrorist organisation? Once his sentence has been served in Israel, Mr Abuarga may well return to Australia. Do Mr Scott, Mr Castleman, Mr Vincent and Mr Mark Maley really believe that Australians do not know that a crime committed there is also a crime committed here, and that a person who has committed such a crime might in some way be of interest to Australian citizens? Of course that person is, and the fact of his affiliations must be of interest to Australian citizens too. The ABC’s response to date has been without substance and reflexively defensive. It is reflective of a self-serving and impenetrable complaints apparatus that protects the ABC from reasoned feedback. The process is arbitrary and subjective and raises significant concerns as to the means of any member of the public. If I, as a member of parliament, cannot navigate this bureaucratic stronghold, what hope does a member of the public have to handle this euphemistically and laughably labelled ‘complaints procedure’?

Unfortunately, we have seen this trend in the ABC also in a recent interview on Four Corners. For some reason, Mr Kerry O’Brien of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, chose journalist Robert Fisk—who is a correspondence for the UK newspaper the Independent—as his guest after a serious BBC program on Syria. Fisk is not an academic expert on Syria. The subject matter of the O’Brien interview was indeed Syria, but it was O’Brien’s generous—indeed, obsequious—introduction of Mr Fisk as a journalist who covered the Middle East with distinction that drew my attention. As members will no doubt know, and as Mr O’Brien presumably knows, Mr Fisk’s journalistic excesses have become a byword in misreporting, to the extent that a verb has been associated with the line-by-line analysis of misreporting that has entered into the lexicon of journalism—namely, the verb ‘fisking’. This was explained in 2005 by the UK Observer as:

The practice of savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the internet (named after Robert Fisk of the Independent).

Mr O’Brien is entitled to interview anyone he chooses and to be as ignorant as he likes about the Middle East. However, given that Mr Fisk was interviewed alone to provide an overview of a terrible conflict where over 10,000 people have been killed without contrary views being offered, it would have been better journalistic practice to choose a less polarising commentator.

Fisk’s failure of objectivity was borne out in the body of the interview, but it was Mr O’Brien’s failure to ask him any serious questions about this that drew my attention again. Fisk took issue with O’Brien’s calculation of the human cost of the conflict in Syria. This did not elicit from Mr O’Brien any request for clarification of attribution, nor any challenge of Fisk’s blatant attempt to diminish the nature of the crisis in that benighted country. O’Brien allowed Fisk once again, as he would so predictably do with anyone who knows his record, to attack without foundation his bete noire, the state of Israel. Deplorably, O’Brien did not raise a murmur when Fisk insisted that Israel along with its existential enemy, Iran, seeks to support the Assad regime and benefits from the massacre of Syrian citizens. The outcry against Assad has been vociferous at all levels of the Israeli government, including in unequivocal statements from its Prime Minister, its foreign minister and its President, Shimon Peres—right across the political spectrum, at all levels of think tank. Peres said on radio last week:

The killings are growing more and more every day and it’s scandalous.

Joining President Peres was Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Shaul Mofaz, who called for international military intervention against Assad on 14 June. They have been very clear to make their attitudes towards the Syrian government known.

With regard to Fisk’s ridiculous assertion of a shared agenda between Israel and Iran, Dan Meridor, the very famous lawyer there, stated that the fall of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, would end the axis with Iran and its President Ahmadinejad. The same point was made by Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s secret service and, again, a man who has been very critical of the Israeli government. We see the spectrum of criticism of Syria right across the political spectrum. The ABC’s attitude to complaints about having one-sided commentators on the Middle East shames the organisation and really needs to be addressed by the editor-in-chief, Mr Mark Scott.

Link to parliamentary Hansard