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

October 24, 2017

Questioned reporting by ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill and asked if the ABC has a commercial relationship with Al-Jazeera.

What monitoring do we do of our reports out of the Middle East by Ms McNeill?

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

Senator ABETZ: If I may return to the topic that Senator Hanson-Young raised—that is, the reporting by Sophie McNeill from the Middle East. Is it correct, for example, that Ms McNeill covered the court-ordered eviction of the Palestinian—I hope I pronounce this correctly—Shamasneh family in a separate feature, not mentioning the fact that they were tenants and had actually failed to pay their lease moneys or rental moneys and that was why the court order was to evict them? By contrast, the stabbing to death by a Palestinian terrorist of three members of the Salomon family was covered very cursedly as part of a wider report on violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This is the sort of imbalance that many of us are concerned about which I think then motivated and occasioned the advertisement to which Senator Hanson-Young referred to. What monitoring do we do of our reports out of the Middle East by Ms McNeill? I’ve raised this in the past about the bias and the one-way traffic of Ms McNeill in her reports from the Middle East.


Mr Sunderland : Let me break that down to a few different issues. On the precise detail of the story of the eviction and what facts were included and not included, I would have to take that on notice. I will look at that and respond to that specific issue.


Senator ABETZ: And then also the Salomon family.


Mr Sunderland : I can talk to you about the Salomon family story. This was the three Israelis who were stabbed?


Senator ABETZ: Yes.


Mr Sunderland : The first point I want to make is I found it puzzling that these two stories were plucked out several months apart and chosen as proof of bias on the part of Ms McNeill. They were two very, very different stories covered in two very, very different ways for two very, very different reasons. The reason I say that is, like all correspondents overseas, reporters will be engaged in a mix of hard daily news reporting and then occasional opportunities to go out and do longer features or different stories for a range of different reasons—colour pieces, insight pieces—on a range of different issue. The story about the Salomons was inevitably caught up—in July, I think, it was reported—with a very significant and sustained outbreak of violence. What I know about that story is there were a number of Palestinians who had been killed during riots and, very late at night in Israel—I think it was almost midnight—the reports came through that three Israelis had been stabbed to death as well. Sophie McNeill, who I believe—I was told; I would have to check this—was on holiday at the time came back and refiled the story, added in the new information, did a cross, did a number of stories on that. It was straight news reporting, though. The names of neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were used in that story because names were not available or had not been released by Israeli authorities at the time. Certainly it was the case that a richer background feature was not done on any of that. I went back and looked at that story in July and it was, in my view, a perfectly balanced, comprehensive piece of solid news reporting where she went over and above to produce coverage of it.


I then looked at the September piece, which was a perfectly worthwhile piece, although I will get back to you on the issue you’ve raised about the detail.


I’m frankly puzzled as to what the motivation is to select those two reports, and only those two reports, and to hang on them the weight of evidence to try to impugn the reputation of a Walkley-Award-nominated journalist.


Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, they’re all Walkley Award winners. That’s why it was ‘The lords of the forests’ that had to apologise.


Mr Sunderland : The reason I say that, Senator, is that you may well be aware that I had occasion to go down to Melbourne not that long ago and speak to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. They invited me down to talk to them about these issues and engage with them on them. So I did a little bit of a run-through at the time. I think it was just prior to July; it might have been June this year. I pulled up the last dozen stories we’d done on Israel to take with me. Among those stories was a wonderful piece that Sophie McNeill had done, which I didn’t go looking for but which happened to be the most recent substantial piece that we had done. It was an extraordinarily affecting Correspondents Report story done by Sophie McNeill profiling an Australian Israeli doctor who was going out of his way to treat Syrian war wounded—to smuggle them over the border, treat them in an Israeli hospital and then return them home afterwards. It was a wonderful piece of journalism, and I could be sitting here today, choosing to select that piece of Sophie’s work, from March this year, hold it up against the July and draw all sorts of conclusions of the kind that are being drawn by plucking another story. That’s what I’m puzzled about in the way this issue’s been raised and in those stories.


