Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about ABC coverage of Israel and Palestine

May 23, 2018

Questioned the ABC’s coverage of Israel and Palestine, including the broadcast of content from Al Jazeera and commentary on Q&A.

If you know you’re going to be discussing matters of this nature, wouldn’t it be appropriate to have somebody—let’s say from the Jewish community—to balance out your program so that you could have people who might be full bottle on the topic to actually engage on these issues?

Whole interaction with Mr Alan Sunderland (Editorial Director, ABC) during Senate Estimates (Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Communications and the Arts Portfolio).

Senator ABETZ: But let’s go to Al Jazeera and ABC NewsRadio. Has the ABC stopped broadcasting content from Al Jazeera on the ABC News 24 channel?


Mr Sunderland : My understanding is that we no longer broadcast Al Jazeera programs but that they are still a potential source of news content for us, as are a number of international media organisations.


Senator ABETZ: So I am clear: you still use Al Jazeera audio content on NewsRadio?


Mr Sunderland : My understanding of it—and, again, I will correct myself if I’m wrong, because I don’t have a specific brief on this issue—is that in the past we have had Al Jazeera programs running, I think, late at night on the TV news. We no longer do that, because we have replaced that with other programming. I’m not sure if it is as a matter of course that we run Al Jazeera stuff, but potentially it is available to us, as is stuff from a number of broadcasters.


Senator ABETZ: During the Gaza-Israel border clashes earlier this month, NewsRadio broadcast reports from Al Jazeera a number of times; is that correct?


Mr Sunderland : I’d have to take that on notice, but they may well have.


Senator ABETZ: If you could, include the day of the most dangerous border clashes, being 15 May. Were you aware that Al Jazeera content was being broadcast on this subject matter?


Mr Sunderland : I am not specifically aware of that, as I’ve said, but I will happily look into that and confirm it for you.


Senator ABETZ: If the answer to that is yes, which I believe to be the case, do you think it fits within the editorial guidelines for the ABC to broadcast reports on this event from a Qatari government owned media company given that the government of Qatar is known to support Hamas and called Israel’s recent self-defence activities ‘a brutal massacre’ and ‘systematic killing’?


Mr Sunderland : Again, without going to the detail of what happened on that occasion and what those reports may have been, we take editorial responsibility ultimately for any material from any other broadcaster which we broadcast on the ABC. Whether it be from Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC or whoever they happen to be, any material we take from another broadcaster we have to accept editorial responsibility for.


Senator ABETZ: Of course you do.


Mr Sunderland : Of course we do. And so, if there are any issues with that, that is an issue for us. In terms of the reliability of Al Jazeera as a source, Al Jazeera English is, in my view, a reputable media organisation that provides content which, provided it meets our editorial standards, we are happy to broadcast in the same way that we broadcast from a range of other sources.


Senator ABETTZ: Sticking with the Middle East but moving onto Q&A, who selects the questions that go to air on the Q&A program?


Mr Sunderland : My understanding of how that program works is that the audience contributes the questions.


Senator ABETZ: We know that. Who selects them?


Mr Sunderland : Sorry, yes. There are three steps, as I understand it. Step No. 1 is that the program team will send out emails to the people attending, saying there are a range of issues happening.


Senator ABETZ: Yes, we know. Who selects the questions?


Mr Sunderland : Then ultimately the program team sits down in the lead-up to the program, goes through the questions that are open to them and selects from them the questions that will make up the program.


Senator ABETZ: Who takes ultimate responsibility for that?


Mr Sunderland : The executive producer of the program would ultimately take responsibility, but the whole team decides. I’ve been in those meetings. They sit around the table—


Senator ABETZ: It’s always an iterative process and nobody takes responsibility.


Mr Sunderland : No—absolutely incorrect, Senator. It is always—


Senator ABETZ: So who takes responsibility?


Mr Sunderland : I think I’ve already answered that question. I am trying to explain to you the process, which is that the entire program team—when I have observed this process—sits around and discusses the pros and cons of the mix, the balance, the time available to them. They argue about the questions, and they come up with a list of questions. As that process is led by the executive producer of the program, ultimately the executive producer of that program will take final responsibility for the shape of the program.


Senator ABETZ: Right. Thank you. What is done when the questions clearly contain factual errors? Why are those sorts of questions allowed to be broadcast?


Mr Sunderland : If you give me an example, I’m happy to—


Senator ABETZ: I’m more than happy to. The question included, ‘Last week the Israeli army killed 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters’. We know from Hamas itself that 52 of those killed were Hamas operatives who had knives and other weapons on them. Yet, without any commentary, without any sort of saying, ‘Well, this is a loaded question full of nonsense; we’ll put that aside’, the ABC viewing public gets fed a diet that these 60 poor souls who were unarmed and peacefully protesting were killed—yet 52 of them were Hamas operatives from a terrorist organisation.