Senator ABETZ: But even on that one she couldn’t help herself, could she—


Mr Sunderland : No, I don’t agree with any insinuations you’re putting on that.


Senator ABETZ: by making the barbed comment that the people that were brought into Israel for medical treatment were not allowed to stay.


Mr Sunderland : Is that not true? Is that inaccurate?


Senator ABETZ: Had they asked to stay?


Mr Sunderland : I have looked at that entire story. Sporadically we do that with Sophie, as we do with every single one of our reporters—


Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, and you always apologise for them.


Mr Sunderland : We certainly don’t single her out.


Senator ABETZ: You always apologise for them.


Mr Sunderland : The correlation between the two stories struck me as puzzling, completely puzzling, unless somebody has an agenda they want to push.


Senator ABETZ: Oh yes, and there’s this terrible Jewish conspiracy, isn’t there?


Mr Sunderland : I don’t think I said that.


Senator ABETZ: We have heard that—


Mr Sunderland : First of all, Senator, I don’t think I said that—


Senator ABETZ: Excuse me!


Mr Sunderland : and, secondly, I need to say that I resent words being put in my mouth. I take great offence at that—


CHAIR: Order! Can we return to questions—


Mr Sunderland : and I think it’s entirely inappropriate that you would put it in those terms.


CHAIR: and answers.


Mr Sunderland : It may be a throwaway remark for you, but we take these—


Senator ABETZ: All right. The Jewish lobby—


Mr Sunderland : I’m sorry, Senator, but we take these matters seriously, we treat them appropriately, and those kinds of snide, offhand remarks impugning the reputation of me and the ABC are, quite frankly, inappropriate.


Senator WHISH-WILSON: Point of order, Chair.


Senator ABETZ: Well, Israel’s representation has been impugned on many occasions.


CHAIR: There’s a point of order. Senator Whish-Wilson, your point of order is?


Senator WHISH-WILSON: My point of order is that I think Senator Abetz should withdraw those remarks so they’re not in Hansard.


Senator ABETZ: Which comment?


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You’re putting words into his mouth.


Senator ABETZ: And he defended himself.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ask the questions. We ask questions; they answer them.


CHAIR: The exchange has taken place, and—


Senator ABETZ: It’s amazing how the Greens are always on the defence when it’s their mates.


CHAIR: I would like to return to questions and answers so we can discharge the examination of the ABC and move on to the rest of senators’ questions and answers.


Senator ABETZ: Allow me to use the words ‘Jewish lobby’.


Mr Sunderland : You can use whatever words you prefer; I’d ask you not to put them into my voice, though.


Senator ABETZ: They may have been the words—and I will go through the previous answers provided by the ABC in relation to these concerns that have been quite rightly expressed. Then, on 22 May, Ms McNeill had another story. The piece claimed the fact that Israel still occupies the West Bank is proof that the status quo suited the Israelis more than the Palestinians, but the story didn’t mention the various Israeli peace offers refused by the Palestinian leadership. I suppose that’s also all part of providing balance.


Mr Sunderland : Let me have a look at that. I’ll get back to you.


Senator ABETZ: All right. Then, on 23 May, Ms McNeill described as ‘strict’—and, by implication, I would suggest, hardline—Benjamin Netanyahu’s condition for peace that it be genuine and durable—somehow that is strict—and that the Jewish state be recognised. These are strict guidelines somehow. Aren’t they appropriate guidelines? Why this descriptor of ‘strict’? I’m sure you’ll look at that as well and give us an explanation.


Mr Sunderland : I am happy to, senator.


Senator ABETZ: The, on 6 June, Ms McNeill’s contribution to the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War—I think it was entitled ‘Occupation lives’—focused on Palestinian suffering under occupation and only contained very brief mentions of the Israeli perspective and how the Six-Day War actually started.