Mr Sunderland : I think in circumstances like that, you would generally provide an opportunity for a question to be asked by someone so that it can then be immediately responded to by the panellists who were there and who, as you know, in the program, responded and put their view on exactly that.


Senator ABETZ: The only defender of Israel on that program, if I recall—who was that?


Mr Sunderland : Mr Sheridan?


Senator ABETZ: Yes, Mr Sheridan—


Mr Sunderland : I think Senator Hume was involved in the program as well.


Senator ABETZ: who was continually cut off by Tony Jones while trying to correct Ms Abdel-Fattah. One of the guests on the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night was Randa Abdel-Fattah, who openly identifies as a Muslim Palestinian. If you know you’re going to be discussing matters of this nature, wouldn’t it be appropriate to have somebody—let’s say from the Jewish community—to balance out your program so that you could have people who might be full bottle on the topic to actually engage on these issues? Undoubtedly you will tell me that there’ll be some Jewish representative on another Q&A program when they won’t be discussing the Middle East, but that really isn’t good enough when you’re dealing with such a sensitive topic.


Mr Sunderland : I might perhaps provide my own answer to the question, if that’s okay, Senator. It is always a challenge with a program like Q&A, which covers multiple issues. As you know, the Gaza issue was one of a number covered by that program. From recollection, it was fairly late in the program that it came up. It’s the same with a program like The Drum. You can’t set up a panel that has levels of expertise for every topic that is likely to come up and that will come up. What I would say, though, is that, as I think you’ve already identified, there were people on that panel who had diametrically opposed views to the woman you mentioned and were given an opportunity on a number of occasions to respond and engage. I felt the issue—and I confess, I did not see that program go to air, but I read the relevant part of the transcript last night—was canvassed in a very fair, very balanced and very comprehensive way where everyone had an opportunity to raise a number of points from all sides.


Senator ABETZ: The segment on the Middle East—would you be able to provide us with the amount of time that Greg Sheridan was allowed to speak in comparison to the time given to Ms Abdel-Fattah?


Mr Sunderland : I can certainly do that.


Senator ABETZ: And take that on notice. Thank you.


Mr Sunderland : I would point out the transcript and the video are both available online.


Senator ABETZ: But if you can—


Mr Sunderland : do the sums—


Senator ABETZ: provide that, please.


Mr Sunderland : Certainly.


Senator ABETZ: Moving to last Sunday’s Insiders program, discussing Australia’s decision to vote against the motion to establish an inquiry into Israel et cetera—we once again had a host and two panellists criticising it, with only one defending the government’s position on that. Again, do you think that that’s a balanced panel to discuss this matter?


Mr Sunderland : The nature of Insiders—and that episode is as good an example as any—is to bring together representatives of media organisations, journalists, to discuss a range of political issues. Again, the purpose of that program is to raise all kinds of political issues and reflect on them. In the circumstances, again, that issue was well debated and well aired in the context on that broader political program. That one I did see.


Senator ABETZ: Did you listen to ABC Radio National Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue, where the she presented an interview with Professor Rashid Khalidi?


Mr Sunderland : No, I didn’t hear that one.


Senator ABETZ: During her introduction, Ms Doogue spoke about the clashes on Israel and Gaza’s borders and emotively said, ’60 unarmed Palestinian protesters had been killed by Israeli forces’. This is simply not true. It is incorrect. Yet your producer, undoubtedly in line for a bonus, is presenting to the Australian public factually incorrect information. When it comes to Palestine and Israel, it is always one-way traffic. It’s never that it’s too pro-Israeli by accident. It’s always too pro-Palestinian. So are we willing to acknowledge at the ABC that that statement by Ms Doogue was incorrect?


Mr Sunderland : Senator, as I mentioned to you earlier, I didn’t hear that particular program. I’m happy to go back and take a look at it—have a look at the context, what was said, before, during and after, what was said in response, and at what point in the unfolding story that was done. I will happily look at it, but I won’t answer questions on the fly now about certain phrases taken out of context from a program without having the opportunity to look at the program.


Senator ABETZ: How can you take out of context—


Mr Sunderland : I don’t know. I would need to have a look at it.


Senator ABETZ: the assertion 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters had been killed when I think the ABC news itself had broadcast that 52 of these people were Hamas operatives, a terrorist organisation?


Mr Sunderland : I will happily have a look at that program.


Senator ABETZ: This is not taking anything out of context; it is just false, false, false. And you wonder where your ABC people get their misinformation from on these matters.


Mr Sunderland : Senator, you’re simultaneously quoting us for getting it right and getting it wrong on two different outlets. Let me have a look at the one that concerns you and I will get back to you on it.

Link to full Hansard transcript.