Ms Guthrie : Senator, if you have specific complaints, it might be more appropriate to put them on notice or write to us with the specific complaints that you have. I will say that, as the editor in chief of the ABC and knowing that nothing that an individual journalist does goes to air without multiple checks, I find the impugning of Sophie McNeill’s reputation that constantly goes on in estimates and in the public discourse completely offensive, and I do think that—


Senator ABETZ: Well, I find it offensive how Israel is continually maligned by ABC journalists.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Let the witness speak.


Ms Guthrie : If you’re going to hold anyone accountable, hold me accountable, but don’t have this sort of line-by-line attack on a particular journalist, which I find completely inappropriate and offensive.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: He’s a coward, that’s why.


CHAIR: Order!


Senator ABETZ: About withdrawals—


CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, I don’t think we need that. Can you just withdraw that description.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: If Eric Abetz would like to withdraw all of the imputations he has made on Ms McNeill, I will consider it.


CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, just withdraw the word and we’ll move on.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I withdraw the fact that I said that Eric Abetz is a coward. However, I still believe it.


CHAIR: Thank you.


Senator ABETZ: That is not unreserved, and it just shows the character of Senator Hanson-Young.


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You are being a bully.


CHAIR: Order! I will draw this to a close very quickly if we don’t get on with business.


Senator ABETZ: Ms McNeill, sadly, has a litany of these sorts of broadcasts.


Ms Guthrie : Senator, blame me. Don’t blame an individual journalist. I am responsible for all the broadcasts that happen out of our Middle East bureau, our Beijing bureau and our Jakarta bureau.


Senator ABETZ: Do you vet them all before they go to air?


Ms Guthrie : I will be held responsible.


Senator ABETZ: No, do you vet them all before they go to air?


Ms Guthrie : How many times would you like me to reiterate to you that it’s my responsibility?


Senator ABETZ: I know that. I’m asking you: do you vet them all before they go to air?


Ms Guthrie : Of course not.


Senator ABETZ: Of course not. Therefore, I think it is appropriate, given that you cannot physically vet every story—


Ms Guthrie : No, but I am completely held responsible, and I should be.


Senator ABETZ: Yes, and that is why you appear at Senate estimates. But it is appropriate for me to talk about one of your staff in the manner that I have—


Ms Guthrie : No, I don’t think it is.


Senator ABETZ: just as before I asked about Jon Stephens.


Senator WHISH-WILSON: Why do it in a public forum to try and shame a journalist when you can do it privately? You could have written to—


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Because he wants his headline.


CHAIR: Senator Abetz, do you have a question for the officials?


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You’re desperate, because you don’t get enough—


CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young!


Senator ABETZ: In relation to Al Jazeera again, is it the case that Al Jazeera broadcast and has been caught out peddling anti-Israel lies such as accusing Israel of flooding Gaza by opening dams when no dams exist?


Ms Guthrie : Is that related to anything that has been on the ABC?


Senator ABETZ: No, but this is an organisation with which you have a relationship.


Ms Guthrie : But we have a relationship with Reuters, the BBC and CNN. We don’t take responsibility for what they show on their own programs. We take responsibility for what we show on the ABC.


Senator ABETZ: All right. Have Reuters and the others that you’ve referred to accused Israel of opening non-existent dams—fake news at its absolute worst—and flooding Gaza?


Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What’s this got to do with the ABC?


Senator ABETZ: Because there is a commercial relationship, potentially, and we are still to find out about this.


Ms Guthrie : I did check in the break. I can confirm that there is not a commercial relationship with Al Jazeera. We do not pay for their coverage.


Senator ABETZ: You don’t pay for their coverage at all.


Ms Guthrie : No.


Senator ABETZ: That is good news. Could I invite you to consider not using their sources, given the antecedents that we discussed earlier.

Link to full Hansard transcript.